On Delmar Boulevard near The Loop neighborhood in St. Louis, one of the city’s creative districts, passersby will find Third Degree Glass, a creative oasis built around the time-honored tradition of glass work. Built out of a former Pontiac dealership, Third Degree has become a beacon of creativity, growth and community in the 15 years since they began, as a creative outlet where it’s possible to unlock formerly untapped creativity.
It’s also the location of several highly popular glassworking courses offered as electives to students at Washington University’s University College, where students can take glassblowing, flameworking, fused glass, or a sampler course that’s an introduction to all three. Originally started by co-founders Doug Auer and Jim McKelvey, founder of Square, the deep connection between technology and the arts doesn’t seem so far fetched.
“Having been open for 15 years, especially as an arts business, that in itself speaks volumes about the value that’s seen in it and what our artists do,” says Nick Dunne, communications director at Third Degree Glass. Hotshop direct and glass artist Dan Alexander, who also teaches several of the University College classes, likens the process of making glass art to a form of meditation. “For me, it’s almost a zen experience. While you’re in the middle of the piece, whatever you’re trying to focus on, that’s where your full attention is. It’s not about anything else in the world,” he says.
Keep reading for our interview with Dunne, in which we discuss the vitality of the arts education and how working with glass expands creativity.
What is it like to be a part of Third Degree?
Working here and learning a new medium, and seeing the lifestyle people build around glass is amazing. We are here because of the glass, and ignited people’s passion for it.
When I took over my position three years ago, the mentality was, “You have to know what you’re talking about.” So they put me in a few classes, and I got hooked. I got addicted to it and started making my own artwork, mostly fused glass. I’ve been doing fused glass for two and a half years now. I’m always learning something new, and I’ll try anything. I don’t have a specific style. I have a certain vibe, I guess you could say. I have a style I’m attracted to, but I’m always exploring new techniques. I make a lot of platters, plates, wall hangings and wall art, or small bowls and vases. Things like that.
I never imagined myself working in a small arts business. I actually don’t have a background in fine art. But working with glass, there’s something more architectural about it, where you’re building. You’re taking ideas and putting them together. With paint, you paint over it if you make a mistake. And with glass, you can always melt it down in a kiln and make it into something else. You have to understand the movement of the glass and how it behaves at certain temperatures. I really like it, because it combines both engineering and the creative mind.
What is the student experience like for these classes?
When students come out of the class, they discover that this idea of creativity isn’t limited to being able to draw or paint. They come out with higher self-esteem, and objects that they’ve made. Many of my students give them as gifts. Students also often send me pictures of their pieces decorating their desks, or sometimes as more practical solutions, like ring holders. That’s another reason I love glass work. Many of the pieces are practical. You can make something and actually use it. We frequently get people who drop in for an open studio, and then they sign up for one of our four-week classes. We’ve acquired dozens new renters through the University College classes.
I think the greatest benefit for students is the opportunity to break out of their bubble. People have misconceptions about glass—that it’s sharp and dangerous. That’s mostly true, [laughs] but they can also work with it and become comfortable around it. They’re breaking preconceived ideas about working with glass, but also about what they see as their own capabilities.
What is the importance of the arts for a well-rounded education?
There is an engineering/mathematical aspect of working with glass, but that really applies to any art form. When you’re engaging with an artistic medium, you’re using part of your brain that you normally don’t use. When you start to work with it, you realize your creative potential. So even if you’re an accountant and you open up that creative side of yourself, you can problem-solve in a different way than you’ve ever experienced before. It also creates a greater appreciation for art in our everyday lives. Advertising requires artists, for example. Engaging with the arts, you have a greater appreciation for artisans who make a living doing this. It’s not just a 9-to-5 job. It requires a lot of dedication.
What do you love about working with glass?
It definitely comes back to the engineering aspect merging with the creative aspect. That’s what makes it very challenging. For fused glass, we work with material at 1100 to 1700 degrees Fahrenheit, and even the slightest difference in temperature can make a change. That goes for any glass media. If you’re working with glass blowing where it’s already hot and molten, blowing it up with the breath from your own lungs, you have to really understand what you’re doing because the slightest move can cause a break. It’s a natural material, it has a mind of its own. It’s very rewarding to work with.
Is it hard to learn?
Glassblowing is definitely the hardest to learn. People come into our gallery and see these gorgeous vases, and the artists who create them make it look easy during demonstrations, but they’ve often been doing it for well over a decade. Some of our artists refer to it as a dance, and everyone has a role to play. You have the gaffer, who’s in charge of everything. You have someone to get out the torch, and someone to blow and inflate the glass. It’s very choreographed and interesting to watch. I go into the hot shop almost every day to the studio to get photo and video of our artists working, because it is a very dramatic experience. You have to be careful when filming, so you don’t hit a pipe connected to molten glass.
Fused glass is a little easier, because you’re not melting it until it goes into the kiln. It’s a little more tedious. Flameworking—or making glass beads—and glass blowing require a lot of dexterity. You have to turn a pipe with one hand and shape the glass with the other hand. You have to be very self-aware when working with 2000-degree molten material.
First we work with students on technique—the most basic things they need to know to work with glass. We focus first and foremost on tools and techniques, then we go into color theory, and encouraging them to be creative within their own capacity.
Note: this post was originally published with Alive Magazine.