Handsome Work

Heart of Glass: He’s The Rake’s next-door neighbor, and he totally blows—in a good way!

Peter Zelle is torn. He doesn’t want to say he enjoys creating his beautiful but utilitarian glassware, and he refuses to think of the goblets, vases, and bowls as art. Yet if he were to retire that part of his business, shifting from glassblower to cast-glass artist on a full-time basis, he’d really miss it. “That’s how I connect with the outside world,” he says. “I’m not just this isolated artist. People use my goods everyday.”

Watching him blow glass into goblets in his Warehouse District studio recently, we quickly became entranced with the repetitive process of creating stemware. While the end result may not be fine art, the process certainly appears to be: The creation of such functional glass pieces resembles a choreographed dance, each glassblower moving gracefully with each other, and with the glass. Perpetually whirling a blow tube of hot glass between his fingers, Zelle glides between the 2,000-degree oven and the 2,400-degree glory hole, a smaller oven with an open end where the blow tube can be inserted for easy reheating. After a few puffs, Zelle presses the clear glass against colorful shards, melting them into the hot plastic surface. Then he shapes and stretches the glass with an enormous set of tweezers. An assistant, Angela Burtness, moves widely around Zelle. She glides from her position tidying the leftover glass shards into her role as rim and base smoother.

As Burtness uses a blowtorch to create a curve in the underside of the base, Zelle moves perfectly into position, ready to transfer the completed goblet carefully to a kiln to cool. There, it slowly releases the heat that could otherwise cause cracking.

Zelle and Burtness return to the oven to collect more glass and repeat this work, following the same flawless movements every time. They make an average of six goblets an hour. Throughout it all they converse; Zelle produces two hundred goblets a year, as well as tumblers, lowballs, vases, glasses, bowls, and corporate awards. Regardless of what the glassblower thinks of his more mundane work, Zelle knows how he feels about glass itself: inspired. He spends about half of his time creating cast-glass sculptures, which are large, themed pieces that find their way into galleries, museums, and permanent collections. The versatility of glass allows him to create pieces that are mysterious and seemingly not glass at all, but may instead be opaque, with a subdued finish. The question of form versus function is ultimately moot. “There’s just something about glass that’s seductive,” he says.

Next: The man behind the bar, with a knife…

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