The art of glassmaking

John Shirley, Jr.

Students take a “torch class” at Lake Superior Art Glass.

Doesn’t it seem like people are more stressed these days?

COVID-19 and the last couple years of politics have left lots of people of all backgrounds not feeling quite as sane as they once did. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) says during the first year of COVID-19 worldwide depression and anxiety increased by 25%.

Not that it is the cure-all or anything, but Duluth’s Canal Park is a good place to improve your mood. The vastness of the lake, sky and ships make your problems feel at least a little smaller.

While in Canal Park, you might suddenly find yourself in an artistic mood even if you aren’t much of an artist. This is good because studies, like those from Harvard Health Online, have indicated art is good for improving mental health. It turns out at Canal Park you can also “clear” your head by taking a class at Lake Superior Art Glass.

Actually that “clear” analogy doesn’t quite work because students and the more than 60 artists who contribute to works in the gallery make a lot more than just clear-glass items. Let me adjust my bad puns and instead say: “During these partially opaque times take lessons at Lake Superior Art Glass to help color your perceptions.”

“You can come off the street with no experience and we can teach you the basics of glass blowing,” General Manager Amber Nichols said. “We have classes in our hot shop, which are our basic furnace glass-blowing classes that most people think of when they think of glass art. We also have what is called ‘torch work.’”

Like I mentioned during my recent story about scuba lessons taught at Lake Superior Divers School and Supply, learning how to do something fun is one of the better ways to spend your money.

In a way, learning to do something new can add to who you are. Learning to make wonders with your hands also gives a great feeling of accomplishment.

By the way, there are a fair number of other places in the Twin-Ports where you can take art lessons and (spoiler alert) I will talk about some of them in future articles. Amber mentions how there aren’t that many shops, throughout the country, where the novice can explore glass blowing at this level.

“In some places with bigger glass-blowing communities you will find classes, but we are pretty unique in the country,” Amber said. “We offer classes and we also do the gallery and production work and we even have wholesale stuff. So having that all under one roof is pretty unique.”

Also unique is the story of Lake Superior Art Glass. Owner Dan Neff’s grandfather was a stonemason and taught him the joys of being a craftsman and creating great works that take lots of skill.

Through the shop, which just celebrated its 10th anniversary, he is able to showcase his skills, showcase other artists and teach students and the public some of his knowledge.

“The ability to educate the public and the tourists who come in is one of our core missions,” Amber said. “We want to make sure that everyone understands how glass works. There are so many different techniques. So we would just like to educate everyone about it.”

The beginner classes start at $59 a person during the weekdays during the off seasons and $69 during weekends and the busy season. They also have group rates for team building activities or even bachelor parties. Obviously, the bachelor party classes should happen before the heavy drinking starts. Booze and heat don’t usually mix well. They do however have classes where you get to make a unique decorative wine goblet stem which the staff then assembles to the rest of the goblet. After making the stem, over-21 students do get to enjoy wine from a similar goblet.

Even if you just come down for a visit, you can enjoy the demonstrations and learn a lot.

“Especially in our hot shop, we have it open to the public,” said Amber. “In the summer we’ll actually have a garage door that opens up all the way and people can watch from the street and engage with our glass blowers if they aren’t teaching a class. We will teach them a little bit about what we are doing or what we are working on.”

Canal Park public watches the glassmaker work wonders. (Photos used by permission from Lake Superior Art Glass.)