Traditional Home, September 2001, "Touch of Glass," by Doris Athineos. 

 

Modern architecture may have embraced the cool, uniform possibilities of glass, but artisan Sonja Blomdahl reminds us that glass can tease, tantalize and tempt.

Softly curved and barely translucent, her wide-bodies vessels catch the light in extraordinary ways. Like a moonlit lake, the vessels' slick surfaces seduce, but the soulful luminescent quality is what really blows you away.

In her downtown Seattle studio, glassmaking is an intimate art form that begins with a puff of air. "The vessels I blow are a history of my breath," says Blomdahl, a long, lean Massachusetts native who moves around the compact hotshop with the gait and grace of a Tai-Chi master.  

Standing at a wooden workbench, she blows in to a four-foot-long tube, and a red bubble of molten glass expands. Aided by assistant Annette Ringe, Blomdahl darts from the bench to a fiery furnace a few feet away, carrying the fragile glass bubble stuck to the tip of her blowpipe. To keep the glass soft and pliable, she reheats the bubble dozens of times and modifies the shape by more blowing, turning, and rolling it on a flat surface. "If I've done everything correctly, the profile of the piece is a continuous curve, the shape full, and the opening confident," says Blomdahl. "I want the colors to glow and react with each other."

The craft is not only deeply personal, it's physically challenging. Blomdahl dashes between furnace and bench 50 times in two hours before the honey-like molten sand is ready for the annealing oven, where it cools and hardens. Sitting a few feet away from the chamber filled with molten glass at temperatures up to 2,400 degrees, Blomdahl tells what it's like to blow larger vessels, up to 21 inches high: "Imagine trying to balance a 20-pound bowling ball on the tip of a cue stick."

Now imagine performing this trick at high noon in the desert sun. "Most people don't know the real energy, concentration, sweat, risk, heat, decisions, excitement, and timing that goes into blowing glass," says Blomdahl, who faces down the blistering heat with sunscreen and lip balm. To keep her lanky six-foot frame in shape, she practices yoga and sits, graceful and erect on the workbench built by her glassmaker husband, Dick, Weiss.

In a field dominated by men (Dale Chihuly is the glassblowing great), Blomdahl is one of the best-known women blowers. Her work is on display at the National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C., the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the American Craft Museum and the Corning Museum of Glass, both in New York. The Hermitage in Russia and the Kitazawa Contemporary Glass Museum in Japan have displayed her pieces. And when President Bush exchanged customary official gifts with Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson in June, he chose Blomdahl's smoky blue vessel with a clear nipped-in neck and a teal band around the protruding lip. 

However, she argues, talent has little to do with her success. "I work really hard, and I took the time to develop," she says.

Blomdahl took up glassmaking 30 years ago in college. "I first saw glassblowing as a freshman at the Massachusetts College of Art, she says. "I was entranced by the process." After studying at the Orrefors Glass School in Sweden in 1976, she headed west to pursue her dream. By 1983, Blomdahl had launched her own hotshop; two years later, she began teaching at the Pilchuck Glass School, the training ground for thousands of independent glassmakers in the Seattle area.

Despite the competition, most of the four tons of raw glass she fired last year was sold through Seattle's William Traver Gallery. The Riley Hawk Gallery in Cleveland is currently showing some of her newest pieces.  

The appeal of her glass is simple: pure color and form. If Blomdahl were a painter, think color-field artist Mark Rothko, who painted stacked rectangles floating in fields of hazy color. "Color is the joy of making a piece," she says. Like Rothko, she plays with light through subtle color contrasts. "I stack and layer colors," she explains. "Once I lay one color next to another, both are changed."

She achieves a glowing gem-like radiance through two age-old techniques - overlay and incalmo. Overlay consists of layering different colors over clear glass. Imagine a thick layer of see-through glass sandwiched between two thin layers of luscious color. "Layering color has more depth than mixing colors, " she notes.  

The traditional Venetian "incalmo" technique consists of joining two blown-glass bubbles to create different bands of color. "I first saw the technique in 1978, when it was demonstrated by Venetian master glassblower Checco Ongaro at Pilchuck Glass School," she says. For instance, the body may be scarlet, with a see-through glass at the neck and a chartreuse band around the protruding lip. "The clear band between the colors acts as an optic lens," she says. "It moves the color around." It also permits a peek inside the vessel without looking straight down.

The only kind of glass she doesn't like is shattered. When the 6.8-magnitude quake hit Seattle in March, some of her older pieces in storage were damaged or destroyed. "The studio floor was heaped with colored shards," she recalls. Did she save it for mosaics? "No, no; I don't like cold glass or sharp edges."