A Burning Desire: 'Everyone has a niche'

BOISE, Idaho (KBOI) -- In a nondescript building on the edge of downtown, the heat is otherworldly, something experienced only in science fiction when a sun goes supernova and explodes. But this is the world where Filip Vogelpohl feels most at ease. And the heat is the price he pays to live the quirky life of a glassblower.

Given his sunny disposition, it's not hard to see him as a guy whose glass is always half-full. And it's very likely a glass he made himself, in a workspace that is equal parts studio, gallery and classroom. He wouldn't have it any other way.

"My studio is all about sharing with the community," he says with utter sincerity. "The community has helped keep the lights on, so for that I am grateful."

The sharing part of Boise Art Glass is key, because there was no place like this when Vogelpohl started out, nearly twenty years ago, wanting to learn every detail about the art of blowing glass.

He says the few glassblowers he happened upon in Boise were reluctant to share what they knew. So he turned to one of the preeminent glass-blowing regions in the world, the island of Murano, a whisper away from the city of Venice.

Glassmaking is the lifeblood of the place and has been since at least the 12th century.

Vogelpohl offers, "From what I understand, they moved all the glassblowers onto the island of Murano so that nothing would burn in town, so that all the glassblowing secrets stay in Italy."

And after 17 years perfecting his craft, Vogelpohl has developed a few techniques of his own. Still, he's open to demonstrating the art of glassmaking, if for no other reason than he wants to introduce it to a wider community.

While he is known for everything from fanciful cake-toppers to jaw-dropping chandeliers, he also takes on custom projects, and this day he's working on votive candles that will grace the tables of a local seafood restaurant.

Vogelpohl starts by dipping a metal pipe into a furnace that never shuts down and never drops below 2,100 degrees.

"Just like dipping a stick in a vat of honey," he says as he cracks the door just wide enough for the pipe. He pulls it out and there's a large mass of transparent molten glass on the tip, looking like glowing taffy.

Vogelpohl has to keep rotating the pipe so that the glass doesn't drip onto the floor. Then he dips the hot mass into a dish of beads and rolls it around to add tinges of color--in this case, a reddish-brown.

Working quickly, he begins layering the glass, frequently returning to the furnace to add thickness to his glowing, and growing, creation.

"Between layers," he points out, "I re-heat the glass to 2,300 to 2,500 degrees."

Once he's satisfied he has enough layers, he moves on to mixing the colors.

He settles into a throne-like chair with arms built wide to better hold the pipe. He lays the pipe inches above his lap and begins turning it.

In his right hand, he holds a huge pair of glassmaker's tweezers.

"I'm just going to use these tweezers to pinch and turn, pinch and turn," he says.

The piece is taking shape at this stage, but it still needs to expand.

"Now the next step is to add air to the center, " he says with a practiced assurance. "So what I'm going to do is blow into the pipe and trap air with my thumb, which creates pressure, causing it to expand. So that's done by trapping pressure in the pipe."

He blows on the pipe and places his thumb over the hole. Almost immediately, the glowing orb at the other end begins to inflate. He removes his thumb and the room echoes with a deep-throated pop. Then it's back to his throne to round out the piece.

He uses a grooved piece of wood, like generations of glassblowers before him. The wood cups the glass and it's apparent why Vogelpohl has to keep dipping the shaping tool in water. In constant contact with the glass, it quickly starts to smoke.

He walks quickly to a steel table some ten feet away and begins rolling the orb on its shiny surface to draw off some of the heat. Then it's back to the chair where he proceeds to blow air into the votive to make it more bubble-like.

Now the hard part.

Vogelpohl takes a second pipe and sticks it to the business end of the glass orb. He scores the opposite end and gently taps. The votive is now stuck to the second pipe, with one end open to the air.

He re-heats it in the oven in order to soften the glass and make it easier to widen the mouth.

"So now we smooth out the top and open it up a bit," he says rolling the piece in a wad of newspaper and gently pushing a tool against the leading edge.

He releases the near-finished votive into a bucket of flame-retardant vermiculite and applies a small blowtorch to smooth out the candle-holder's bottom.

Then he gingerly places it in the kiln, where it will cool from 920 degrees to room temperature, a process that will take at least a day. And he knows from experience that every time the oven door closes, he's taking a huge gamble.

"I've made pieces, set 'em in the kiln thinking I'm done and it's going to be great. I come back, take it out of the oven, it's got a crack in it."

But that's the lot of the glassblower. Heartbreak is always around the corner.

"Don't fall in love with a piece until you pull it out of the kiln in one piece," says Vogelpohl with a rueful smile.

The working rule of thumb here is, when you dance at the edge of an angry fire, be prepared to get burned.