Artist Spotlight: Journeys in Glass

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Through wanderings in New Zealand, Mark Leputa discovered his passion for glass art, launching a voyage that’s taken him to Alabama, Europe and a host of scenic places that supply fodder for his renowned work.

by MARCIA GRUVER

It is a rainy Fourth of July morning in Fort Payne, Ala., and glass artist Mark Leputa is focused beyond the immediate surroundings. In a few days, he will be on his way to Colorado and one of the touchstone inspirations of his work: mountains.

You can blame this mountain fascination on New Zealand.[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]“There’s not one flat spot in that country,” Mark says with a grin. He spent almost three years on New Zealand’s North Island near Lake Taupo, serving his first apprenticeship in glass.

Learning the work
But that’s getting ahead of the story a bit. Leputa hails from Pennsylvania and graduated from the University of Pittsburg with a degree in communications. His first job, “the worst job I’ve ever had,” he now says, was in a print shop. When the opportunity came to go to New Zealand, Leputa was already packed.

His experience there was that of a student nomad – broke, going from odd job to odd job. When he landed in the town of Taupo, he found a job at a glass studio. “I started doing all the grinding, cutting and polishing,” he relates. He fell in love with glass. After a trip back to the States to get his work visa sorted out, Leputa began working at the studio again, soaking in everything.

In addition to the education he was getting, he was experiencing Taupo’s surroundings: a volcanic crater lake, geothermal landscapes and geysers. “There are not a lot of places in the world that look like that,” Leputa says. The area remains an inspiration. Beginning in 2013, Leputa created a geothermal series of pieces based on his memories from that time.

After a few years working in the glass studio, Leputa was yearning for more. He returned to the United States, where glassmaking was experiencing a renaissance. He came back with one resolution: “I was dead set that working in glass was going to be my career until I died,” he says.

He looked at three glass studio assistant jobs, including one at Orbix Hot Glass, located near Little River Canyon, south of Fort Payne. Although he thought “Alabama might as well be as far away as New Zealand,” Leputa took up owner Cal Breed’s invitation to check things out. “We meshed,” Leputa says. “Cal was the best glass blower to learn from and had the nicest studio. Our work is totally different from each other’s, but what we want out of it is very similar.” And so Leputa moved to Fort Payne in 2007.

As part of working at Orbix, Leputa gets three hours of studio time each week to work on his own projects. This has helped jumpstart his career.

To begin a piece, he does his initial hot work at Orbix, blowing the glass into a preliminary shape and creating the layers that will later be revealed. But that’s only the start, about 25 percent of the work that will eventually go into a piece. After it cools, he transports the rough form to his garage studio and spends the remaining time doing what glass artists call “cold work” – the cutting, grinding, engraving, sandblasting and polishing that are part of Leputa’s signature style.

Recent works include “Celtic Froth,” part of Leputa’s Crystalline Series, in which he uses opaque color overlays and shapes a network of lenses in, as he puts it, “a wavy pattern reminiscent of sea foam hugging a coastline.” Part of the same series is “Digital Scales,” a goldover-lime piece that required several grinding wheels to create.

Cal Breed says Leputa’s abilities have grown by leaps and bounds during the eight years he has worked at Orbix. “If I had to put Mark’s vision for glasswork into three words, they would be: zealous for polish,” he says. “You could say he gives birth to his pieces as he labors for long, hard hours in the cold shop cutting, grinding and refining. He has a gift as a craftsman and I look forward to seeing how that gift develops.

Showing the work
Social media has been a key part of Leputa’s marketing from the get-go. “I don’t just post my pieces,” he says. “I feel like people want to know who I am as an artist, not just see the artwork.”

In fact, an early post on the MySpace social media network landed him his European representative: Netherlands-based Melvin van den Doel. “I found out that his uncle had one of the best galleries in Europe, and he [Melvin] was looking for up-and-coming artists. He believes in people who are still hungry and have that drive.” The relationship developed to the point that van den Doel’s previous gallery, Gallerie van Loon and Simons in Vught, Netherlands, hosted a solo show of Leputa’s work and invited him over.

The trip turned out to be a heady experience for Leputa and his wife Victoria. The gallery was showing more than 20 of his pieces, and during a VIP lunch before the exhibit opening, Leputa was asked to perform a daunting task: speak. “Melvin told me to just tell them my story, just get them to know me,” Leputa says. “It was pretty intimidating to go to a foreign country and give a talk. But once I got going, it was fairly easy – just talking about myself and Orbix.” After the speech, Leputa and Victoria spent the rest of the day visiting with eager glass-art lovers.

“We felt like rock stars,” he recalls. “They had read about us, they knew Victoria, they knew our wedding date and they just wanted to meet us.”

Now 70 percent of Leputa’s pieces, which retail in the $4,000 to $5,000 range, go to van den Doel’s just-opened Dock Gallery, located in Rotterdam, Netherlands. “When you start getting over $1,000 in price, it takes a certain buyer,” Leputa says. “There are lot of young, wealthy people over there who are starting art collections.” Leputa’s work also can be seen at five stateside galleries located in Seaside, Fla., Pittsburg, Dallas, Aspen, Colo., and, of course, Orbix Hot Glass in Fort Payne.

Leputa is appreciative of the opportunity to further his skills in Fort Payne. He’s working toward a goal of going out on his own, but gives props to Cal Breed at Orbix. “I don’t think I could go to work for someone else because I don’t think anyone would be better than working for Cal,” he says. “He looks at his studio as an incubator; he doesn’t want assistants; he wants artists who will grow into their own.”

The conversation returns to Leputa’s upcoming trip, hiking and rock climbing in the mountains of Colorado. “I don’t know what will happen,” he says, “or what new thing will come.” But check out his work a year from now and you’re almost certain to see the trip’s reflection.

 

What fires the creative life? Here’s Mark Leputa’s take:

Passion and perseverance. Leputa loves explaining his glass-making process, and has started documenting it with videos on his website, markleputa.com. “Your artwork is what you put your blood and sweat into, and that’s what makes it exciting,” he says. “At the end of the day, I might not be rich, but I didn’t come home hating my job. I had a blast all day; I’m tired because I worked hard and I’m exhausted. I’m not tired because I’m stressed.”

Documentation. Once a piece is sold, it’s gone forever. “I have always documented everything,” Leputa says. His website, markleputa.com, features photos of pieces dating to 2005. Showcasing. The Internet is a great equalizer, allowing artists to display their work before a wide, broad audience. “You don’t have to be in a gallery for someone to see it,” Leputa says. “You never know who’s looking.” Social media can be an especially fertile ground; Mark posts regular updates about what he’s creating on Facebook and just started an Instagram account. He even sold a piece on Pinterest.

Staying inspired. Austin Kleon’s two books, “Steal Like an Artist” and “Show Your Work!” have influenced how Leputa both views and displays his glass. Packed with inspirational and practical advice, they’re also quick reads.[/s2If]