published Monday, November 18th, 2013

Alabama artist blends glass blowing with nature

Artisans create a bowl from molten glass  at their studio bordering Little River Canyon National Preserve near Fort Payne, Ala.  Orbix Hot Glass makes high-quality glass pitchers goblets, bowls, Christmas ornaments and art pieces.
Artisans create a bowl from molten glass at their studio bordering Little River Canyon National Preserve near Fort Payne, Ala. Orbix Hot Glass makes high-quality glass pitchers goblets, bowls, Christmas ornaments and art pieces.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
  • photo
    Cal Breed, center, Eric Harper, right, and Mark Leputa create a bowl at Orbix Hot Glass.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

FORT PAYNE, Ala. — There's a delicate dance that happens every day at the Orbix Hot Glass studio.

It combines fire, human breath, constant spinning and occasional shaping to turn molten glass into colorful sculptures, pitchers, bowls, vases and other pieces.

Time and temperature are also key, as the glass must be heated enough to be pliable and can't cool to the point that it might crack.

Though the glass blowing studio has an industrial feel, with its furnaces that burn bright orange and array of craftsmen tools, this setting is far from factory-like.

The Orbix property sits atop northeast Alabama's Lookout Mountain, bordering the Little River Canyon National Preserve, and all around there are signs of nature.

"This is home," said studio owner and glass artist Cal Breed. "For me, being in the woods is a really inspirational place to be."

Breed and his wife, Christy, found the site years ago while they were on a rock climbing expedition in the canyon. Today, they raise their three children in a home next to the studio.

Breed, who grew up in Florence, was studying marine biology at Auburn University when he saw a photo in a book of someone blowing glass and was intrigued.

He had gotten far enough in his studies to realize he was headed for a career that was more lab worker than Jacques Cousteau. So he chose a different path: art.

"Glass is such a memorable thing to see," he said. "This molten material becomes a form in an artist's hands."

Today, Breed and Orbix have been featured in national magazines, and one of his pitchers made Oprah Winfrey's "O List." The pieces are sold online and also in a gallery next to the studio.

Meanwhile, his current solo exhibit at the Huntsville Museum of Art is much different from the functional glass pieces he normally creates. The collection includes sculptures of trees, porcupine quills, walnuts and other images inspired by his surroundings.

Being creative is important for anyone, Breed said, which is why Orbix started inviting people to visit the studio to experience the glass blowing process and the natural surroundings firsthand.

"No matter what you do, you need to be creative," he said.

Several years ago, Orbix began offering visitors the chance to blow their own Christmas ornaments.

Participants pick their colors and follow instructions on when to blow into the pipe, which is handled by the Orbix staff. "We do the scary, hot part," Breed said.

The cost is $35 per ornament, and the studio is doing it every Saturday leading up to Christmas. See the Orbix website for more information.

There's no typical day at Orbix, Breed said, since each piece is different and requires varying techniques, based on color, size and form.

On a recent day, Breed cradled a metal pole in his hands and thrust one end of it into one of the studio's 2,000-degree furnaces.

Moments later, he pulled it out and started shaping a small bubble of glass attached to the hot end, as flames licked behind the blackened cork pad he used as a tool.

Occasionally, he or one of his assistants blew into the other end of the pole, their breath expanding the bubble.

And the whole time, Breed turned the pole over and over, the spinning motion keeping the liquid glass from dripping to one side as it cooled.

"You have to make glass fast," he explained as he worked. "It will start cracking below 1,000 degrees."

This particular piece, a large sink bowl, required multiple layers of glass and many trips back to the furnace during the shaping process to keep the glass from getting too cool.

Some pieces get so big that their perch on the end of the pole looks precarious, and visitors wonder whether they will fall off, said Jerry Clemons, the gallery manager at Orbix.

"To me, it's like poetry. Cal just knows the glass so well. It gets heavier and heavier until he says it's right," Clemons said.

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