Glassblower Foster Holcombe, co-owner of glass studio Art of Fire, holds a Signature Series vase he crafted.
Glassblower Foster Holcombe, co-owner of glass studio Art of Fire, holds a Signature Series vase he crafted. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun)

There is less blowing in glass blowing than you'd think, says artisan Foster Holcombe, who converted a milking barn into a studio that glows with colorful creations — and tremendous heat.

"You blow a little to create a cavity," he says, standing safely away from the billowing heat at his studio, Art of Fire, where his team creates a range of glass pieces. "You are actually working with gravity and centrifugal force."

At the furnaces, stepson Todd Hansen and Josh Ries, who took a class at Art of Fire and never left, heat, spin, swing and heat again, bringing luscious colored-glass shapes to life in a whirl of motion. They might be tired and sweaty even if they weren't doing this in front of a bank of ovens, each one roaring at more than 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

The production studio, nestled in a huge tree farm in Montgomery County, is at full tilt right now as Holcombe and wife Theta Hansen, who handles the office and bakes for the team, prepare for the first of two Renaissance festivals that are their bread and butter.

They will spend seven weekends in Sterling, N.Y., before returning for nine weekends at the festival in Crownsville, where they have demonstrated their technique and sold their treasures for 28 years — as many as 200 pieces in a weekend.

Holcombe was a banker in Denver when he took a class in stained glass in the late 1970s. "And I just bailed on the real world. It wasn't for me."

He studied firing and paint techniques with noted glassmaker Dale Chihuly in Seattle and set up shop in Denver repairing church windows. But everyone around him was blowing glass, so he found a program in England where the syllabus covered all aspects of glass blowing.

Holcombe knew he wanted to build his own studio, but he was working in Dallas, where he says it is "hotter than Hades in summer." His contacts at the Renaissance Festival in Crownsville told him to come to Maryland. "It was a no-brainer," he says.

He brought the heat with him, of course. The long, narrow converted barn has plenty of windows and doors for cross ventilation, but there is no air conditioning. On a recent day, the thermometer on the wall read 120 degrees.

"It was 90 degrees outside, and we would actually run outside to cool off," says Cecilia Miller, who has a master's degree from Hood College, but took a glass-blowing class at the studio and, like Ries, just never left.

"I help them, and in return they teach me the trade," says the 28-year-old. "It isn't like a painting that you hang on a wall. There is a lot of mystery in it. And I like how you can make the most beautiful things, but they are useful."

Holcombe's production studio was at Savage Mills until 1997, when the artists and antiques dealers began to move on as the retail direction there changed.

A friend recommended this 5-acre "farmette" with outbuildings. It was another no-brainer. Holcombe and his stepson, who had retired from the Air Force after a career as an navigator and joined the family business, converted the barn themselves, and Holcombe and his wife live in the farmhouse nearby.

In addition to their original design work displayed in the gallery side of the barn, they teach classes, do restoration and repairs, make glass liners for silver pieces, create chandelier arms and fill commissions.

"We are in the business of art," says Holcombe, smiling and stroking a graying beard. He does less blowing these days, relying on Hansen and Ries.

Art of Fire produces a line of vases, glasses and pitchers for a catalog for retailers, but exotic pieces, also for sale, gleam on the gallery shelves in the afternoon sun. Globe-shaped Christmas ornaments, one more whimsical than the next, dangle. (There are special ornament-making classes in December.)

Hansen says that he and Ries can turn out four dozen ornaments before lunch, but the larger pieces take more time. In and out of the finishing ovens, each one is continually spun and turned into the desired shape. Each man can make 12 pieces on a good day.

"You swing it, or your let gravity pull it into shape," says Ries, who uses tongs, rods, paddles and a metal table top, too. "It's funny. Glass wants to flow to the ground. You are constantly fighting gravity. And yet you use it to create what you want."

Ries, who has a sociology degree from Mount St. Mary's University, had a job in human relations all lined up when he graduated in 2003. Then he saw a television special on glass blowing, took his first class here and never looked back.

"It's like no other material," he says of the 400 pounds of molten glass that glow from the inside of the main furnace, which can register more than 2,300 degrees and is never turned off.

"It isn't like metal and it isn't like clay. I love mixing the colors to get the abstract look," says Ries, who enjoys making Venetian goblets the most. His colored-stem creations sell for $200 each, and his parents — who he says were initially skeptical, to put it mildly — now understand that he can make a living doing what he loves.

Emma Weaver, a junior at Virginia Tech, is another one who came and stayed. She is an industrial design major and she wanted to do a project — a citrus juicer shaped like a question mark — in glass over her spring break. This summer, she is trading chores for instruction.

"The more you know about a material, the more you can push its limits," says the Mount Airy resident. (She got an A on her project.)

As the afternoon wears on, Hansen and Ries take more breaks to recover from the heat and the physical demands of their work. Glass blowers can never stop moving, or gravity will take over. They rest away from the ovens and drink lots of water.

The day's work is placed in a 900-degree annealer to cool; overnight, the temperature will gradually drop to about 250 degrees. If the pieces were cooled any faster, they would shatter.

"The [economic] downturn has taken 40 percent of the craft business," says Holcombe, who also rents his ovens to other glass blowers. "I am just glad I still get to be my own boss."


Where the color comes from

How does glass change from the clear, molten liquid at the bottom of the furnace into solid shapes in the colors of the rainbow?

There is a reason why that shade of blue is called "cobalt blue," Foster Holcombe explains. Each element on the periodic table produces its own color when heated. Manganese, for example, produces lavenders and purples.

The colors are mixed with bone dust if they are to be opaque. Unalloyed, they are translucent.

Holcombe purchases color in a variety of forms — powders, crystals, chips and even rods of color. The glass blower harvests some of the molten clear glass with the end of his pipe and then dips it in the color, or colors, he wants. If he is using a slice from the color rods, he will soften it in an auxiliary oven first.

The rest, as Josh Ries says, is magic.

Where to buy

Art of Fire, 7901 Hawkins Creamery Road, Laytonsville, 310-353-6642, artoffire.com. Open for visitors and sales Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Classes meet once a week for four weeks, Saturday or Sunday mornings or Wednesday evening, for three hours. The cost for each course is $499. Two students per instructor. Classes resume in September and there are special ornament-making classes in December. Private instruction is also available.

About this series

Today, furniture from all over the world is easy and often inexpensive to come by, but there remains a demand for quality furnishings made by hand. Maryland is home to dozens of businesses producing handcrafted, often one-of-a-kind, furniture, mirrors, lighting and other items for the local market and beyond.

So we're turning the spotlight on some of the Maryland companies that produce top-quality furnishings for the home. Some are small shops, consisting only of one or two people crafting custom pieces for clients with specific needs. Others have grown to become large companies with a national footprint, establishing a presence in some of the country's wealthiest locales.