From intricate goblets to towering church windows, glass has been used to blend beauty with function since ancient times. But it's only in the last 50 years or so that the medium was used to create art solely for the sake of art.
Florida's Gulf Coast is becoming a hub for glass collections, with some in the business dubbing it the "Glass Coast."
It was about 90 degrees on a recent afternoon in downtown St. Petersburg, and inside the steel cage that houses the Morean Arts Center's Hot Shop and Glass Studio, it was positively sweltering.
Giant fans were cranked on high, heat waves emanated from furnaces that burned at over 2000 degrees. Artists Matthew Piepenbrok and Jeremiah Jacobs dripped with sweat as they performed a demonstration in front of a handful of visitors.
"Nobody woke up and said I want to be a glass blower in Florida, right?” Jacobs joked. “Because, man, it gets pretty hot.”
And yet, there they were. While Florida may not have the climate for glass blowing, it's become an ideal market for glass enthusiasts. Jacobs said he's had as many as 80 people in one session crowd around to watch him and his colleagues transform layers of molten glass into colorful works of art.
From Tarpon Springs all the way south to Naples, Florida's Gulf Coast is packed with glass art.
Sarasota has more than 200 collectors in two zip codes. The city is also home to the Basch Gallery at Ringling College of Art and Design and the new Kotler-Coville Glass Pavilion at the Ringling Museum.
In St. Petersburg, you can find glass in shops and galleries along Central Avenue downtown, and even more in the neighboring Warehouse Arts District at places like Zen Glass Studio and the Duncan McClellan Gallery.
McClellan gets a lot of credit from locals for helping put Tampa Bay on the map as a glass destination. He learned to blow glass in Tampa's Ybor City back in the 1980’s, and eventually moved across the bay to convert an abandoned tomato packing plant into a gallery in 2010, where he still works.
Jeremiah Jacobs, a former clay artist, once lived next door to McClellan, who helped train him in glass for an unusual exchange.
“I had the opportunity to start weeding the garden at Duncan's,” he said.” “For every four hours that I'd weed the garden I'd get one hour in the hot shop.”
Jacobs may credit McClellan for getting him started in glass, but in a way, he has another artist to thank for his current job: Seattle-based Dale Chihuly.
That's because the Morean Hot Shop wouldn't be here without him. The Morean Arts Center decided to bring a permanent Chihuly collection to St. Pete in 2010.
Now situated in its new building across the street from the hot shop, the Chihuly Collection boasts icicle-like chandeliers, colorful orbs that appear to be floating on water and a garden of glass flowers and reeds.
Executive Director Andy Schlauch said it was Chihuly who suggested they provide live demonstrations to accompany his art.
“When you're walking around the collection you're seeing all of this work and wondering, ‘How does he do this, how is this made?’” he said. “And by having the hot shop included in ticketed entry people get a fuller picture.”
The latest arrival to the region's glass scene is the Imagine Museum which opened blocks from the Chihuly Collection in January.
The museum was founded by philanthropist and local glass artist Trish Duggan. It features over 500 works by 55 artists in the American studio glass movement, which began in 1962 in Toledo, Ohio.
Sometimes as you walk past matted sculptures that appear to be made of stone and globes filled with miniature flowers that almost look real, it's hard to remember that it's glass.
Deputy Director Jane Buckman said the museum shows people glass art isn't just vases and bowls.
“There are many artists from around the world that are working in this medium and making beautiful expression with that glass,” she said.
Back at the Morean Hot Shop, glass blower Matthew Piepenbrok said the medium is like a drug to those who are passionate about it.
“Glass is about as addictive as heroin and as expensive,” he said.
Piepenbrok said glass work can sometimes sell for tens, even hundreds of thousands of dollars, which wealthy Tampa Bay and Sarasota residents are willing to pay for to get their fix.
"The average Joe down the road can't just be like, “I'm going to be a glass collector!’” he said.
Or even a glass artist, as Chihuly Collection Director Andy Schlauch pointed out.
“It can be very pricey,” he said. “When you take into account that you're working with furnaces, plus the crucible for the clear glass, plus all the color that you're using, plus the annealers and the electricity – you're getting a lot of dollars.”
Whereas with a medium like painting, anyone can pick up a brush and take a stab at creativity, glass definitely has more of a "don't try this at home" feel. Jeremiah Jacobs said that's part of what makes the material so appealing.
“Just the way it’s dripping off the end of the rod, glowing and making its own light – that's really the star of the show over here,” he said.
Jacobs said most people who watch his demonstrations are less concerned about the final product and more about watching the color and shape of that molten glass transform. That's why Andy Schlauch tells visitors at the Chihuly Collection, "You don't see glass, you experience it."