Glassblowing classes make hot, hot, hot holiday gifts

By Lonnie Burstein Hewitt

If you’re looking for out-of-the-ordinary gifts this season, how about this: an ornament-making class at Stone and Glass in Rancho Bernardo? Or a special group tour of Garry Cohen’s Glass Ranch in Escondido — bring your own group — including glassblowing demos?

No one on your gift list will say they have one of those!

And you can’t beat the hot glass experience, watching someone twirl a fiery blob of molten sand on the tip of a slim metal rod, and plunge it into the “glory hole” of a 2000-degree furnace to keep it pliant. Next, tweak it with tools that look like they came from the Iron Age, thrust it back into the glory hole, tweak it and pull it and paddle and thrust it, again and again, always twirling, in a mesmerizing fire dance that could easily end with a “Floor Model” — a shattered mess of too-cooled-down glass — but comes instead to a grand finale with the rod held aloft to show off a beautifully colored and shaped piece that’s ready to be tempered overnight in a 900-degree kiln.

Even more exciting (though not quite as graceful) is getting to do it yourself.

Two North County craftsmen, with spaces, equipment, and apprentices reminiscent of Renaissance masters, are known for opening their studios to watchers and doers, giving novices a chance to try their hands at off-hand glassblowing, an art form that dates back more than 2,000 years.

James Stone, who set up his Stone and Glass studio at Bernardo Winery a dozen years ago, has been blowing glass for almost three decades.

“I know the glassblowing experience changes your life,” he said. “It changed mine. I got hooked at Palomar College, like just about every glassblower in San Diego County, and every week I drink out of that first glass I made with my teacher, Garry Cohen, to remind me I’m still on the journey.”

A Jersey boy who started out as a prop-maker for TV and movies, Stone had to leave the trade after a serious injury. He made his way to San Diego, where he now creates fantasy hot glass furniture, sculptures, and pieces of public art and enjoys sharing his passion with interested students, both young and old.

“Kids are fearless,” he said. “They’re not afraid of the fire. Adults come in, and they’re afraid. For me, it’s all about taking them on the journey, so when they go out, everyone has a smile on their face.”

In the world of San Diego glassblowers, all roads lead to Garry Cohen, head of Palomar College’s glassblowing program for the past 20 years. It’s a small world; Cohen calls it “The Brotherhood of the Burning Sands.” And it all began with Val Sanders, who started the program in 1969.

Cohen began as a potter and jeweler, but once he discovered hot glass, he was hypnotized by the process. He opens his studio and gardens to the public two weekends a year, at Thanksgiving and Mother’s Day, so hundreds can have the Glass Ranch Experience for themselves.

“It’s my Field of Dreams,” he said. “If you build it, they will come.”