A ll four men wear wraparound sunglasses, even though they're working indoors. Their no-nonsense look is strictly practical—the bad-ass shades protect their eyes against the intense glare. Their movements are sure and deliberate—not quick, not slow, but well-practiced. And the workshop where they labor provides plenty of room to move. That's important when shaping a piece of glass that will be 2,190 degrees Fahrenheit when it's pulled out of the specially designed furnace called the glory hole.
This is Bacchus Glass, which is tucked away in a warehouse-behind-a-warehouse on the east side of Sonoma. On a recent December morning, master glassblower Frank Cavaz and three assistants are handcrafting glass light fixtures. At 22 inches across, the golden glowing piece that's gradually taking shape is an original design known as a "monarch ruffle." It averages about two hours to make just one, and Cavaz and his team will be forming several monarchs today. Once they set up for a particular design, they usually do more than one.
"Glass definitely has its limitations," notes Cavaz's wife, Julie, as she watches from the sidelines. "Glass doesn't want to be oval; it wants to be round because you're spinning it."
All four men gaze intently at the large, pliant shape that's perched at the end of a long rod. One assistant carefully lays the rod across a low workbench, then twirls it, keeping the glass spinning at just the right pace so it doesn't droop or drop. Frank sits on the bench next to the rod, inspecting the glass and preparing for the next step. Frank's wearing a sleeveless top with protected forearms; no one wears loose clothing that could catch on fire.
The second assistant holds up wooden paddles, positioning them to protect Frank from the incredible heat of the glass. The third member of the team holds out a wooden template so Cavaz can check the size and shape of the object they are collectively nurturing.
They're handcrafting an original Bacchus Glass design, but this piece still needs to look exactly like the monarch light shades in the company's catalogue, and exactly like all the monarch shades they've already made or will craft in the future. It's an extremely artistic production process, done one at a time and with an emphasis on reproducing quality.
"Frank's very meticulous," Julie says. "He has the ability to make things the same every time while still keeping that handmade quality, so it doesn't look like it came out of a factory."
The high-ceilinged space where the men work includes all the equipment and materials needed for all stages of crafting light fixtures, including a metal shop for creating custom chandeliers. "We want complete control of the project from start to finish," Julie explains.
She adds, "Nothing's very high-tech here. We love to go to Italy and look around the studios, because it's all the same thing. It's all about what you can make with your hands."
After more than 20 years spent blowing glass, that's what Frank loves about the process—the doing, the making, the problem-solving, the dynamics of it all. "When it goes really well and smoothly, it's wonderful," he says. "It kind of brings together all my experience and background."
He trained as a sculptor at the Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto, Canada, then went on to study glass at the Rhode Island School of Design. That's where he met Julie. They started Bacchus Glass in 1995, making tableware and sculptural vessels, and evolved into lighting in 1997. All of their designs are created in-house.
"For me," Frank says, "the best time I have in the shop is designing and figuring out new commissions and prototypes."
Bacchus recently dropped its tableware line and is concentrating on the light fixtures, which start around $500 but can cost as much as $15,000 for a complex custom design. The company also handcrafts small Christmas ornaments ($18&–$50) for the annual holiday open-house events. It still takes teamwork to produce the small holiday globes, but they're nowhere near as time-consuming as the light fixtures.
It's a small family operation, and Frank loves what he does, Julie says.
"He gets up everyday and wants to blow glass. That's what he loves to do. You have to have that passion, because it's physically demanding."
Frank adds with a quick laugh, "There are a lot easier ways to make a living."
Bacchus hosts its holiday open house with glassblowing demonstrations on Saturday, Dec. 15, 10am to 4pm. The gallery is open 10:30am to 4:30pm, Tuesday&–Saturday or by appointment. Glassblowing is generally done on premises 7:30am to 2:30pm, Monday-Friday. Visitors are welcome. Bacchus Glass, 21707 Eighth St. E, Units 6 and 11, Sonoma. 707.939.9416.
Aurora Colors Fine Art Gallery & Glass Art Center in Petaluma blends a glass-art store and studio with work by local fine artists. The current exhibit of work by 30 California artists includes five glass artists. The center offers a range of glass-art classes for adults and children, as well as rental time in its studio and kiln. It also offers repairs, restoration, custom art glass, stained glass and more. 145 Kentucky St., Petaluma, 707.762.0131.
Lost Art Glassworks in Sonoma offers oversized world globes, fanciful lamps, sculptures, single and triptych windows and more, all in stained glass by Larry Brookins. 17501 Sonoma Hwy., Sonoma, 707.935-5938.
Laurence Glass Works Gallery in Occidental presents compelling sculptural fused-art glass by local artist Laurence. A French ex-pat, Laurence keeps a showroom in Occidental open on the weekends and can be found in her studio inside the A Street Gallery (312 S. A St., Santa Rosa) during the week. 74 Main St., Occidental, 707.874.3465.
M. Mitcavish Glass Artistry in Napa specializes in glass artwork, handcrafted dishware and lighting design. Its gallery also showcases jewelry, wall sculptures, home decor and more. Classes are available in a variety of glass-art techniques, including stained glass and independent study. 68 Coombs St., Building O, #1, Napa, 707.226.3613.
For other glass artisans, contact ARTrails (www.artrails.org) in Sonoma County, the Marin Arts Council (www.marinarts.org) in Marin County and the Arts Council of Napa Valley (www.artscouncilnapavalley.org) in Napa.