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Glass blowing goes public at Third Degree

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 19, 2008 - Blown glass had its infancy in the East near modern day Syria, Palestine and Egypt during the 1st century, B.C. Colored and blown glass became an industry throughout Italy before its techniques and applications expanded further into Europe.

Fortunately for citizens of St. Louis - and perhaps sadly for the art form - we have the only public-access glass education center in a 300-mile radius. The Third Degree Glass Factory, 5200 Delmar Boulevard, was founded in 2002 by Jim McKelvey and Doug Auer.

"We had lunch in the Loop one day and then drove down Delmar looking for for-sale signs," Auer said. "We found a few buildings, and this was one of them. We walked in and immediately knew there was a lot of potential."

Still considered a "work in progress," this former automobile dealership and hydroponics bean sprout growing facility has six years of major restoration under its belt.

The renovated 8,000-square-foot brick structure has become a destination and a committed player in the neighborhood. Moreover, the business is helping preserve the art form by exposing the community to accessible and affordable art.

On a cold winter day with a steady rain, the heat is a welcome attraction. Immediately, I was taken by the size of the building.

At one end, you have the "hot shop" or the furnaces used for creating glasswork. Here artists craft new work. This is also where demonstrations and teaching take place.

By blowing air through a long hollow tube, molten liquid with the consistency of honey is expanded, manipulated, stabilized and reheated. This active process generally gives artists a 30-second window to shape and design their piece before restarting the process. Although finished glass looks heavily labored, most blown glass is completed in about an hour.

Much of the glasswork is crafted by at least two people. There's a science to crafting 1500 degree glass and it's far more productive and easier to expand and stabilize a piece of glass as a team, respectfully.

On the other end of the facility, you find a vast open gallery. This area serves a number of purposes. During my visit, the gallery displayed a small fashion exhibit along its far wall. As you enter, glasswork that is produced in house is displayed. Resident artists, students and semi professionals are there daily to present and sell their work.

As I shook out the cold, several shoppers strolled between the glass displays looking for new pieces to catch their eye. The work ranges from paperweights and ashtrays to large sophisticated pieces of colorful shaped glass. Much of this work is functional and unique glass. None of it is mass-produced or made by machine.

Once considered an art form enjoyed primarily by royalty and the elite class of society, glass blowing is now accessible to all walks of life. At least it is here in St. Louis. As with other art forms, Third Degree has had to attack promotion in creative ways with outreach and education mixed with programs that entertain.

The factory uses a monthly open house: "Third Friday." On the third Friday of each month between 6 and 10 p.m., the studio welcomes the community and its families to free glass-blowing demonstrations, live local music and art previews. So far, hundreds of people have converged to shop the gallery and learn more about glass blowing, kiln work and flame working.

Although the patrons have changed over the centuries, the noble quality of blown glass remains. And the techniques are similar to the ones employed all those centuries ago. The tools even have a "medieval" look.

One notable change is the evolution from wood fire to coal to natural gas. Understanding the necessity of sustaining natural resources, Auer has a goal of streamlining the efficiency of Third Degree's ovens. "We're going to engineer our own system. By next year I wouldn't be surprised if we're heating the majority of this building with heat that would now literally be vented out."

Christian Cudnik is an Emmy winning producer.