Splendor in the Glass
Glassblower James McLeod has reconnected with his passion in a barn in Essex
Off a winding farm lane in Essex stands an enormous green barn that once sheltered hay. Today, three furnaces roar inside, boxed infernos burning at 2100 degrees, night and day, ten months of the year, ever ready to “turn pipe” as they say in glassblowing culture.
This is Bubble Factory Glass, James McLeod’s independently-run glass studio and multimedia center. The furnaces are part of the “hot shop,” where McLeod’s crew create a line of hand-blown glass products, both custom and production. The Bubble Factory offers lessons and workshops for individuals or groups. Events happen here — glass-blowing demonstrations and art talks — or you could host your own private glass-blowing party. Upstairs in the barn is a clean modern space for flame-work lessons, and a bright, high-ceilinged event space.
The barn is so big there is still room for hay, but McLeod, who landed on the North Shore after years of teaching at Boston’s Massachusetts College of Art, has visions for it all. He lives in the house across the driveway with his wife and business partner, Libby, and their children, Hugo (3 1/2) and Sawyer (9 months).
McLeod, 40, started this journey in Oakland, California, where he grew up. At the California College of Arts and Crafts he spent one year as an illustration major, then tried a glass class and everything changed. He was instantly drawn to the rapport and teamwork of the glass studio.
“For someone who likes sports and lighting things on fire, glassblowing just fit,” he says.
Historically, the glassblowing industry has been defined by two distinct schools of thought: studios doing mass production and those doing high-end stylized work. Hand-blown wine glasses for Ikea vs. hand-blown perfume bottles and chandeliers for Lalique. The Venetians began mastering technique as far back as 1291. Within an insular and secretive culture they became the world’s master glassblowers, but they also seemed unable to move their design out of the 19th century. In the 1970s, Dale Chihuly, the famous creator of large-scale artistic glass pieces, shattered the the Murano glass mystery when he invited their maestro, Lino Tagliapietra to come to his Pilchuck Glass School (“the world’s most comprehensive center for glass art education” in Tacoma, Wash.) to share the coveted Italian technique.
In 2008 Art Guide Northwest described this legendary artistic relationship:
“By adopting a boundary-free, global attitude about skill-sharing and the evolution of artistic vision in glass, Tagliapietra became the single most important living figure for glass — after his friend Dale Chihuly.’”
McLeod would go on to study at Pilchuck, and to work in a number of different independent glass studios, including a Chihuly glassblowing team, but he had never heard of the world’s most famous living figure for glass the day he walked into that first class.
After Pilchuck — and time spent at the Haystack Mountain School of Craft in Deer Isle, Maine — McLeod accepted an artist-in-residence position at the institution which in some ways is the monument to that other school of glass production, the prosaic one. The Creative Glass Center of America is in Millville, NJ, part of a nonprofit called WheatonArts, but it was originally the factory that invented and produced the Mason jar, or the “atmospheric fruit container,” as it was known then. Today, as part of the WheatonArts center and the Museum of American Glass, the Creative Glass Center of America offers one of the premier artist-in-residence studio glass programs, providing four fellows access to their enormous factory for three-and-a-half months.
Working for the first time free of academic or tutorial guidance, McLeod became much more interested in the material’s abilities, and began to explore a personal style.
He produced a series of artistic interpretations — each one a hand-blown jar and lid — based on Mason jar patents he had found in the library at the Center. McLeod’s work is very different now, but he says he still loves mason jars and also the old glass insulators once used on telephone wires. To know glass is to love glass, apparently.
Years later, McLeod would return to the Creative Glass Center of America leading a team of students from Massachusetts College of Arts to create 28 hand-blown glass spheres for new lights on the recently renovated Longfellow Bridge in Cambridge.
“That was a fun project. A company out of Texas had gotten the bid to do the job. We had to have this enormous mold fabricated, because they were really exact about how the lights had to be. They wanted 28-inch globes. In terms of working on a team, that’s really pushing what you can do. You had to have so much kiln space and a special furnace with 2000 pounds of glass capacity dedicated just to this project.”
“We spread the work out between different people. We let the young folks take all the gathers, (meaning gathering the molten glass onto a blow pipe, much like a honey is picked up by a honey dipper.) It took three people to turn one of these in the mold.”
Fun fact about the mold: It’s made of cherry wood, which has lived its whole life in water — or sap — and it remains soaked in water in the shop. The molten glass is turned in the mold. The incredibly hot temperature produces a very thin layer of steam between the glass and the mold. It is actually this layer of steam that shapes the glass.
Each piece is finished in a kiln (also called an “annealer”) so that they can come down from 2200 degrees to room temperature slowly and evenly. Those fourteen 28-inch spheres would require a lot of annealer space.
The team produced 14 globes a day. “Only this kind of factory — the one at the Creative Glass Center of America — could accommodate that scale of work.”
After his fellowship, McLeod went to graduate school for sculpture at New York University, but soon drifted back to glass. This time he reconnected with a former teacher and mentor, Kanik Chung, working at Urban Glass in Brooklyn. There, McLeod and Chung set up a satellite program in glassblowing for NYU students.
In 2006, McLeod applied for the job at MassArt. “I really enjoyed teaching, but wanted to teach not just at a technical level. I wanted to teach theory.”
Massachusetts College of Art had always been a rewarding and integral part of McLeod’s career, but in 2013 he began to feel the pull of his personal work. He was working on his own custom pieces in the MassArt studio, but that had challenges.
“You can’t go in at full stride and do your work in an academic college setting, because they’re always asking you to do your job, which is to be a teacher, which is what should happen.”
Imagining space for his own studio compelled decisions. “We could live in the city, and I could be a teacher there, and not have a studio, or we could live somewhere else — and then we found this place.”
Originally, the hot shop component of the Bubble Factory was going to be the last piece of the puzzle, though it was an expensive, time-consuming investment.
“It was going to be a lot of work, so we said, let’s start a business model where we can teach classes, be part of a community, and help fund this business.” Just at that point, McLeod acquired a client — Serve Kindness — who needed hand-blown glass bowls produced on a regular schedule. Serve Kindness sells the bowls specifically as a means of donating to selected charities. “Supporting local artists and community organizations that work to spread beauty and kindness in our communities,” their website explains.
McLeod feels this kind of factory work has always played an important role in his glass blowing career. It made sense for him personally to support the new shop this way.
“In a weird way, I had been doing production factory work in glass to make a living. My first glass job was as a sophomore, and then I worked in seven different studios and factories in college — and even more afterward — doing high-production blown glass. By the time I moved here, I had accrued so much experience in working in glass studios, there was so much I really enjoyed — that part of what we decided to do here is take all the aspects of other studios we admired — and put it in one place. It’s not about making a few thousand Christmas ornaments, it’s about making a product that we really like: clean designs within our aesthetic.”
McLeod has his team, who have all been his students at Massachusetts College of Art, producing the Serve Kindness bowls. Referencing that other school of beautiful stylized work, the Bubble Factory crew also produces a lyrical line of contemporary decorative pieces, available online or at the factory. McLeod is also collaborating with the Essex artist Chris Williams on a large piece made of granite and glass for the Cape Ann Museum, and he is planning time to return to his own mixed-media work.
“You work in this industry for a while, and it gets monotonous, but I’m back to having fun with this shop. I got into it because it’s fun, and now it’s fun again. With my own work, in the meantime, I went back to my illustration background. All the work I do right now is graphic imagery on glass. I silkscreen enamel on glass, and hand paint it.”
Glass work weighs so heavily on technique, working as an artist in that medium is challenging. McLeod talked about teaching his students, how a glass artist must move beyond the burden of technique. “I find that because this is a very technically-involved medium and there is little time to be proactive, that students are driven by what their technique is and what their experience is. I try to do a lot of unlearning there. To help them see what they would like to see in their world without the restraints of the material itself.”
McLeod will begin a sabbatical from MCA in May. He plans on building on that body of work.
The leading glass-art historian Rosa Barovier Mentasti described the artist Tagliapietra’s method this way: “He conceives the work not only in terms of its aesthetic qualities but simultaneously in the methods of its production.” This, she says, is “thinking in glass.”
The day I visited, the Bubble Factory team was moving lightheartedly between furnace and annealer. In spite of the glowing furnaces, there was nothing hellish about this scene. What was evident? Joy. Joy in production, joy in the camaraderie, joy in the work. There is joy to thinking in glass.
Jonathan Kozowyk is a commercial photographer based in Boston and New York.
▶︎ The Bubble Factory Glass, 69 Choate Street, Essex. (978) 890-5109. For more information, visit their website.