Visual Arts » 3D

Glass Menagerie



Who knew Carmel had a gathering of glass artists creating custom pieces the likes of which Chihuly would be proud? From glassblowing and glass-fusing to day-to-day objects embellished with glass mosaic pieces, the Carmel Arts and Design District has its own glass trail. Recently we chatted with these five artists to learn more about their mad skills with molten materials.

Laura Avery

After walking into a glass store in Fort Wayne, Laura Avery decided to take a fused glass class with a friend for fun. It only took one class for her to fall in love with the art, and she continued to pursue it.

"Glass is amazing. It's an absolutely beautiful art," Avery said. "Sometimes you think you're going to start with one thing and the finished project is unbelievable because what you've done is totally different than what you thought you wanted to do."

Avery started Belle Lasi Glass Designs, where she creates custom-designed fused art glass for homes and businesses. While she has done business in Carmel since the beginning of her career, Avery moved to Indianapolis four years ago and works out of her garage.

"It's very rewarding to me to know that I've gotten this far," Avery said. "I would never have dreamed that just from taking a class, I would have been in beautiful custom homes and doing designs for them."

Avery cuts all of her own little sections of glass and strategically places them to form the design and pattern she wants. She then puts her creation into a kiln, which fuses them all into one solid piece. One of her recent projects involved cutting hundreds of glass circles to create glass pendant light fixtures for a kitchen in Carmel. Three hundred circles were required per 10-by-10 inch pendant. She then draped the fused pendants to create the shape.

by Laura Avery
  • by Laura Avery

"Custom orders are very difficult because what customers think [they want versus] when it's done, might not be exactly what they want," Avery said. "I always work as hard as I can, and I always keep redoing it until I get it right."

Avery makes sample pieces to show her customers in the beginning, to ensure she is on the right track. Afterward she transforms those into a special gift, such as a bowl or a vase, and then gives it to the customer.

"It's a whole extra bonus for them and a way to say thank you," Avery said.

She believes that her custom-made, one-of-a-kind work helps differentiate her from other local artists.

"There are very few [fused glass artists] in the area that do custom work," Avery said. "There are a lot of people who will make art pieces for home décor, but what I do, I've never seen done any place else."

Ben Johnson

When glassblowing artist Ben Johnson creates something that he doesn't like, or perhaps even hates, he keeps it.

"I will literally put it on a shelf," Johnson said. "I have to learn from it somehow. So I keep it around and I look at it. You never know when you're going to go, 'Ah ha!' and that's going to lead to the next thing."

Johnson began blowing glass by taking a class at the Indianapolis Art Center following his high school graduation. After deciding to pursue glass art specifically, he attended Kent State University and earned an undergraduate degree in crafts with a focus on glass.

Johnson's glassblowing career has taken him all over the country. One stop was North Carolina, where he started his own glassblowing business. His hot shop was located on a landfill and the methane gas powered all the glassblowing equipment. But that synergy wasn't to last, as Johnson moved back to Indiana and became the first Master of Fine Arts student to graduate from Ball State University's glass program. Even after all of his schooling and experience, Johnson still believes he has more to learn.

"I feel like there's always something new," he said. "There's something to learn or there's another way to express yourself with the material that you haven't done yet."

by Ben Johnson
  • by Ben Johnson

Johnson said his work differentiates from other blown glass artists through his cold-working techniques.

"There's a lot of texture and pattern in my work, and, especially in blown glass, that's not as typical because it's labor intensive. Whereas other people will go in the studio and knock it off, and it's just a shiny vase."

Johnson's pieces are anything but shiny vases.  After a piece has cooled, he creates a design using a sandblasting-resistant material. Then, he uses a sandblasting booth to blast away a layer of the glass, revealing the design, the texture and the layers of colors on the finished piece.

With all the work that goes into creating one blown glass piece, Johnson said the hardest part of what he does is putting his work out there for judgment. But this doesn't stop him. His newest collection is on display for his third annual glasswork exhibition at Carmel's ArtSplash Gallery.

"I never think I'm going to master it," Johnson said. "It's always going to challenge me, and it gets to the point where it is what it is, and that's what it is."

Nancy Keating

Seeing an old mirror in a garbage can just might make mosaic glass artist Nancy Keating cringe. Keating uses a mixture of fine art glass and mirrors to create what she likes to call "fun/fine art."

"I don't get too serious with my work," Keating said. "It doesn't have a deep meaning, other than the meaning of just trying to share joy with people."

Keating, an Indiana native and Indiana University graduate, became fascinated with glass after discovering the Kokomo Opalescent Glass Factory. After that, her work shifted from garden art and mixed media mosaics, using ceramics and other found objects, to fine art glass mosaics.

"There's nothing subtle about what I do," Keating said. "I love the vibrant colors and the textures, and I'm very much into reflection, so I use a lot of mirror (including colored mirror)."

Before starting a project, Keating does a rough sketch or sample board to determine the colors and patterns she'll use. This selection process takes into consideration the glass, as well as the grout. Keating custom tints the grout to make sure it perfectly accents the colors of the glass.

She also hand-cuts all of the glass and mirror pieces for her mosaics. Keating works with fine art glass from around the world and prefers recycled mirrors in her creations.

by Nancy Keating
  • by Nancy Keating

"If you're remodeling your home, don't throw away that mirror on the wall, because I have a use for it," she said.

Keating is known for using vintage objects, such as toasters from the '30s and '40s, as the bases of her pieces.

"The silhouettes are so beautiful," Keating said. "And it's a 'turn a trash to treasure' sort of thing."

Recently, Keating has worked with the sacred geometry of mandala art. She said she is particularly proud of a piece titled "Mandala Meditation." It is set on 26-inch diameter brass and includes four different types of glass and mirrors (including colored mirror).

"My pieces really reflect in light, kind of like prisms once the sun hits them," Keating said. "I guess that brings me a lot of joy -- looking at the color and the reflection. That's really why I do it. It makes me happy."

Pam Niccum

Having always been drawn to shiny objects -- especially anything made of glass-- Pam Niccum's penchant for such pieces became a career-changing passion for her almost a decade ago.

"For as long as I can remember, I've loved glass," Niccum explains. "I didn't care if it was blown glass or Depression glass plates or platters; I just always loved it."

She and her husband were traveling out West when they happened upon a gallery that featured beautiful displays of fused glass. "The gallery owner was kind enough to explain the process to me and my husband. Then my husband, Doug, turned to me and said, 'Well you can do that.'"

And thanks to those five little words of encouragement and the lure of that unique glass-shaping process, Niccum would soon launch a new career. At the time, she was a senior sales consultant hawking software to educational institutions across the country. Good thing. Little did she know at the time, but those same sales skills would come in handy at various art fairs and juried shows she would participate in with her own fused-glass art pieces.

by Pam Niccum
  • by Pam Niccum

After returning from that fateful trip, she was challenged to learn more about the art. But in 2004 there was no one in town who taught it. Not that that stopped her. Niccum went to Lansing, Michigan, to take a creative class on the topic. "I took the one class, and then over  the past nine years I've done a lot of experimentation on my own and have taken a couple of other advanced classes and read a lot of books about it."

She's not only taught herself the art, but she's mastered its most challenging aspects and continues to try new techniques -- everything from working with thicker materials to combining her own sheets of glass for extensive, large installations.

At the various art fairs in which she participates, Niccum sells out of her "always one-of-kind" signed and numbered functional pieces, such a serving bowls, platters and vases. But it's the large-scale pieces that keep her creativity flowing.

"Sculpture, for me, is so much harder and so much more fun; the challenge is just amazing," she says.

Niccum keeps both sides of her brain happy and active with her work, as she continues experimenting with the physics and chemistry of this art form.

Lisa Pelo

The split-second yes-or-no response is what Lisa Pelo loves about blown glass.

"I like telling the medium, 'Respond now,'" Pelo said. "And with my skill, I'm hoping I get the response that I want. But if not, it's done. I'm not a fusser."

Pelo was introduced to glassblowing when she took a class to build up credit hours at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. She continued taking courses and earned her bachelor's degree in fine arts, specializing in glass.

After graduation she stayed for a few years before moving to the Hoosier state. Pelo knew people in Indiana and decided to make Indianapolis her new home.

She took some time off from glassblowing after moving, because there were no studios in the area. She continually searched and finally found a newspaper article about the glass studio at the Indianapolis Art Center, where she started teaching.

by Lisa Pelo
  • by Lisa Pelo

Since then, Pelo has opened her own studio, called Hot Blown Glass, behind her rural home in Clayton. Her work mainly consists of custom blown glass pieces for clients, and they range from household furnishings, such as bathroom sinks and light fixtures, to decorations, like ornaments and vases.

"At this point in my career, there's little to no playtime," Pelo said. "So everything is about making something specific. It may not be the exact thing, and maybe I'll make a second one that I know I'm going to do better."

Pelo's studio is open to the public, so people can come and see how glass blowing works and check out her work. She also offers lessons.

"It's unlike other artistic mediums where you can come back, clean it up, erase it and do it again," Pelo said. "Glass, I feel, is much more challenging because you have to be quick and efficient and hold so many skills at one time."

Pelo has been developing her style for more than 10 years, making her glasswork distinct from other artists in the area.

"I use very brilliant and transparent colors, all with a particular shape," said Pelo.  "That's why I have clients that come to me -- for that shape and form."

For more information on the Carmel Arts and Design District, check out its website or stop in one of the Carmel galleries featuring the glass artists' work. Though, as Niccum reminds, some of their best pieces rest in private collections.


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