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Glass art materializes across Arizona

Raven Copeland stared at the flames of his torch through his protective glasses. He maneuvered his tools strategically to construct the multicolored oval shape and color coordination of the glass that he desired.

The piece materialized into a glass sculpture of three small gold pillars, stabilized by a half-moon platform. The pillars held up a majestic glass ball coated with an array of green, yellow, purple and black.

The piece, which Copeland dubbed “Transpicuous Position,” took first place in Tucson’s annual “Flame-Off” competition that features the best glass artists around the country.

The art of glass-blowing emerged as a popular art form in southern Arizona since in the early 1970s. It began behind the craft of Tom Philabaum, who is widely regarded as the pioneer of the glass-blowing movement in southern Arizona.

Philabaum first became introduced to glass in a ceramics college course. His professor told him his ideas were too fluid for clay, and recommended he dabble with glass.

He was a discipline of Harvey Littleton, a ceramics professor at the University of Wisconsin, who launched the first glass program in 1962. Philabaum credited Littleton for making it possible for glass-blowing to be done individually.

“Prior to 1962, teams of people would blow glass in factory settings,” Philabaum said. “Harvey (Littleton) was the first to introduce a way to blow-glass individually by themselves in a hot shop.”

Glass-blowing was nonexistent when Philabaum moved to Tucson from the Midwest. He decided to build a studio on Sixth Avenue called “Philabaum Glass” and has been cranking out glass art ever since.

Dave Klein, Philabaum’s current business partner, who also played a significant role in glass-blowing in southern Arizona, said Philabaum paved the way for glass art in Arizona.

“When we first got started, there wasn’t any manual on how to make glass art,” Klein said. “Tom was the first guy in Tucson who knew how to blow glass.

“Glass artists from all over came here because of him.”

Billy Morris and Dale Chihuly moved to Tucson to learn under Philabaum. The two went on to create the glass art movement in Seattle.

In 2001, a significant moment in the history of glass art in southern Arizona came when Philabaum and Klein founded the Sonoran Glass Academy, an art institute in Tucson that offers courses on the different methods of glass-blowing.

The idea sprang after attending a workshop in Japan at the Japan Class Art Society. The two thought Tucson was ideal for blowing glass as winter provided the perfect weather for the act.

“Education is the primary purpose, teaching how to manipulate the material,” Klein said. “The next is to provide facilities which can be quite expensive to set up a shop.”

There’s three main studios for each way to produce glass. The first is for furnace work, the second for torch work and the third for fusion work that typically deals with hot-fusing of mosaics and glue. Furnace and torch work both have a steep learning curve, and require at least five years of experience to get a grip on the dexterity. Fusion work is not as difficult because the material is not moving and thus requires less control.

According to Philabaum, the traditional way to blow glass is with the blow pipe, but new methodologies and scientific explorations are being discovered. Also, major glass exhibitions and conferences help contribute to the findings of new developments in the glass-blowing industry.

Sixteen years ago, Philabaum founded the “Flame-Off” competition at the Tucson Gem Show. This year’s “Flame-Off” was held on Feb. 3 and showcased 18 of the best glass artists around the country. Each participant had 90 minutes to create a piece in front of a live audience. The pieces were judged the following day.

James Lynch’s piece, “The Trinity Goblet,” took second place. The creation was a two-piece teal goblet with three multi-colored black-horned bulls.

Third place went to Matt Bain for his “Enshrined Nephilim Crystal Skull” creation. The crystal piece was a large, Day-of-the-Dead-looking skull, stained with an array of blue, purple, green and clear glass.

The idea came to Philabaum when he served as the co-chairman of the Glass Art Society and proposed it to shed light on talented glass artists around the country. The event initially was held at Philabaum’s studio, but eventually moved to the Sonoran Glass Academy.

“I’m not surprised with how big it got here and around the world,” Philabaum said. “Other people copied the event in other places such as Canada for example.”

The appeal of glass art is growing in Arizona and across the nation, thanks in large part to the efforts of Philabaum and Klein.

“Five years ago it was not this popular,” Klein said. “It’s experiencing a resurgence. The other day I saw a completely new technique for fusion work. The future is bright for glass and is on its way up nationwide.”