Playing with fire (and glass) for a living

The Old Ways
in Rappahannock

It is often difficult to find goods made in the United States, much less made locally by hand. But in Rappahannock County, there are people who preserve old techniques that were developed generations before industrialization. This is the eighth story in a series about Rappahannock residents who are proud to carry on the work of artisans of bygone days by doing things “the old way.”

Other reports in the series are here

Sperryville resident Eric Kvarnes has always loved fire, and for the past 38 years he’s been playing with it. Kvarnes, 60, is a master glassblower and the owner of Oldway Art Center, which includes his studio, seven additional studios for local artists and Glassworks Gallery, where he showcases his work, along with the work of other artists.

“This business encompasses most everything I enjoy,” he said. “I’ve always been fascinated with fire, art, people and difficult challenges. This job is perfect.”

Kvarnes was introduced to glassblowing while attending college in Vermont in the late 1970s.

“I had a unicycle, and the local glassblower wanted to learn how to ride it,” he said. “So I taught him how to ride a unicycle and he taught me the basics of glassblowing. I knew right away I wanted to make it my career, and two years after graduating, I did.”

But when he was a boy, Kvarnes had other dreams – dreams that, ironically, aided his eventual glassblowing career.

“Until I was about 10, I regularly told my mom that I was going to buy a junkyard,” he said. “I kind of stored that dream away until later.” He also desired to live full-time in Rappahannock County, his family’s weekend getaway from Chevy Chase, Md., at the time.

Some of Kvarnes’ work on display at Glassworks Gallery. Courtesy photo.
Some of Kvarnes’ work on display at Glassworks Gallery. Courtesy photo.

 “I knew I had to live here,” he said. “And I didn’t waste any time getting here. I moved to the county in 1971, just three days after graduating from high school.”

Then in 1984, Kvarnes was presented with the opportunity to fulfill his earliest boyhood wish, when a 26-acre truck junkyard in Sperryville became available for purchase.

“I knew it would take lots of work to clean it up, but I also knew it was a great location for an art center,” he said. It took him years to beautify the property, and he’s still making minor improvements, but the Oldway Art Center is everything he thought it could be.

“It’s just mind-blowing how everything has worked out,” he said.

Glassblowing can be quite a workout. Furnace temperatures in his 2,300-square-foot studio reach up to 2,150 degrees, and there’s no time for a glassblower to cool off when the glass is on the blowpipe. The glassblower is constantly blowing, twirling, turning and manipulating the glass, a total process that takes 30 minutes to more than an hour for each item, depending on the complexity of the design.

“Glass starts to harden very quickly once removed from the furnace,” he said. “I can’t take a break – or it breaks.” He stressed that even a moment’s hesitation can be disastrous, so he plans ahead.

“First, I check to see what’s needed in my gallery, so I know what to make,” he said. Glassworks Gallery showcases elaborately designed vases, paperweights, plates, sun-catchers, perfume bottles, jewelry and many other items.

After applying colored glass, Kvarnes reheats a soon-to-be vase in what glassblowers call “the glory hole,” a furnace used for reheating molten glass to make it more pliable. Photo by Kay Beatty.
After applying colored glass, Kvarnes reheats a soon-to-be vase in what glassblowers call “the glory hole,” a furnace used for reheating molten glass to make it more pliable. Photo by Kay Beatty.

“After I determine what is needed, I fire the furnaces,” he said. The process of heating the furnaces isn’t as basic as it might sound. He has four furnaces in the studio, and, combined, they use about $150 in propane daily.

“Needless to say, I try to make the most of the time the furnaces are burning,” he said.

After the furnaces are fired and clear glass is heated about 18 hours in the main furnace, Kvarnes chooses the colors, which are bits of glass infused with metals such as cobalt (blue), iron (green), copper (green or red), gold (red), cadmium (red), and chromium (green).

“The [colored] glass available today is such a better quality than it used to be,” he said. “I buy mine from Germany. It’s the finest in the world.”

When Kvarnes is ready to blow glass, he lays the colored glass bits on a special table called a marver, then selects an iron blowpipe from several that are kept hot in one of the four furnaces. He dips the blowpipe into the clear molten glass in the main furnace, a 2,000-degree oven he made partially from junkyard remnants. He turns the blowpipe as molten glass gathers on its tip.

 “Molten glass moves like taffy,” Kvarnes noted as he collected a red-hot wad of it on his blowpipe. “I never tire of watching it, seeing it move, admiring its glow.”

After gathering the amount of glass he wants by turning the blowpipe in the oven, he removes it and moves quickly, manipulating it using tools, gravity and breath. He dips one more time, then rolls the hot glass into the bits of colored glass laying on the marver. He uses a 2,150-degree oven called a “glory hole” for reheating between steps.

After blowing, twirling and manipulating the glass with tools – and using the glory hole whenever needed – he eventually returns to the main furnace to apply another layer of clear glass. Then he manipulates it even more.

Kvarnes manipulates a vase using jacks and his blowpipe, a hollow iron pipe used by glassblowers to gather, move and blow molten glass. Photo by Kay Beatty.
Kvarnes manipulates a vase using jacks and his blowpipe, a hollow iron pipe used by glassblowers to gather, move and blow molten glass. Photo by Kay Beatty.

“To help shape the glass I use tools that were used 5,000 years ago,” he said of the large metal tweezer-like tools, called “jacks,” and other tools hanging near a tub of water containing cherrywood blocks. “Jacks do the job in glass that fingers do in pottery. Blocks do the job that hands do when clay is spinning on a wheel.” He can’t handle the glass with his hands until after it’s removed from the cooling oven the next day.

“The process I use is basically that of our ancestors thousands of years ago,” Kvarnes said. “The biggest difference is that I use propane instead of wood to heat the furnaces.” The construction of his furnaces is also a bit different.

“I made my cooling oven from my mother’s old refrigerator,” he chuckled. “I have a habit of recycling junk.

“It was inevitable that I’d buy a junkyard.”

It may also have been inevitable that at least one of Kvarnes’ four children was interested in glassblowing.

“My 14-year-old son, Leif, has been blowing glass since he was four and playing with it (safely) since he was two,” Kvarnes said proudly, noting that his son started by making simple paperweights, but has steadily progressed to small vases, oil lamps and bowls.

“It takes at least 10 years for a glassblower to be good,” Kvarnes said. “And 25 years for a glassblower to become a master at the craft. Very few people who start continue on because it’s a difficult art. I’m thrilled my son is sticking with it.”

Kvarnes, who has a degree in education, enjoys teaching others what he knows. He holds basic glassblowing classes in his shop and tutors four apprentices: his son, Laura East, Tracy Shipe and Nik Rustic. Rustic, 32, a stonemason by trade, said he enjoys the contrast between the two ancient arts.

“Unlike the bulkiness of stone masonry where I’m beating on rocks all day, working with glass is a very delicate process,” he said. “It’s mesmerizing to take a ball of glowing liquid and turn it into something solid and beautiful.”

Rustic noted that he feels fortunate to be working with Kvarnes the past three years.

“Eric’s work is very unique; no other glass comes close,” he said. “It feels good to be able help out.”

Shipe, 27, has been helping Kvarnes for about six years.

“I love it,” she said, while intently searching the floor of the studio for the bifocal lens Kvarnes has lost among thousands of slivers and chunks of glass. “Working here is never boring.”

Kvarnes, who likes to busy himself with a variety of tasks that usually don’t include searching for lost lenses, said owning a business is perfect for him.

“If I can’t decide what design I want to create, I’ll mow the lawn or work on a building until I figure it out,” he said. Kvarnes also stays busy as moderator of RappNet, a popular local email forum.

“I like variety,” he said, while searching his pockets for his bifocal lens. “And I like doing my part in keeping Rappahannock County unique and inviting.”

Hours after the search began, Shipe found the lens beside a bucket on a cinderblock, near one of Kvarnes’ workstations.

“We love challenges here, but losing a small lens in a studio full of glass is not a kind of challenge we like here at the Oldway Art Center,” he chuckled.

For more information about Kvarnes’ gallery and his work, or to inquire about taking a class or renting studio space, visit oldway.net or glassworksgallery.com.

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