November 18, 2010
Playing with Fire
It’s glass blowing time at the Esque studio in the remote urban industrial back roads of Portland, Oregon. The music is turned on and cranked up. The glass is heated up to 2000 degrees, liquid heat that must be shaped in a matter of only a few minutes before it begins to set. The material is unforgiving. Blasting beats make a rhythm and the team gets to work. Andi Kovel and Justin Parker are tight taking turns holding the molten glow on the end of a steel rod while the other is shaping or blowing or setting or carving or sculpting the piece. Back and forth, into the fire, blasted sometimes with torches, cooled sometimes with water. Over and over again until a form emerges in exactly the way they want it. A 75-pound moose head. Skulls. A super hi-end ballooning vase. A bone with room inside for a string of lights. Dead birds.
Esque Design has turned the world of traditional glass blowing on its ear. Trained and versed in classic techniques, they easily produce elegant glasswork as well as any internationally acclaimed artist. In fact, they are internationally known. And, they do create work for upscale hotels and design stores, not to mention having produced glass pieces for such artist as Kiki Smith and Robert Rauschenberg. But, when they push the form in ways it never has been explored before, that’s when things get especially interesting.
Esque is all about functional design. Kovel’s training in conceptual art drives the team in unexpected directions. While Parker pushes the physical material and plays a lot with aspects like scale (giant vases), Kovel pushes the content. She’s interested in using traditional techniques in unexpected ways. Solid sculpted glass, for example, usually takes the form of realistic animals or cherub-like babies. She thought it’d be funny to make grumpy-looking anime teddy bear bookends. They wound up on the set of the TV show Ugly Betty. Her dead bird lamp called ‘Sleeping,’ originally produced for an art installation, is one of their best-selling pieces.
When Kovel was working as an artist and studying sculpture at the School of Visual Art in New York, she never dreamed she’d be blowing glass one day. She was just flipping through a course catalog and saw a glass class and thought it would be a cool vocabulary to add to the list of mediums she could work with. She took one class and fell in love. The physical demand and mental focus required puts her into a zone where nothing else exists but the glass.
Once she caught on fire. People were visiting the studio watching them blow. She was wearing huge heat-resistant gloves and a face shield and was about to put a piece they’d just finished into the kiln for slow cooling when her shirt went up in flames. She didn’t even notice. Parker yelled, “You’re on fire!” and ripped her shirt off while she kept walking and then he opened the kiln door so she could safely lay the piece in. Their guests were dumbstruck. “That type of thing,” she says, “happens all the time.” She will never drop something she’s working on. Her attitude: just deal with the fire, let me finish the piece.