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Third Degree Glass Factory gets ready to celebrate 10 years

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 28, 2012 - “Glass blowing had always been a secretive art,” mused Doug Auer, glass artist and co-founder of Third Degree Glass Factory as he showed me around the sprawling space last Friday. “But not here ...” he said, gesturing to the huge area behind a transparent glass wall where two ovens radiated a harsh light and an attentive audience experienced a demonstration, well-guided with an easy-to-follow commentary on the process.

This particular art form has an intriguing history – the most famous chapter of which is the sequestering of all Venetian glass blowers on the island of Murano during the Middle Ages. Explanations range from fire prevention to the Venetian Republic maintaining a monopoly on the industry; but, whatever the reason, both the ritual and the result still captivate today.

Every third Friday of the month, Third Degree opens its doors and encourages the public to “play with fire”; revealing the secrets behind the art of glass blowing through free demonstrations and family-friendly mini classes where young and old can create their own piece ($25-$35). This particular Friday had an autumnal focus, featuring a glass Pumpkin Patch and a candied apple sampling bar. The trio Bunnygrunt provided background tunes while fire spinners danced with flames in the courtyard.

Third Degree is truly set up to be a place of fusion for the senses: glowing heat from the ovens and the fire spinners; music; the distinctive (and not wholly pleasant) smell of the glass blowing craft; gorgeous colors and textures in both the art and the tools used to make it; and as for taste, delicious small plates and a variety of drink are both for sale.

After a tour of the classrooms and exhibit hall where artists who rent time at Third Degree display their work for sale, I sat in on a demonstration and watched the artist manipulate a glowing, liquid blob – originally a mixture of unimpressive materials – that would eventually be formed into a thing of beauty, made for light to shine through and on.

The three main elements of glass blowing seemed to be intense heat, the careful use of gravity and constant motion and, most importantly, a vigilance that comes from the desire to create something both lovely and fragile. This vigilance is also imperative to avoiding severe burns.

When I asked Auer about the “seared flesh” quotient, he assured me that experienced glass blowers follow a well-traveled path and compared the process to a dance with very specific steps and timing.  With this confidence in the process and the artists who craft their pieces there, Third Degree is about to celebrate its 10th anniversary on its next third Friday.

The “blow out” will happen Oct. 19. When I asked Auer what they had planned, he rubbed his hands together with anticipation and said that the central force of fire would be taken to the next degree. A flaming “10” in the outer courtyard will greet visitors, and the fire spinners will perform their version of “Thriller.” Inside a competition called the Pumpkin Death Match will result in the gruesome demise of one unlucky glass pumpkin.

When asked if the present form of Third Degree reflected the original vision, Doug laughed and started to shake his head. Then he stopped himself and looked around the vibrant, colorful space filled with engaged, captivated people and grinned.

“Actually, yeah. I wanted a place to blow glass and throw parties. And here it is.”