ART OR CRAFT? THE MAKERS CHIME IN! — Featured Makers: Jeff & Heather Thompson

(Triple Octopus. Ascent, 19″ wide x 12” wide x 13” tall by Jeff & Heather Thompson)

Jeff and Heather Thompson are the dynamic duo of the Central Oregon glassblowing world whose works appear in fine art galleries throughout the United States. Jeff has been exploring the medium since 1997, and just one year into their marriage, Heather joined him in this practice to form a powerful collaborative. Better together, “their artworks are an intelligent blend of contemporary, traditional and custom techniques that are further complimented by a diverse taste in modern sculpture” ( Jeff was kind enough to thoughtfully respond to the series of prompts that drives this ongoing Art or Craft? discussion (see below).

ME: Describe your art/craft: 

JEFF: Glassblowing is thought to have originated in the region of Syria in the first century BC for the creation of utilitarian products for the Roman Empire. Today we have the privilege of exploring the artistic implications of this fascinating and challenging medium. Our workshop is in the tradition of the studio glass movement that emerged in the United States in the 1960’s, which transformed glassblowing from factory-based production to smaller scale furnaces used by individual artists or teams of artists for the creation of one-of-a-kind works of art. 

Back in 2001 when I was 24, I personally designed, engineered and built my glassblowing studio focused around three primary furnaces: the Crucible Furnace, Glory Furnace and Annealing Lehr (kiln). The Crucible Furnace is the source for the molten glass and holds 350lbs of clear glass at a liquid temperature of 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit. This furnace remains hot for months or years at a time depending on our work schedule. The Glory Furnace is a reheating chamber that is fired at 2,300 degrees and is used while actively blowing glass to keep the glass hot over many hours of work. This furnace is fired early in the morning so it is at working temp when we’re ready to get started and then turned off at the end of the day. The Annealing Lehr is loaded with the day’s finished works and held at 900 degrees. It’s then allowed to cool down very slowly, sometimes over a period of several days, to prevent cracking.

Each artwork begins by using a five foot long steel blowpipe to gather a small glob of molten glass from the crucible furnace. If I am making a hollow form, I will blow through the blowpipe to create an air bubble in the hot glass. When making solid sculptures, I refrain from blowing. Once the glass cools down some and begins to firm up, it forms the foundation to take subsequent and larger gathers from the crucible furnace. We introduce colored glass and patterns on various layers of this gathering process to create an array of effects depending on our vision at that moment.

Glassblowing is an extraordinarily difficult practice taking decades of skill-building along with strength, dexterity and endurance. I find myself fulfilled by the many different styles and avenues presented by the medium of glass. I enjoy using a traditional vase form as a jumping off point for sculptural objects. I also enjoy using an array of traditional Italian glassblowing techniques and custom techniques combined with modern sensibilities to create complex patterns with simple, clean lines. Oftentimes, I employ transparency to create a window effect that invites the viewer to appreciate the interior surfaces of these blown forms. One tangent of my work is sculpting, and I particularly relish in creating sea life. Glass holds an inherent watery quality not only in the way molten glass flows but also in the way the glass reflects and refracts light. The sea life sculptures glisten with a glassy wetness. 

The challenge of blowing or sculpting molten glass is monumental from both technical and aesthetic perspectives. Technically it is tricky because it takes many hours to create, and through that process if it gets a bit too cold it will crack and if it gets a little too hot all the detail will melt away. Aesthetically it is challenging because the hot glass is always molten and moving, and it’s hard to get a square look at it as it rotates on the blowpipe. Timing is critical, so once we begin making a glass artwork there is no reprieve and no breaks; it is one movement, and the team must be focused the entire time. 

The desire to create is a part of my personality. I’m compelled by the challenge of bringing a thought or vision into reality and figuring out the steps to make that happen. Glassblowing is strange as an artform because there is a sequential process that must be followed to achieve a blown object. Within that process, however, I find times to express creativity through form, color and pattern. I enjoy the global process of creating glass art: from building and maintaining the furnaces and equipment as well as understanding how to maneuver a bubble of molten glass to where I want it to go to the chemistry of color creation and so much more! For a glassblower there’s a lot of science skills blended with the artistic and the physical, and I appreciate that diversity. I’m always amazed to start with a pile of raw material and end up with inspiring creations. It’s magic!

ME: Do you consider your work art or craft? 

JEFF: I have a foot firmly placed in both realms. I revel in the challenge and intensity of creating unique and inspiring works of art in the glassblowing studio. These days are often preceded by several days of prepwork getting all the components ready for the big push on the main day. The intensity becomes palpable when days of work culminate into the final sculpture, and time seems to warp during the final moments or hours of creation. All senses must be tuned into the task at hand. A wrong flick of the wrist could smash the glass into thousands of pieces, or a single drop of sweat off my nose could crack the entire project. There’s a hyper focus that surrounds the final moves on these big projects.

Conversely, I take pleasure in the days with a more craft-based approach when we’re making simple works. If I mess something up, it’s really not a big deal because in another 30 or 40 minutes we’ll have another one done and finished. On these days it’s easy to relax and have a light hearted attitude. I benefit from both types of days for the variety it provides. 

ME: How does your work address artistic concerns, like those that a painter or sculptor considers (form, composition, color, value, texture)? 

JEFF: Glassblowing presents some unique challenges when addressing artistic concerns during the process of creation. A big issue is that I never get a square look at the object I’m creating as it’s always spinning and turning on the blowpipe as I roll it back and forth and move around the studio. I have to be satisfied with quick looks at what’s developing in my hands. It’s a gratifying feeling to see a successful finished work sitting in the gallery, but the most dynamic part, the molten one, is hidden and separate from the audience in the gallery.

Blown glass has an inherent memory to it, and every touch I make leaves a remnant on the glass. If I struggle with a form, it shows in the final piece with irregular highlights, uneven glass or an unappealing form. If I flow well with the work, the finished piece conveys the sublime quality of grace and ease. This is my goal.

The color palette is nearly always deceptive as most glass colors shift to different tones when hot and then regain their original color when cold. Many greens will appear orange, some reds can go completely transparent and all sorts of other surprises exist. A deep familiarity with the color palette and trusting how they will turn out in the end helps me push through the confusion of the hot color shifts. Another big challenge is the different viscosities of the various colors. Whites tend to be extremely stiff and don’t flow like the other colors. Some blacks are overly soft and flow too quickly. If I make a vessel that’s half white and half black, the form won’t blow out evenly due to the mixed viscosities. Another challenge presented by colored glasses is that some of them don’t play together nicely due to the different metallic oxides used. If a beautiful, deep red glass that contains cadmium touches another color, it will turn that red to a liver color forever. If silver bearing blue touches a gold bearing ruby, there emerges a beautiful, cloudy effect between the two colors. It takes a long time to become familiar with all the nuances of glass color.

Another challenge with glass is simply having the skills required to achieve the artworks I envision. Early on in my glassblowing career, I wanted to create octopus sculptures, but they proved too difficult when all the tentacles would melt into each other. My timing wasn’t good enough yet, and my hands weren’t nimble enough. Now with 20+ years experience, I accomplish these with ease. But even with advanced skills, there’s still much time to invest in working out the order of operations when approaching a new vein of work in order to best accomplish the design. 

ME: What is your opinion on the arts / crafts distinction? 

JEFF: A work of art feels like something new, either for the artist or for the audience. A work of art is a discovery. Craft feels like the skillset of life that each of us is working on in our own fields of expertise. The skills you refine and perfect throughout life is your craft. Every person is perfecting their craft, whatever the field may be. The works of art I enjoy most have a high level of skillful craft involved. 

ME: A most enlightening discussion, Jeff and Heather! Thank you kindly.

To view the exquisite glass works of Jeff and Heather Thompson, visit the Artists’ Gallery Sunriver in Sunriver or the Red Chair Gallery in Bend.

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