I met Foster, the owner and co-founder of Art of Fire Contemporary Glass Studios, at the most recent Maryland Blogger Bash, in downtown Rockville, Md. Normally, glass doesn’t intrigue me: I don’t need any new glass pieces, in fact, if anything, I have too many. But Foster kept talking about his work and the studios, and then mentioned a great holiday activity: come to his studio and blow your own glass ornament. Great activity for groups, families, children, or couples.
Ohhhh, so I get to DO something? I was intrigued. And to my 13 year old son’s distress, I immediately thought this would be a fun activity for him, a great way to create some family memories and shared experiences that didn’t involve a TV, computer, or movie screen.
Do you go to the Maryland Renaissance Festival? Then you’ve probably already seen Art of Fire, as they have shown at the Maryland festival every year for decades.
Art of Fire Contemporary Glass Studio began in 1984 when Foster Holcombe and Theda Hansen lit their first furnace at the Maryland Renaissance Festival in Crownsville. A short time later, they established a small gallery and hotshop at the Historic Savage Mill. They outgrew that space and in 1999 lit the furnace at their current location, a re-purposed dairy barn in northern Montgomery County. The barn is now home to our gallery and hot shop where they work, teach and enjoy making glass.
How it works: you call ahead and make an appointment. That way, Art of Fire Studios can ensure that you don’t have a wait time. We called and made an appointment for 3 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon. We arrived about 15 minutes early (typical of me), but I figured I could take some photos and browse. We were greeted and got to pick out the general style and color of our ornaments. My son chose green, my husband purple swirl, and I picked a bright red “vertical optic” pattern.
We were introduced to Bruce, our glass artist and docent for the afternoon. He gave us a brief tour of the studios, and some history about the furnaces and kilns. He handed us goggles to protect our eyes (if the glass breaks, it could throw out dangerous and hot shards). Bruce noted that today’s glass making techniques is much the same as it was during Roman times. In fact, the history of glassmaking can be traced back to 3500 BC in Mesopotamia.
Then Bruce started on my son’s green ornament. All the ornaments and glass making at the studio starts with clear glass. Then color is added, on top of the clear glass, essentially. It was pretty cool, how he dropped the metal tube into the furnace and pulled out a glob of brightly glowing melted glass, which he then rolled in a metal dish of green color shards (which I sooo wanted to touch, but I remembered his caution that there are very sharp objects around). All during his talk and description of the steps, Bruce kept the metal tube constantly rotating, to keep the bulb at the end from drooping into an odd shape.
Once he’d melted the colored shards and rerolled the glass blob a few times, Bruce got ready to start shaping the ornament. He gave my son the mouth-piece to blow into the tube, and, still rolling and rotating the metal tube, he sat down to start forming the ornament. He asked my son to start blowing slowly, then hard and steady for a few seconds. The bulb at the end of t
he metal tube bubbled up nicely. It was very cool.
Once the ornament was shaped to his and my son’s satisfaction, he brought it over to a stand and detached it from the metal tube. Then he added hot melted glass to the top to form the loop. And that was it!
The demonstration was essentially repeated for both my husband’s and my ornaments, although my husband wondered idly whether Bruce could add in white to the purple swirl (he could, and did). Not to be outdone, I asked if the round ornament could be pulled into a tear-drop shape. Bruce was game to try, although he admitted it was a first for him, and getting it into that shape meant several attempts to elongate the spheric shape of the ornament before we got the shape we were happy with.
At the end, Bruce held up our ornaments so we could see them in the late afternoon sun slanting through the windows of the old dairy barn and pose with them for photos. At first I was disappointed — my bright red ornament was a really dark dark color, almost black to my eyes. Meh — it was still a cool and very fun experience! I shrugged.
After our photo op, Bruce put our three ornaments into the kiln to slowly cool to room temperature, a procedure that takes about 8 hours. Although it’s a little disappointing to walk away with nothing, we knew that a couple days later a package would arrive with our ornaments. Something to look forward to!
When the package arrived, we all three were thrilled with the results! My dark ornament turned out a lovely bright red, just what I wanted! My son was thrilled with his clear green ornament, as was my husband with his lovely purple and white swirl.
At dinner, we discussed, as usual, what we were grateful for (a suppertime tradition) and what was the best part of the weekend. My son admitted that blowing his own glass ornament was the highlight. This is definitely something we will do again next year!!
Know before you go #1: Wear comfortable shoes. You’re standing in a converted dairy barn on concrete. You also should be sure-footed — there are some sharp and some hot, and some sharp AND hot objects around, so you don’t want to be wibbly wobbly on your feet.
Know before you go #2: Yeah, this is a great holiday activity, but Art of Fire Studios are open year around. My suggestion? Go in cooler weather. Those furnaces/kilns are hot hot hot. And you’re in a converted dairy barn. In the summer months? I can’t imagine how hot it would feel. In November on a cool windy day? It was comfortably warm, and that’s with the windows and doors open.
Know before you go #3: Call them at 301-253-6642 to make your appointment.
Getting there: 7901 Hawkins Creamery Road, Laytonsville, MD 20082
Hours: Tuesday through Sunday 10 am to 5 pm; please call Tuesday through Friday to make an appointment.
Website: [email protected]
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Have you daytripped somewhere interesting? I’d love to hear what you’re doing! Email [email protected] if you’re interested in being a guest-blogger!