Just over the hill from the Virtu Gallery sits the glass blowing shop, where Alex Brand, James Woodson and Max Clair use their hands and their knowledge to create the pieces that guests purchase to put on display in their homes.
Recently, I had the opportunity to explore the glass blowing shop to find out a little more about what Brand and his team are doing inside the mysterious green building.
First, a little background. Virtu Gallery has been displaying fine art at The Greenbrier since 2009, and in 2013 the husband and wife team of Brand and Susan Thomas decided to add the hot glass shop. It quickly became an overwhelming success.
Brand and his team built their own glass ovens and now have a setup that’s perfect for creating some of the most beautiful pieces of glass you will find anywhere. Brand’s experience is second to none, having been crafting glass art for more than 40 years. He received his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, and he has shown his work at various museums, including the Corning Museum of Glass and the Smithsonian.
Brand, though, isn’t the only talented artisan inside the studio. Woodson began a three-year lampworking and glass blowing apprenticeship at Blackwater Glassworks in Charleston, W.Va., in 2004, and in 2007 he received a work-study scholarship to Penland School of Crafts in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Woodson worked at Blenko Glass Company from 2007 until 2010, and in 2013 he became part of Brand’s team at The Greenbrier.
The other member of the team, Clair, has been working with hot glass since he was 12 years old, first being introduced through flameworking courses in his hometown of Rochester, N.Y. He received a summer apprenticeship with brand and has been part of the team since.
Now, onto my experience watching these artists at work.
Since I arrived in early October to take in the process, it only made sense that the team was working on a pumpkin, and the progression of turning sand into a beautiful orange squash was amazing to witness.
The team began by pulling some liquid glass from a handmade hot furnace, dipping it in color and starting a bubble on the end of a blowpipe. After a couple of trips back to the furnace for more glass, and forming the shape with a block, Brand, the lead on this particular project, dipped the hot glass into a form that helped provide the ridges that gave the pumpkin its unique design.
Then, it was back into some more color, getting a dip of green that helped give the ridges a little more definition. When the color was applied, it was back to the blowpipe, as Woodson blew into a mouthpiece until the pumpkin had the shape they desired.
The next step was to switch pipes, allowing the team to focus on the bottom side of the pumpkin. Brand and Woodson carefully transferred the work of art from one pipe to another, and then brand used a coned-shaped tool to give the pumpkin the desired shape on the bottom.
The pumpkin was complete, but it still needed a stem.
That process began with a new piece of hot glass that was applied to the top of the pumpkin, stretched and then wrapped around a rod to form a spiral shaped vine extending from the stem. Then Woodson attached another piece of glass, which Brand skillfully crafted into a leaf to give the pumpkin its final touch.
With that, the pumpkin was removed from the pipe and carefully placed into a kiln, where it was slowly cooled in a process that removed any stress points that may have formed in the glass.
Amazed at what I had just witnessed, I was floored when Brand asked me to play a role in their next pumpkin. I was taught how to use a block to help smooth the glass into a spherical shape when it was first removed from the oven, and I got the chance to blow the air into the second pumpkin until Brand was satisfied with its shape.
It was an experience I won’t soon forget, and it’s one that you can have, as well.
Virtu is a short walk or shuttle ride from the North Entrance of The Greenbrier, and each Monday through Thursday from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m., guests are welcome to stop by and watch the team at work from comfortable benches assembled to make the viewing experience more enjoyable.
Glassblowing demos, with step-by-step explanations of the process, are given Monday through Thursday at 11 a.m., and Clair provides hands-on lessons Friday through Sunday from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. You can even make a mini version of a pumpkin to take home to add to your holiday decorations.
If you’re looking for the bigger version made by the professionals — or any other piece of glass art — stop by the studio, which is open daily from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m.
For more information or to sign up for a lesson, visit www.virtuatthegreenbrier.com
. It’s an experience you’ll be sharing with your friends and family for years to come.