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Millville museum artisan fills glass with creative spirit


In the hands of Don Friel, glass seems to have a life of its own.

Poking a long, stainless steel rod into Wheaton Village's huge furnace, he extracts a ball of molten glass, which glows an ominous orange. (Wheaton Village is a working museum in Millville, N.J.) Left alone, the "gather" would droop sloppily, so as Mr. Friel works, he gently rocks the rod back and forth, like a lacrosse player cradling a ball.

To give color to the glass, Mr. Friel dips it into a pan of colored glass chips, as though he were layering an ice cream cone with candy sprinkles. Then, when the green has been heated and has spread evenly, he blows into the rod -- it's not quite as hard as inflating a balloon, he says -- making a bubble within the glass.

Within minutes, he has opened the outer end of the bubble with metal tongs, while stretching and shaping the glass to craft -- miraculously, it seems -- a large, decorative bowl.

The distance from glass blob to bowl is a short one for Mr. Friel, a husky, mustachioed artisan who has been working such magic for 20 years.

"Glass, to me, has a wonderful memory. It's a very consistent material," he says.

Mr. Friel, 45, who manages Wheaton Village's glass factory and often presents demonstrations for visitors, started working with glass in college. Having lost a kidney in a bout with cancer, he found the work therapeutic. And magical.

"I had no idea that glass, as a liquid, could be used to do something creative," he says.

Today, he prefers the challenge of re-creating large urns and other "Roman-type things." Mr. Friel, who has made reproductions for the National Park Service and the state of New Jersey in recent years, tries to imagine how the ancients crafted an object, and then reinvents the process.

Now, after two decades of working with glass, he is learning to craft more delicate pieces. He says, "I'll be learning in it until the day I die."

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