Decades after she began working with fused glass, Teresa Kowalski of South Beach remains devoted to her medium. “When I found glass, I felt an affinity, and I’ve stayed with it for 35 years,” she said. “I’ve enjoyed it the whole time, and have no intention of doing anything different. I’ll keep at it as long as I can.”
Kowalski didn’t plan to be a glass artist. Raised in the Midwest, where she grew up making art at school, she traveled to Germany in the 1970s for a vacation and ended up staying four years.
“I took a tour of a glass factory and was mesmerized by the beauty and fluidity of glass,” she said. At that time she was working in ceramics and experimenting with melting bottles and glass onto clay in a kiln.
When she returned to the U.S., she settled in Eugene to be near friends, and when her friends moved to the coast, she did as well. “It was wonderful here then,” she said.
She was doing torchworked glass in 1986 when Boyce Lundstrom, one of the founders of Bullseye Glass Co., in Portland, invited her to his workshop on the new technique of glass fusing — melting glass together in a kiln. That workshop and his first book on fused glass were the starting points for her devotion to fused glass. “I fell in love with it,” she said.
By 1990, she had stopped doing torchwork and was devoting herself to fused glass. She also took classes at Pilchuck Glass School in Washington state and at the Camp Colton Glass Program.
She started offering classes in her studio around 1990, and taught at Sitka Center for Art and Ecology in Otis for two years.
When she began working with fused glass, it was a new technique. She noted that glass expands and shrinks in firing, and all of the glass used has to shrink and expand at the same time. In those early years, this technique required a lot of experimentation and testing, “and I fell in love with that,” Kowalski said. “Now there’s a huge selection of tested, compatible glass.”
Kowalski explained that fused glass involves stacking layers of compatible glass to make a design that is then placed in a kiln, where it melts — or fuses — together. “That’s what I do now,” she said.
She also continues to teach fused glass (see sidebar). “I’ve done a lot of research and experimentation so I can take care of all the technical aspects of firing and guide my students to build their project,” she said. “You don’t have to learn how to paint or draw to learn how to play with design and color and produce art. My students can immediately start working on their project and experiment with design and color,” what she considers the most interesting part of creating art.
“Glass is very accessible, but it requires many materials,” she said. “It’s not a portable technique. My students have access to all my supplies in my studio.”
In her own work, Kowalski is experimenting with vitrigraph and wire melt techniques. Vitrigraph uses a special kiln with a crucible and shelf, each with holes in their bottoms. When the glass is heated sufficiently, a thin stream of glass flows out the bottom of the vitrigraph and toward the floor, allowing her to make a variety of stringers. The kiln is heated up to 1700 degrees Fahrenheit.
The technique of wire melt involves placing small pieces of glass strategically on a stainless steel wire mesh screen and heating it to 1540 degrees. As the pieces liquefy, they slowly drip through the mesh and onto the kiln shelf, creating random mixing of colors as they merge into a single sheet. “This gives the wire melt a wonderful organic feel and a special beauty,” she said.
Kowalski’s work is bright and colorful. “I’ve always loved vibrant colors and overlaying them to create different shades of color,” she said.
One of her more striking techniques is woven glass, in which she cuts strips of glass, layers them and fuses them together. She places the glass on a zigzag mold and alternates the bars, as if weaving in reverse.
Kowalski has three kilns in her studio — a large one about 40 inches, a vitrigraph kiln about 20 inches, and a tiny test kiln. She uses the large kiln most often, both for her regular glass pieces and her classes.
The COVID pandemic caused Kowalski to stop all of her classes; she reopened her studio in May. During the pandemic she sold art supplies on Etsy. “People were off work and staying home and doing more hobbies, so it worked out,” she said. “It was nice to take a break, and I kept busy with commissions.”
And as part of the city of Newport-funded repair project for Sam Briseño’s “Ambassador” metal sculpture, long a fixture overlooking the ocean in Nye Beach, she will be recreating the figure’s two glass inserts.
Kowalski is inspired by the beauty of the coast, especially the ocean and water. As she says on her website, her work “reflects the dynamic play of color, tone and nature of the Northwest.
“The properties of transparency, refraction, and magnification set glass apart from other art mediums,” she wrote. “The optics of glass can bring the illusion of movement and life to a sculpture. When the alchemy of intense heat is added, the fluid nature of fused glass holds a fascination that no other medium can satisfy.”
Her work ranges from realistic representations of nature to abstract interpretations of the “essence and palette of her environment.
“I don’t try to pre-think a piece,” she said. “Leaving it to the unconscious, ideas and designs can come from the intuitive, subconscious level. Designs can express that which lies under the surface. I’m searching for what remains after self is forgotten.”
Kowalski’s art can be seen at Icefire Glassworks in Cannon Beach or at her website: kowalskiglass.com.