When he left for college nine years ago, Tim McFadden had little clue as to his future — just a vague plan to study business, work in an office someday and eventually make enough money to raise a family.
Today, he stands below the most striking attraction of his first-ever art show — a multicolored, 200-pound chandelier that looks as elegant as a floral bouquet, as wild as a beast with a thousand arms — and contemplates how, at 26, he has become one of the few people in the United States, let alone greater Baltimore, who make their living blowing glass.
"To be honest with you," he says at a reception for the new exhibit at the Quiet Waters Gallery in Annapolis, "If I'd known how long it would take to get to the stage I'm at now, I might never have tried it at all."
The work above him carries a $10,000 price tag, the highest in a 35-piece show that includes colorful vases, swirling spiral platters and gleaming jellyfish jars, each molded in a 2,000-degree oven and crafted by hand at his shop a few miles north.
The squiggly arms and legs and orblike parts in the center are just some of the 133 parts he has hung, like a giant bunch of grapes, in a way that anchors the room.
Were the gallery space higher or longer, he'd have shaped the work differently — longer, skinnier, flatter. To survive in glass blowing, he says, you have to adapt.
Art or shards?
Born as early as 1500 B.C. among the Egyptians, glass blowing is as labor-intensive as any art form, so much so that it seems out of step with American life, circa 2010.
It takes more than talent to go professional — a good thing for McFadden, since he never thought he had any.
Growing up the son of two educators in Roland Park, and a lacrosse fanatic, he was so clueless about painting and drawing — "the two-dimensional arts," in his parlance — that it never crossed his mind he'd "end up an artsy kind of person."
That third dimension changed everything.
As a first-semester freshman at Salisbury University, McFadden needed an arts elective, and something about the lumpen, colorful pieces his brother Marty, a senior at the time, brought home from a glass-blowing class fired his imagination.
"Shape-wise and form-wise, it was gross," he says. "Nothing against him; it takes time to develop any skill. It just intrigued me that you could make stuff in this medium. I'd never seen it before."
McFadden talked his way into an upper-level course and got addicted to the process. As he spent more time in the campus "hot shop," building his studio time to 25 hours a week, he kept asking himself not "How do I do this for a living?" but, he says, "What do I have to do to keep doing this next week, next month, next semester? It was simple enjoyment of a challenging hobby."
Even now, he has trouble explaining the appeal. Part of it was the proximity of heat, which felt like an engine of creativity. Part was the fine motor skills required. A teacher could explain how to spin the flame-softened glass, lathelike, along the edge of a metal table ("marver"), contouring it with metal pincers ("jacks"), but only he could develop genuine touch and a mental connection to the material.
And part was a sense that the stakes were high. Like a ski-jumper pushing from the gate, a glassblower must continue once he starts a piece, since a misstep can shatter the whole. "It's either art or it's shards," says McFadden, adding that it's not uncommon, early on, to ruin nine pieces out of 10. "It's an adrenaline rush."
The early pieces were "crude, lopsided and lumpy," he says, but he kept waking up obsessed with improving coordination, focus and foresight. He got "less terrible" as the semesters passed and began "not to hate" the results: a jar that stood, a plate whose colors developed just right.
By the time he was ready to finish at Salisbury, McFadden says, a whole new question was thrumming in his head: "How can I keep doing this after I graduate?"
If the subtleties are complex, the rudiments of glass-blowing, as McFadden shows them at his hot shop on Eastern Avenue near Interstate 95, seem brutally simple.
Push a hollow metal rod into the center of a furnace heated to about 2,400 degrees. Rotate the pole to gather a glob of glass. Then, as the "gather" glows nearly white hot, reduce the heat in the furnace by about 400 degrees, letting it "fine out" (allowing bubbles to rise out of the material).
Then, moving the piece into the air, spin the pole, and the centrifugal force created widens the blob and thinning it in the process.
How it's shaped from there — blowing into the material through a pipe to "inflate" it, constricting it with jacks, dangling it in the cooling air — determines what it will end up being, functional piece or objet d'art.
McFadden can talk all day about the process, and sometimes does, but he can also boil it down. "In a year or two," he says, "you can make stuff. In five or 10, you can make stuff you like. After 10, you can make pretty much whatever you want."
That's for the glass, of course. A career can be even tougher to forge.
While still a college junior, McFadden came across a flier that advertised a contest. All an entrant had to do was work up a plan for a business.
The prize was eye-popping: "I'm a college student, and I see ‘$5,000.' I think, ‘how hard can it be?' " For the first time, he pondered how to go professional.
McFadden's thoughts turned toward opening a Baltimore studio. Only one such place — Corradetti Glassblowing Studio and Gallery in Clipper Mill — existed.
It's hard to count glass-blowers, since so many are part-timers or hobbyists, but Karen Skrindle of the Glass Art Society in Seattle, the nation's largest glass-artist collective, says her organization has 2,577 members.
Only 101 have hot-glass studios, and McFadden learned why. Start-up costs — for furnaces, cooling ("annealing") ovens, a specialized exhaust fan and more — would run about $75,000, and he'd have to gross $130,000 a year to survive.
As he crafted his plan over a course of two years, professors peppered him with questions: What if the city doesn't like the medium? What if your work doesn't sell? He wove in several possible income streams.
His plan won the Bernstein Achievement Award for Excellence in 2005, earned McFadden quarterfinal status in a Fortune Magazine Small Business competition and bagged him a $130,000 bank loan.
A year later, he bought an old service station in southeast Baltimore (along with the house next door), built a workshop and gallery, moved in and called the place McFadden Art Glass.
The artist has friends, he says, who blow glass, too, but who have to work as cabbies or waiters on the side.
He's not sure where he found the nerve to bet everything he had on his unexpected dream. Not long after he opened in the fall of 2006, he wondered whether it wasn't a nightmare.
He found his advertising plan — stapling notices to telephone poles around downtown — foiled by city officials who kept ripping them down. After a few months, he had sold nothing. Few visitors were even stopping by.
"For this first time," he says, "I started thinking, ‘Man, what if I really am the only one around here who finds this medium beautiful?' "
He was glad he'd worked up a business model. "I had plenty of Plan B's in place," says McFadden, who decided to "market the [glass-blowing] process" alongside his work.
He decided to contact local news outlets; four TV stations did features. When he offered classes, lessons and studio time, most filled within weeks. Field trippers could crowd the studio to watch him work, and so could the hipsters who came to Friday night "date nights." After 2008, they could swing over to The Glass Grill, an art-festooned restaurant next door.
He kept at the core of the thing. In 2007, he took classes at the Pilchuck Glass School near Seattle, an institute founded by Dale Chihuly, the world's most famed glass artist. Later that year, he won his first major commission, to design and create 35 pieces for a fundraising banquet.
McFadden has since sold $300 vases, $600 chalices and $2,500 chandeliers, and his work can be seen in bank lobbies, restaurant dining rooms and private foyers.
Psychology professor Niko Graff was looking for art to accentuate the bold look of his waterfront townhouse near Canton when he happened on McFadden's work in an Artscape display. He ordered up a chandelier.
"Friends come to visit, and their jaws drop," he says. "Tim hung and lit it beautifully. The piece is profoundly dramatic.
"I can't tell you how often people exclaim, ‘I can't believe you have a Chihuly!' But no. I'm the proud owner of a McFadden."
The smallest first
On a sun-splashed Sunday, more than 70 friends, fans and well-wishers stream through the main gallery at Quiet Waters, eyeing the one-of-a-kind pieces with varying degrees of astonishment.
"How do you do something like this?" several ask.
"I've always wanted to study glass-blowing," a MICA undergrad says.
A smiling McFadden directs her to a pile of glossy brochures.
After nine years at his craft, McFadden, now a part-time teacher at Baltimore City and County community colleges and Towson University, sees himself as a sort of advanced student. It will take another good decade or so before he feels anything like the mastery he saw among the grizzled glassmiths of Venice, Italy, during a visit years ago.
"They've been at it for 40 or 50 years, and it shows." After paying off his bank loan by May 2011, he plans to follow their example.
For now, a visitor stops at a piece near the window where a tall blue vessel contains a smaller version of itself — which in turn encases a still smaller one, suggesting infinite diminution.
"How'd you get those in there?" she asks.
Simple, McFadden says. He just made the smallest piece first and worked his way outward. "Once you decide what you're going to do," he says, "you just plan ahead."
If you go
"The Art of Glass Blowing: An Exhibition of Work by Tim McFadden"
9 a.m. to 4 p.m, Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through May 9.
The Willow Gallery, Visitors Center, Quiet Waters Park, 600 Quiet Waters Park Road, Annapolis
$6 per vehicle for entrance to the park
410-222-1777 or friendsofquietwaterspark.org.
McFadden Art Glass is at 6802 Eastern Ave. Information: 410-631-6039 or mcfaddenartglass.com