Heart of Glass - Blenko Glass
Blenko Glass is a West Virginia treasure that spans generations. Nothing symbolizes the state of West Virginia better or more beautifully than Blenko Glass. We will discuss current and former craftsmen and designers and how important it is that Blenko and West Virginia glass be appreciated and valued by the younger generation.
Monday, December 07, 2009
A Blenko Story From Canada
Here is my Blenko story and two images.
Hillary Homburg asked me to share my Blenko story.
My first visit to Blenko was in 1995. I was on a nine day bus tour with fellow members of the William Morris Society of Canada. It was a spontaneous detour, because we were well ahead of our schedule. And what a delight. Not only had we been visiting Midwestern visionary communities, but also many buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, so our appetites were well whetted for glass. What I think surprised most of us, after seeing so much minimal use of color in Wright's prairie style, was Blenko's riotously bright and vivid colors, stacked in dazzling assortments of rainbows, which indelibly scarred our retinas. I don't think anyone left there without purchasing at least one piece. Mine was a four inch diameter by 14 inch tall purple vase. Because we were in the visitors centre, and time was short, I did not realize that Blenko even had a stained glass factory, producing sheet glass, rondells or dalle de verre. I love my vase because it was what I had imaged at the time, small sheets of hand made glass would be made from.
My second visit to Blenko was in 2007. This time with great purpose. I had just finished taking a course on dalle de verre in France. When I got home I did some Internet searching and Blenko kept coming up as a supplier of dalles. Faint memories of the visitors center came to mind, but I could not remember seeing the stained glass supply area. So I wrote an email and got introduced to Don Lemley and the mythic dalle barn. I must admit it was all a bit too laid back for me, there weren't really any codes to correspond to specific colors, so I was concerned I wasn't going to get delivered what I anticipated and I wasn't convinced that the shipping costs weren't going to be problematic. So somewhere in those email conversations I decided to take a week off work and drive to Milton myself.
I am so glad I did. Don was a sweet heart and let me loose in the dalle barn, which seems to only get bigger every time I think about it. As a stained glass artist, it is always important for me to hand select my materials, because hand made glass has a wonderful transitional or variegated quality, that helps direct how it wants to be used. And I want to respond to that quality. Don was very generous with his time and local information. I selected dalles most of the morning. Wrapping up for a late lunch in town, I thought it crazy not to go back and select some sheet glass and some rondells. So loading up my little car with far more than I had originally planned on, there were some prayerful moments as I negotiated the West Virginia hills, back home.
And here we are in 2009. I was equally devastated even here, in the Canadian north when I heard the news that Blenko was suspending it's glass production, There was evidence of factory closures when I had made my personal trip, the two years earlier, but I had never thought it would effect Blenko. I called Don hoping to hear that perhaps it really wasn't that bad. But it was. Artistically I was horrified that I might not get any more Blenko dalles and sympathetically I was deeply saddened that another area of the creative and artistic world was being shut down.
I decided then and there, that I had to show some support. I chatted with many of my stained glass colleagues in an effort to encourage some Blenko sales. I scrambled myself to find some money to have an dalle order sent. Everything was up in the air. I was worried that nothing would happen and that the Blenko doors would be closed without fanfare.
Blenko is part of the American fabric that is as old as the hills the factory lives in. It was an idyllic spot to create the “glass hut” family owned style of glass manufacture, that was very prominent in Europe. Plenty of inexpensive fuel, cool summer days to mitigate the long hot hours in front of the furnaces. Blenko had a unique mix of both blown glass ware and art glass from the beginning, also being one of the earliest manufacturers of dalle de verre, which was born out of the Second World War.
West Virginia probably had the highest concentration of skilled glass blowers in the country. This is not insignificant. So to hear that Blenko was shutting down production, not only meant yet another business shutting down, but also the loss of a very particularly skilled group of individuals were losing their livelihood, probably forever. There is such a hue and cry for the rain forest, the loss of animal species to extinction and yet the lives of artists are not seen as valuable. I suppose it is assumed that we can adapt, that we can find other jobs. Noble it is to look after places and animals far away requiring our assistance, but when it comes to the arts, music, dance and glass, despite its huge cultural impact, these are the programs usually first to go.
We marvel at what previous cultures were able to create. The Egyptians, Greeks or the Celts for example. What evidence of their lives to we find at museums? Hand made pottery, glass, jewelery and statuary. Beautiful and functional and handmade. Artists were an integral part of the community. Blenko's artists really need every one's support, from the simple first time guest in the visitor center who buys a small keepsake to the state of West Virginia, who could find creative ways to save a piece of its heritage. Bravo to the Blenko project and Hillary, for initiating it.
By the way, I did get about 70 dalles this year. There are designs sketched out and new work under way. I'll keep you posted. Thanks Hillary for this opportunity.
Orrville, Ontario, Canada