Glass Act

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Cal Breed of Orbix Hot Glass finds inspiration for his breathtaking artwork in mountain setting


CAL BREED MOVES THROUGH HIS STUDIO ATOP Lookout Mountain with a quiet grace and fluidity that mirrors the clean, curving lines of the glass artwork he creates there. On a crisp fall morning, a diverse gathering of people – locals and tourists – have travelled miles along the scenic plateau, to “the middle of nowhere,” to fashion their own glass ornaments, and Breed and his team of glass makers are helping them.

He greets each guest warmly, with a soft-spoken, laid-back ease that makes it difficult to tell whether they’ve just met or known each other for years. As the conversation continues, Breed scoops a glowing glob of molten glass onto the end of a long metal rod called a blowpipe, then dips it in colored chips (resembling aquarium gravel) of the visitor’s choosing, all the while turning the rod so the glass won’t lose its shape.[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]..

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He blows a bubble into the glass, places the pipe on parallel metal rails and rolls it back and forth along them, using a tool like a giant set of tweezers to help shape the glass as the guest expands it into a round orb by blowing air through the hollow rod. In the few minutes between each glassblowing session, 40-year-old Breed tries to explain how it all came to be – a state-of-the-art glass studio tucked into the northeast Alabama hills by a Florence native who went to Auburn University to study marine biology.

In 1994, while taking a stained-glass class “for fun,” he saw a picture of someone blowing glass and found one of the South’s few hot-glass artists, Cam Langley, who let him experiment with the medium in his Birmingham studio. “The first time I tried it, it just felt natural to me,” he says. “I knew it was what I wanted to do.” His initial fascination with glass hasn’t ebbed: “There’s something very special about it. I like the way it draws in light and makes the colors more vibrant and alive, the way it projects light and color on walls. It’s just so beautiful.” Breed transferred to Ohio State University to complete a bachelor of fine arts degree in the school’s renowned Glass Program, then studied with a variety of glass masters across the country, learning their techniques and honing his own artistic skills.

When he and wife Christy were ready to open their own glass studio, they didn’t think twice about the location. They chose Lookout Mountain, where they met and spent weekends rock climbing and kayaking during college, after mutual friends planned a trip to Cherokee Rock Village. “When people came to town for football, we would go to Lookout Mountain,” Christy recalls.

In 2002 the couple planted Orbix Hot Glass on 26 acres bordering Little River Canyon National Preserve. “Little River Canyon is a real inspiring place for my work, and it’s where I like to be,” Breed says simply.

Nature’s inspiration is apparent in much of Breed’s work. The Arbor Vase, for example, emerged after a hard freeze and snow covered the area in 2010 and Breed, Christy and their three children spent the days making is featured in galleries across the country. A customer of the company’s New York City dealer, Avventura, bought a Curly Pitcher as a gift for Martha Stewart. snow balls, grappling with frozen limbs and competing to find the longest icicle. The recent “spun” collection of bowls, bottles and vases, along with the 2012 Orbix Christmas ornament, sprang from Breed’s beekeeping hobby. Glimmering strands of glass encompass the pieces, producing a texture reminiscent of spun honey fresh off the comb.

Once the morning’s ornaments are made and placed in an oven for controlled cooling, Breed and Mark Leputa, one of four other glassblowers Orbix employs, create a spun bowl as part of a demonstration. They form the bowl from layers of glass interspersed with blue and purple color chips. Then Mark, using a second metal rod, touches hot glass straight from the furnace to the neck of the bowl, which Breed spins. Molten glass flows from the blowpipe like honey from a jar, wrapping around the swiftly turning bowl.

Their movements are quick, smooth and precise, “like a dance,” one observer notes, making the whole process look far easier than it is. The tools they use to shape the bowl must be kept warm to prevent shocking and breaking the glass. The bowl itself has to be placed back inside a 2,000-degree furnace intermittently to keep the temperature just right or it will crack.

The challenges are the same with all free-blown glass work. The restrictive temperature range means there’s limited time to work a piece before it breaks, and you can only heat it so much before the details you’ve added slump or melt away, Breed says. “It’s always changing, and it’s changing very quickly,” he says. Gathering the intuition needed to mold the material into a predetermined shape under these conditions takes years.

Glass also is an unforgiving medium. “It has a great memory,” Breed says. “If you touch it in a certain way, it doesn’t forget. If you make a tool mark, it doesn’t go away.” A drop of sweat can ruin a piece. “And it’s hot, so you’re sweating.”

The years of practice have paid off, though. Breed’s work is featured in galleries across the country – and the Internet – and has attracted some famous clientele. Last October, a customer of the company’s New York City dealer, Avventura, bought a Curly Pitcher – Orbix’s most popular piece – as a gift for Martha Stewart.

The corporate world has come calling, too. Corporations including Southern Company and Protective Life have given Orbix creations to their employees and customers as tokens of their appreciation. Companies can choose pieces from the Orbix collection to use as corporate gifts or ask for a custom design to go with a particular theme. In addition to the appeal of giving a handmade item, “a lot of American companies are starting to realize the importance of choosing something American made and supporting American products,” Christy says.

When asked what differentiates her husband’s creations from other glass work, Christy says his style is very honest. “It’s simple, but not easy to do,” she says. “Color and form have to be very good because there’s not a lot of decoration.” And, like the hot glass itself, his work is always changing. “Cal’s an artist,” Christy says. “That’s the root of our business. He’s always working on newer things.”

Lots of people now make the trek to see those things at the Orbix studio and gallery, which the Breeds prefer to say is in “the middle of somewhere else” rather than the middle of nowhere. Visitors come from all over the country, some on vacation, some specifically to see Orbix, others who know about the studio and decide to stop by because they’re passing through the area. International visitors have travelled from Spain, Canada, England, France and Australia.

Today, the group watching the demonstration includes Terry Hale, who lives in Madison, Ala., and teaches lampworking (a type of glass work used to create small objects such as beads, jewelry and models of animal and botanical subjects) around the country and in Ireland and her mentor, Marjorie Langston, of Chattanooga, Tenn. They’ve seen and admired Breed’s work at art shows for years, but this is the first time they’ve been to the studio. “This is a world-class facility,” Hale says. “It’s always fun to watch someone work in a similar, but different field.”

One goal the Breeds had when locating their studio in Alabama was introducing glass as an art form in a state where most people weren’t familiar with it in that context. Another was sharing Lookout Mountain with others. “We want people to come here to learn about glass, but also to relax and appreciate this unique, beautiful environment,” Christy says. “That’s why we built the front porch – a Southern tradition – and had to add another porch on back.”

They seem to be succeeding on all fronts. “I could sit here on this porch and not ever leave,” Langston says.

If you go:

GETTING THERE: Follow the directions on the Orbix website. GPS and online maps will take you the wrong way. Try not to panic if you temporarily lose cell phone service; mankind survived thousands of years without cell phones. }

WHEN TO VISIT: The Orbix gallery (adjacent to the “hot shop” where items are made) is open Tue.-Sat., 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Orbix holds several events and classes (make your own paperweight, ornament, glass beads, etc. or tour the studio), usually on weekends, so check out the Events section of the website when planning your trip.

TAKE TIME TO RELAX: Cal and Christy Breed encourage visitors to unwind on the front porch. Rest up in a rocking chair, play a game of chess or just enjoy the tranquility. Make sure to check out neighboring Little River Canyon National Preserve (see this story) on your way to or from Orbix.