Note: This piece was republished from Mirage Magazine at West Virginia University. Without that incredible student publication, YNST Magazine would not exist.
THE BEAUTY OF ARTISAN GLASS IS OFTEN RESERVED FOR ANTIQUITY. Its life is preserved in museums, family heirlooms, pricey eBay resells and cathedral windows. Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century, West Virginia saw over 400 glass factories come and go. Competition in the form of early automated industrialization offered a fast, cheap alternative to the handcrafted process, leaving traditional factories with no choice but to permanently close up shop. What was once a thriving scene in Appalachia, has since flickered out and left only remnants of its former industrial glory.
As glass came from Europe to colonial America in the 1500s, early demand included common wares such as windowpanes and cooking vessels. With technological advances in the mid- 19th century, colored glass production became more accessible, leading to a wider desire for artisan goods. Colored glass was a new affordable luxury that many valued as a medium of self-expression to decorate the home space. As production grew, ornate glassware became a staple of home decor in the United States.
Blown glass is produced when silica sand, lime, soda ash and feldspar are combined and subjected to extreme temperatures. The mixture creates a molten liquid that can then be molded, pressed or hand-blown into unique shapes. Glassmaking took off in West Virginia due to the natural abundance of silica sand in the region. Just 50 years ago, West Virginia was producing approximately 85% of handmade glass in the nation.
But in recent years, the medium has regained traction and popularity as an art form. Many modern glass collectors enjoy the functional purpose of hand-blown objects. Plus, the popularization of custom pipes and decorative smoking paraphernalia has expanded the market to a wider demographic of collectors.
Hot shops (the term used for modern glass-blowing studios) are constantly looking for new ways to introduce young people to the art of glassblowing and collecting. Whether it be by hiring young apprentices or collaborating with established artists, the glass community has entered a wave of resurgence through experimentation.
Blenko Glass Company, a family-owned factory located in Milton, West Virginia, has explored new ways to reach younger audiences. In the spring of 2020, the company enlisted the help of WV native illustrator, designer and small business owner, Liz Pavlovic (Keep On Creepin’ On) for a limited-release collection of hand-blown pieces. The collaboration highlighted Liz’s trademark subject of Appalachian cryptids. The limited release featured hand-blown Flatwoods Monster-themed decanters and suncatchers.
Liz stated that they received an overwhelmingly positive response towards the collaboration. “People have been super excited about it. We’re all a little bit surprised even by how positive the response was to the Flatwoods monster decanter,” she said. The designer undoubtedly helped attract a younger audience to Blenko through her own Millennial and Gen-Z fanbase. After the initial collaboration, Liz joined the Blenko team as a part-time employee.
“It’s definitely been cool to see more young people getting into it, either as collectors or even working there,” she said. “In just the past two years, I’ve seen a big increase in both of those things.” The art of glassmaking is time-consuming, and can be quite difficult to master. The craft requires a steady hand, finesse and extreme attention to detail. Glass blowers must constantly heat and roll their instruments to maintain the shape of a desired piece. If the temperature of the glass dips too low, it can easily shatter.
“It takes decades sometimes, depending on who you’re working with, to really get to try it and do a lot of glass blowing. It also takes that long to learn the skills, because it’s so much harder than it looks,” Liz said. When asked about advice for prospective glass blowers, she emphasized, “especially for people who are female- identifying or nonbinary people, to not feel discouraged by glass blowing, because it is pretty male-dominated.”
She alluded to expanding the cryptid collaborations while stating that Blenko Glass “has been super busy with the increased demand.” Unfortunately, the potential future releases remain a mystery, but one can only hope that another beloved WV cryptid will receive their own Blenko Glass series. [Editor’s note: Blenko Glass just unveiled their newest collaboration with their Mothman Bookend! Check it out!] In their 2023 season, Blenko has partnered with multiple community organizations to create Glass for Good limited releases. Glass for Good pieces highlight the selected organizations to raise awareness and support for their causes. Half of all proceeds from the Glass for Good items are donated directly to their respective causes. Last year’s partners include: Community Autism Resources & Education Systems, Girl Scouts of Black Diamond Council and Hope in the Hills. Products from Blenko Glass Company can be purchased through their websites and at many West Virginia artisan retailers.
Another acclaimed location to obtain artisan glass products is the Tamarack Marketplace, located in Beckley, West Virginia. It’s an I-77 roadside attraction that houses artisan-crafted works from over 2,800 Appalachian artists. The Tamarack showcases many beautiful hand-blown glass pieces for sale, and provides hands-on experiences glass blowing.
The Oglebay Institute Glass Museum, located in Wheeling, West Virginia, is a premiere destination to explore the rich history of glass in West Virginia firsthand. The newly renovated museum boasts a collection of 4,000 antique glass pieces. Their four exhibition galleries explore the product, process, and people that made Wheeling an industrial hub for glass factories in its heyday. The museum also offers live demonstrations and walk-in glassmaking workshops.
Curious about contemporary glassblowers? The Pittsburgh Glass Center is a great place to learn alongside resident artists currently developing their craft. The nonprofit public-access education center houses resident artist studios, an exhibition gallery, a hot shop and flame shop. The center holds open house events known as “Hot Jams” on the first weekend of every month. During these sessions, the public can tour the galleries and watch live demonstrations by resident artists. The center also offers classes and lessons in glassmaking for all skill levels and ages.
While the days of industrial West Virginia glass factories are over, the interest for artisan-made glass remains. It is an art form with deep roots in the region that continues with style and grace. Now, it’s time for the next generation to blow us all away.