Couple creates art from fragile medium

Glass workers like the freedom and creativity of playing with glass, moulding, fusing and blowing it into a variety of designs

SHIELDS, Sask. — Joan and Alan Hiebert became smitten with glass art after viewing glass walls in Mexico depicting a pirate attack.

“I came home inspired,” said Joan.

“I found every broken window and started learning how to cut glass.”

That led to classes with experts to blow, shape and colour glass, a founding membership in the Saskatoon Glassworkers Guild and a hot shop in a large steel building near Blackstrap Lake south of Saskatoon.

The couple creates a wide variety of items, from salad bowls and reflective balls to folk art and lampshades.

Joan likes creating designs, but the craft doesn’t come cheap, with a controller in the shop priced at $22,000 and each furnace costing $6,000.

Alan, a former industrial arts teacher, puts his expertise to work fabricating the specialized ma-chines and devices needed for the delicate artwork.

This day, he shows off his latest invention, a water fountain to cool the glass blowing rod.

“Glass can flop around, but that’s where you develop a skill level to get it to do what you want it to do,” he said.

Undeterred by a fire and a plow wind that destroyed their workshop more than once, the Hieberts recently rebuilt and are fired up to again “play” with glass.

“You either have the energy to get upset or the energy to build again,” said Joan.

She loves the reflective nature of glass and working with colours but prefers not to produce too many of the same thing.

“It’s very versatile when you start learning advanced techniques,” said Joan, who has used copper foiling and leading to make windows and lamps.

ADVERTISMENT

She has also done sandblasting, etching, fusing and slumping kiln-formed glass and making bowls and plates out of recycled glass from old windowpanes.

However, the Hieberts say the art form is not without challenges, citing the media’s tendency to break and the skill and speed that are needed when working with different colours of molten glass that melt at different rates.

“If we break a bowl, it’s no big deal,” said Alan.

Added Joan: “We just make it again.”

19_3col_kim_2934-copy-630

Neither Hiebert were prepared to spend their retirement  putting up their feet at the nearby cabin home they built themselves.

“It’s been our lifestyle all of our lives,” Joan said of raising two sons and working 12 hour days as a nursing educator.

Alan grew up building cabins with his father, while Joan was raised on a farm near Eston, Sask.

Alan and Joan split their time between artwork and hosting workshops here, with Alan also working part time as a building inspector.

They return to Mexico each winter “to eat, sleep and swim” and to New Zealand every other year to collaborate with other artists.

They sell their goods at galleries in Regina and Saskatoon and trade shows through the year, taking custom orders such as trophies and corporate gifts and participating in a self-guided tour of arts and crafts studios in the region each May.

Thomas Archer of Traditions Hand Craft Gallery in Regina said ceramics are his top seller, but glass also moves well.

ADVERTISMENT

“It depends on their mood and what catches their eye,” he said of the typical shopper.

He called the Hieberts’ bowls made from recycled glass unique and their grain elevators a good Saskatchewan keepsake.

Ken Wilkinson, a potter and member of Handmade House in Saskatoon, said glass art is expensive but currently riding a wave of popularity at craft fairs.

It might have to do with bright colours that appeal to consumers  so he has incorporated bold colours and shiny glazes into his own pottery in response to this trend.

“The Hieberts do a nice range of things from recycled glass bowls all the way up to higher end pieces,” he said.

The most expensive piece the Hieberts made was a sculpture called Todd, which came from casting their son’s chest in glass and creating the Tool Man, complete with tool belt and tools sculpted or blown or fused in glass.

19_4col_kim_2948-copy-630-2

Their prices reflect a piece’s size and difficulty, with paperweights ranging from $15 to $50, blown vases from $25  to $100 and blown bowls at $45 to $100.

Wine stoppers and door pulls are popular at $20 to $25, while recycled bowls sell for $10 to $50.

The Hieberts feel fortunate to be living their art dream.

“We pick and choose what we want to do, we do it because we want to. It’s lovely to have the freedom to say no,” said Joan.

“We find that the greatest thing is we have control over our time. We never had that when we were working.”

ADVERTISMENT

Contact karen.morrison@producer.com