Working with glass and recycled auto parts, men turn cast-off junk into things of beauty
Thursday, April 05, 2007
Plain Dealer Reporter
A rusty gear, an old bicycle chain, a chunk of auto glass - trash, right? Wrong. Cleveland artist Mike Kaplan sees a chandelier, table lamp or wall sconce. "I enjoy recycling, using something that has already been used," said Kaplan, one of the artists (along with Chris Topher and David Learn) behind the Glass Bubble Project, an artists studio specializing in unique glass chandeliers, sculptures and decorative objects.
The pieces, stunning in their ability to stop you in your tracks, are created from an otherworldly manipulation of colored glass and life's throwaway items, including old windshield glass, pieces of metal, bolts and even sprockets.
It's the use of the recycled items that separate the artists' work from other glass artists, such as nationally known Dale Chihuly.
The Cleveland artists' work was featured in a small booth at the National City Home & Garden Show in February at the International Exposition Center. The display, at the outer edge of the Designer Showcase, was filled with small chandeliers, decorative objects and sculptures. It stopped show attendees midstroll - as did the Glass Bubble Project-created giant chandelier featured in the middle of the showcase. The light fixture, which had to be affixed to the tent with special rigging because of its size and weight, was created with automobile glass.
Like most of the Glass Bubble artwork, it moved into the realm of unique thanks to the use of windshields and other items normally found in Dumpsters.
"Have you ever noticed how great rusty metals are?" Kaplan asked recently, in an interview in his West Side studio, located on Bridge Avenue at West 24th Street. "People throw away good stuff."
"[Recycling is] free, it's society's cast-offs that we make into art," added Topher.
"Recycling is the pulse of the Glass Bubble Project," interjected Learn. "It's a good thing."
Started in 1998, the company specializes in art made from recycled glass, blown glass and old car and machine parts. With a nod to a need for some new items, the artists buy embellishments such as glass color rods and frit (colorful beads of glass) from California and Utah suppliers.
The studio on West 24th Street is dimly lighted, the gloominess of rusty metal shapes hanging on hooks and nails broken up only by glimpses of glass brilliance flashing from finished chandeliers hanging from the rafters. Stacks of plastic containers holding colored beads are piled in a corner. Worn tools are scattered here and there.
The guys, dressed in worn T-shirts and jeans, are wet with sweat from hot furnaces and kilns.
All three are self-taught glass artists. Kaplan and Topher met in the hallways of Kent State University in 1988. Kaplan had taken an introductory class in glass blowing at Kent State, but that was the end of his formal education. A few years later, Topher helped Kaplan start up the business, building the kiln and furnace. Soon he, too, fell in love with the art form. Not long after that, Learn happened by the studio. He took a few classes and never left.
Their artwork ranges in price from $2,000 to $20,000 for a chandelier or sconce.
"We do a lot of custom jobs," said Kaplan, who, along with his partners, teaches glass-blowing and metal-sculpture classes. "We've made glass flowers for wedding centerpieces, custom chandeliers as well as glass and metal sculptures for private homes. Whatever people want."
It all starts with the parts. And the three admit to being serious scavengers, looking for potential beauty at places such as the Pearl Road Auto Wrecking & Salvage (for glass and metal shapes) and even along roadsides.
"It's all about fighting gravity," said Kaplan of glass blowing. Glass, he said, is a fluid element: You have to keep it moving to keep it from dropping to the floor.
The job is hot -- their furnace alone keeps 150 pounds of molten glass at a constant 2,000 degrees, and the kiln is kept at 900 degrees.
You have to be quick to be a glass artist because glass cools quickly.
"It's like making cold honey into a shape without it collapsing," said Kaplan. The artist keeps a steady pressure (puffs of air) through a pipe to shape the glass.
The little glass jars at the small store in the front of their working studio (priced from $20 to $150) are the bread and butter of the operation.
That said, they've managed to sell a dozen chandeliers to ABC Carpets, a huge, eclectic, high-end furniture and accessory emporium in New York City.
With all the practicality of running a business -- even if it's an artistic business -- the three still keep their focus on artistic expression. And with Kaplan, that focus has remained steady through the years.
"I pride myself in the lighting projects," he said. "My passion is the chandeliers."
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