April Wagner's epiphany studios a glass act

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Artist April Wagner, who has been creating art out of glass for more than 20 years, says she's often asked if glass blowers need strong lungs for their craft. What they really need, she says, is a strong back.

During a visit to her 4,000 square foot Pontiac studio, epiphany studios, earlier this month, you can see why. Lifting a four-foot blowpipe, Wagner gathered liquid glass at the end and began to shape it. She moved back and forth between a work bench with her hand tools and 2,400-degree re-heating chamber.

"You have to work with it as quickly as possible because it's cooling off," says Wagner, using large metal tweezers to pull the taffy-like mound into leaves.

Wagner's work has appeared in homes, hospitals and businesses all over the country. She makes everything from custom-made 550-piece chandeliers to sculptures. Working with glass is like having a dialogue with it, says Wagner, a Muskegon native who graduated from Detroit's College for Creative Studies.

"I love glass material," she says. "I love the fact that it's a liquid and I want to capture it in that liquid state. You see a lot of glass that's really worked into forms and for me that's not as interesting as giving it a little freedom."

In early December, visitors to Wagner's studio can see that freedom on display. Epiphany will opens its door for the studio's annual holiday open house. There will be glass blowing demonstrations and everything from $200 sculptures for sale to beautiful handblown glass holiday ornaments, wine bottle holders, and decanters (see box for more details).

Many pieces are made by Wagner, others are from epiphany's studio e line are by her assistant, Ally Gurss. Unlike some art forms, Wagner says glass blowing isn't a solitary pursuit. It often requires collaboration.

"It's really like a dance, the two of us working together," says Wagner, of working with Gurss.

I stopped by Wagner's epiphany studios last week to watch her in action, chat about her profession, and discuss some of the commissions she creates for everything from private homes to hospitals (she recently completed a beautiful 550-piece chandelier for the Inn at Harbor Shores on the state's west side). Wagner, whose custom light fixtures start at around $5,000, had just returned from San Diego, where she'd been promoting the new PBS show, "Craftsman's Legacy," on which she recently appeared.

"There were people there who saw me and said, 'Oh, you're the glass blower!' And I thought, 'How'd they know that?' I forgot about the show," she says.

The truth is Wagner's first love as an artist was actually ceramics. Unable to fit a ceramics class into her schedule during her sophomore year of college, she decided to take a glass-blowing class. She was hooked.

"I just knew," Wagner says. "It was like something hit me. I thought, 'This is fabulous.' It's hot, it's very responsive, it's very immediate. I love the interaction — the social interaction. The whole idea of the artist alone in her studio is not the glass blower. The glass blower has a lot of communication skills that they need to use to create what they do."

Glass starts with raw materials — silica sand, soda ash and lime — which melt down in a 2,000-degree, 800-pound capacity furnace. The furnace runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

"A lot of the cost of glass is the cost of running that furnace," Wagner says. "It takes a week to shut off and a week to come back to temperature. So I probably haven't shut it off in three years. For example, when I was in San Diego, it was here running."

Once the glass melts, there's a six-week window in which it has to be used. If it cooks too long, it starts to corrode, Wagner says.

"Some studios use recycled glass, which will give you a lot of impurities," says Wagner, who uses only first-use glass. She says some retailers use third- or fourth-use glass, "which is why it looks all bubbly and not quite sparkly and it's not very even. Every time you re-melt, you're burning out the properties that make it clear and elastic."

After gathering the liquid glass on the punty rod, Wagner uses hand tools such as massive tweezers to stretch and manipulate the glass until it cools and needs to be warmed again in the reheating chamber, or glory hole. Wagner's studio has two reheating chambers — a smaller one and then a large one for working on much big pieces like the chandelier for the Inn at Harbor Shores in St. Joseph.

Working with residential clients, Wagner says communication again is key. She'll talk with clients about what their goals are, how they want a piece to function in their decor, who is going to see it, and how it'll function in the space. She tries to take her art and her clients' idea and marry the two.

Chris Brochert of Bloomfield Hills commissioned Wagner three years ago to create a sculpture for his dining room after seeing her work at the Townsend Hotel in Birmingham. Brochert gave her no restrictions or guidelines other than telling her the colors he wanted — yellow, red and blue. She created something that looks like an abstract dragon.

"I was blown away," Brochert says. "I didn't know what it was going to look like. I just told her basics. It took a couple of months to create, but it's just great ... she's extremely talented."

Wagner says it's all about collaboration: "A lot of artists will approach it as 'Here's my vision, I made this and you put it in your home.' My work is much more collaborative than that and site specific and it's relevant to the viewer. If the end viewer is happy looking at that and I'm happy looking at that, then I think it's a successful piece."

Function also is incredibly important, especially for light fixtures.

"When you go into a dining room, you really want to make sure if there are not other areas of light, you really want to make sure you're adding enough actual light so that the light functions," Wagner says. "Oftentimes, I'll have a down light specifically for when you're dining and then lighting to light the artwork so when you're not dining and you want the artwork to show off, you have some exterior source of light for it."

When it comes to inspiration, Wagner, who loves gardening, is often drawn to shapes and figures found in nature. She has flower sculptures and others that look like birds. And while she usually goes into each piece with an idea of what she wants to create, the glass may have other ideas.

"Then I have to think well, am I asking it to do something that's impossible? Or is there another way I need to approach it? All the time I'm learning something new," Wagner says.

And in the end, that lack of control over glass is what she finds really interesting about it in the first place.

"There's nothing boring about it. At all. No," Wagner says. "The second you start to think you're in control, it falls on the floor or it breaks."

(313) 223-4686

epiphany glass Holiday Show & Sale

April Wagner is opening epiphany glass to the public Dec. 6-7 from noon-6 p.m for the studio's annual Holiday Show. There will be glass-blowing demonstrations and gifts for sale, including paperweights, wine bottle holders and small sculptures. There also will be beautiful handblown glass holiday ornaments for sale. If you can't make the holiday show, the studio also is open to the public Dec. 13 and 20th from noon-4 p.m. It's at 770 Orchard Lake Road in Pontiac. Call (248) 745-3786.