GLASS BLOWER PRACTICES A DYING ART

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A renaissance festival seems a singularly appropriate place to find R. Foster Holcombe. Not only does Mr. Holcombe seem perfectly at home in the boots, leather breeches and jerkin of a 16th century artisan, but he is involved in an ancient art form undergoing its own renaissance.

"It's a dying art, and Foster is trying to keep it alive," explains Theda Hansen, Mr. Holcombe's business partner, life partner and "second pair of hands," who narrates and assists as he demonstrates the techniques of glass blowing to visitors to the Maryland Renaissance Festival in Crownsville.

Turning a molten blob of glass into a vase, pitcher or goblet is a precise, and quite dangerous, art -- and an uncommon one. But after seven years, the couple have perfected their routine to the point where it is not only an exact science but a form of choreography. As he swiftly but deliberately goes through the steps of his craft, manipulating the 54-inch hollow tube on which the glassis shaped, she knows just where to stand so that she isn't in her partner's way, but can lend a timely hand.

"Some people liken us making glass to a ballet," Mr. Holcombe says. "Every step leads to another until the piece is completed."

And when that completed piece is taken off the iron, some onlookers can't believe that they've watched its creation, from start to elegant result, in 20 minutes or less.

Mr. Holcombe discovered glass blowing in the late '70s, when he was a young stained-glass artist living in Denver.

"There were studios popping up left and right around me, and the competition was getting really fierce," he remembers. "I figured I'd better go one-up on my competition."

His plan was to take a course in painting and firing stained glass at the Pilchuck Glass Center in Stanwood, Wash., and start a lucrative sideline in church restoration work.

"While I was up there, I saw people blowing glass," Mr. Holcombe says. "I thought 'OK, so much for stained glass!' "

Several art schools in the United States had glass programs, he learned, but he wasn't particularly interested in art school. For starters, he was pushing 30, and didn't want to undertake a four-year degree program.

"Their focus is 'art,' " he explains. " 'There's a furnace, here's an iron, make art.' I needed a technical education, something that would give me a leg to stand on when I got out."

One of the Pilchuck glass blowers steered him toward the Glass Centre at the Dudley College of Technology in Brierley Hill, in England's West Midlands. There, in 1980-'81, he learned the gamut of glass technology: glass blowing, glass cutting, art and design, business management and the technical aspects of building and maintaining glass furnaces.

When he returned to the United States, he set up a short-lived glass blowing studio in western New York state. Then a fellow glass blower who was going back to school asked Mr. Holcombe if he would like to take over his Renaissance festival glass business.

Mr. Holcombe began his life on the festival circuit in Texas, where he appeared not only at the Texas Renaissance Festival, but at a Greco-Roman Festival which, he jokes, was "Texas's largest toga party." There he met Ms. Hansen, a South Dakota artist who made delicate, one-of-a-kind porcelain dolls. The couple set up a home and studio together in Garland, Texas, and traveled to several festivals, where they sold their individual work and collaborated on glass blowing demonstrations. They first set up shop at the Maryland festival when it moved from Columbia to Crownsville in1985.

The demonstrations -- in which they use a little, but not too much, mock-Tudor "forsoothly" dialect -- turned out to be a potent selling tool as well as an educational form of entertainment for fairgoers, who enjoyed the opportunity of owning a piece of glass that had been created before their eyes. During an 8 1/2 -hour festival day, Mr. Holcombe and Ms. Hansen give 13 performances of "the hottest show in the Renaissance realm," with short breaks in between for sales, socializing and answering questions about glass.

Although the open-sided glass pavilion has been designed to look as "Renaissance" as possible, it is outfitted with several propane-fired devices that would have astounded the artisans of King Henry VIII's time. A main glass furnace, which maintains a temperature of 2,400 degrees, holds a reservoir of molten clear glass. It is kept running continuously. A smaller furnace, called the "glory hole," is used for reheating a piece in progress. There are also two annealing ovens, with a temperature of 1,000 degrees, to hold the just-finished pots. These ovens are turned off at the end of the day, and the pieces allowed to cool gradually.

The creation of an original glasswork begins with a piece of colored glass from Germany, which is heated, then cooled and shaped, on a slab of marble called the marver. Then clear glass, melted to a honeylike consistency, is "gathered" onto the iron. And the dance begins: The unshaped glass, called the parison, is blown, cooled, reheated, turned and shaped with a variety of tools -- including a pad of wet paper, wet wooden paddles, glass shears and hairpin-shaped tools called jacks -- until the desired shape is achieved. Although Mr. Holcombe favors classical shapes -- "we make functional vs. funk," he says -- his repertoire is wide, encompassing such things as drinking flasks and Christmas tree ornaments as well as more traditional vases and vessels. Prices range from $25 to about $300.

Since moving to Maryland in 1989, Mr. Holcombe and Ms. Hansen have limited their fair appearances to the Texas and Maryland Renaissance festivals, and are devoting more time to their studio in Savage Mill, the Art of Fire, where they fill custom orders for his blown glass and her dolls and free-form fused-glass pieces.

After the first of the year, when the holiday rush has abated, Foster Holcombe will begin a new series of three-day intensive glass blowing classes.

"In those 15 hours, they come away with close to a dozen pieces, and a good working knowledge of what it is like to manipulate the glass and try to blow a bowl or vase," Mr. Holcombe comments.

"The bottom line is, they learn it isn't as easy as I make it look!"

Glass blower's art

R. Foster Holcombe and Theda Hansen will be demonstrating glass blowing at the Maryland Renaissance Festival, on Crownsville Road between Routes 97 and 450, on weekends through September. (An apprentice will take over the glass pavilion during the last two weekends of the festival, when they move on to the Texas Renaissance Festival.) They will return to their Savage Mill studio around Thanksgiving. Custom orders are welcomed. For information, write "The Art of Fire," Mill Box 2023, Foundry St., Savage, Md. 20763, or call (301) 604-6979.

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