Dazzle of Light: John Phillips’ new Fire and Light Glass Studio and Gallery in Otto offers artwork, classes and glass art supplies

By Michael Beadle

There’s a dance of light in a work of glass. Move around the piece and it changes color as if it were alive.

To veteran glass artist John Phillips, that’s the beauty of the art form — its transitory beauty, the way different hues shift as you view it from different angles.

Phillips recently opened his Fire and Light Glass Studio and Gallery in the Otto community along U.S. 441 near the North Carolina/Georgia state line. In a pair of barn buildings set back from the highway, he shares three decades of experience as a glass artist, offering adult classes and selling glass supplies and tools for new and experienced artists. His exquisite collection of stained glass windows, decorative plates and vases, and dichroic glass jewelry reflects the talents of a fine craftsman who has learned to manipulate glass into a myriad of shapes and images.

Far from being static and delicate, glass is actually quite malleable, Phillips will explain. Given the right temperatures and tools, an artist can bend and stretch glass to fuse together in sheets or beads, slump it over cast molds, or carve it into geometric designs that reflect the full spectrum of light and imagination.

“You can create just about anything in glass,” Phillips said. “There’s endless possibilities.”

In his workshop building behind the gallery, dozens of his glass pendants are laid out on the side of a long wooden work table in preparation for the Decatur Arts Festival on Memorial Day weekend.

Melting glass rods on a torch at about 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit, the glass softens into liquid eyedrop shapes. Dotting or tapping the back of the newly formed pendant, the glass implodes from within to reveal what looks like tiny, colorful sea anemone, mini explosions of glass trapped inside the bubble of transparent glass.

After Phillips is satisfied with the shape of the pendant, it’s slowly cooled in an annealing process for about four hours, allowing the glass to harden back into a solid form. Inside a kiln, it will “cool down” to 1,085 degrees Fahrenheit. When it’s cool enough for human hands, the glass is then wired and fitted with a string.

Sometimes Phillips might feel like an alchemist, searching for just the right temperature and technique to yield the perfect treasure. He might work all day long on a project or rise at 4 a.m. to start on a piece. Thanks to metal halide lamps installed in his workshop, he has what he calls “the cleanest, whitest light” to work under, which allows him to see the truest hues possible.

Behind his worktable are scores of glass plates arranged not according to color but by the process in which they were made — by machine, handmade or mouth blown. It’s his palate of colors for a canvas that finds is true shape under the pressure of fire.

Of course, every piece isn’t going to turn out like you planned. Phillips recalled “a screw-up” piece that was originally supposed to be a wall hanging. But then bubbles imploded on it and after four kiln firings, he noticed the shape of two babies in the glass. He called the piece “Twins.”

Though Phillips has built hundreds of stained glass windows for Princess luxury cruise ships, a church in Santo Domingo, a casino in Tunica, Miss., and the home of Grammy Award-winning singer Toni Braxton, you won’t find his work in area galleries. He’s reached the point in his career where he’d rather share his knowledge of glass art than sell artwork on consignment.

“I just want to do the art that I want to do,” he said, happy to offer over-the-counter advice or share his latest projects.

Born and raised in Duluth, Ga., Phillips first got involved in glass art as he was trying to find items to decorate his first home. He signed up for a class on making stained glass and never looked back. Pretty soon he was teaching others about the art form and selling stained glass creations to friends and adding on clients.

“It kept growing and growing and growing,” Phillips recalled.

When folks ask him why his gallery isn’t closer to the highway, he insists he likes his location. It’s a quiet space and just down the hill from his home.

But customers still seek him out from all over the country — from Florida and New York to Texas and Colorado.

With all his glass projects, there’s not much time for vacations.

“I don’t have vacation time,” he says. “Weekends are just another day of the week.”

If he does find some free time, he’ll travel somewhere to take another art course. He has nothing against the college fine arts programs. He never sought a college degree in glass art — there’s only one program that he knows of and that’s at Ohio State University. Instead, he gathered expertise through a number of courses throughout the U.S. — Los Angeles; Corning, N.Y. (where he studied with Austrian glass master Rudy Gritsch, a pioneer in kiln-formed glass); and Bullseye Glass Company in Portland, Ore.

What started with stained glass eventually became a fascination in all things glass — cutting it, slumping (or bending) it into vases and bowls, layering and melting strips and sheets together, crafting jewelry and (his latest craze, thanks to a recent class at Touch of Glass in Asheville) glass beading.

Phillips moved to Otto two years ago but officially opened his new studio and gallery in February. Having vacationed in Western North Carolina, he found just the kind of small town atmosphere that reminded him of childhood, where everybody knows everybody. But unlike Duluth, annual property taxes weren’t shooting up from $400 to $9,000 in two years.

A member of the Atlanta Glass Art Guild, Phillips has demonstrated and showcased his work at regional festivals and is in the process of applying to the Southern Highlands Craft Guild and getting connected with HandMade in America.

He offers weekend classes and six-week courses in everything from advanced glass fusing to sandblasting to stained glass making. If he gets enough students together, he’d also like to start up a class on bead making.

For beginners, Phillips recommends learning the basics in glass cutting and how to handle glass — for example how to apply the necessary two to five pounds of pressure in order to break glass after scoring it.

As for advice on making art a career, he says, “If you don’t love what you do, then don’t go into business.”

Keep up with deadlines. Take lots of notes. Follow up on phone calls. And keep learning. Keep trying out new techniques.

“A lot of it is trial and error,” he said of his students’ work.

But in an art form like glass, no piece ever turns out the same even if you use the very same process.

Like those finely crafted stained glass windows of Tiffany or LaFarge, the ones with Old World appeal. Light would scatter upon that glass like some kind of dream.

“It caught fire,” Phillips says, losing himself in the reverie of glass.

For more information about Fire and Light Glass Studio, call 828.349.4505. The studio and gallery is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

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