Seen through doors on a newly constructed wall, glassblower David Jacobson repairs part of a glassblowing furnace in a basement room at Waterfall Arts in Belfast. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Glassblower David Jacobson had been toying with moving from Montville to Belfast when the pandemic forced his decision. An artist and teacher who depended on a steady flow of people through his studio to take glassblowing lessons, Jacobson was uncertain how to proceed amid a worsening and vexing public health crisis that wiped out all his classes.

With a void in his business, he sensed opportunity. Late last summer, he closed the studio that he built in 2013, packed up and headed to the cool coastal city with a built-in arts scene. “I figured, this might be the time to do it,” he said.

This spring, Jacobson and another Maine glass artist, Carmi Katsir, will open Maine’s only community glassblowing studio at Waterfall Arts, the innovative community arts center that operates in an old elementary school in Belfast. In an added twist, the hot ovens in the studio will be powered by a furnace that runs on used vegetable oil collected from local restaurants, as well as electricity. Traditionally, glassblowers burn though a lot of propane or natural gas to power their furnaces, and the industry is seeking green alternatives as it reckons with its energy consumption. Running a burner with something other than fossil fuel was essential to Waterville Arts’ interest in the project.

“We really wanted it to be sustainable,” said Waterfall Arts Executive Director Kim Fleming. “We’re environmentally responsible, so we said, ‘Let’s figure this out.’ ”

Glassblower David Jacobson rebuilds a glassblowing furnace at Waterfall Arts in Belfast. The glassblowing studio, slated to open in June, will be Maine’s only community glassblowing studio, and its furnaces and ovens will be powered by used vegetable oil. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Jacobson donated all of his gear, and Waterfall Arts secured about $50,000 in grants to convert the former fallout shelter in the school’s basement into a 1,000-square-foot, two-workstation glassblowing studio, with ovens for annealing, fusing and slumping, as well as handheld tools and other equipment necessary for working with glass while it is hot and after it cools. The studio likely will open in June, with classes, workshops and demonstrations for beginners and those who want to expand their skills, and for use by experienced glassblowers.

“This is a hands-on maker space, and we’re pretty excited,” Fleming said.

Vase by David Jacobson. Photo courtesy of David Jacobson

The timing is good, despite the pandemic. Glassblowing is a hot trend. The Canadian reality show “Blown Away,” filmed in a huge hot shop in Hamilton, Ontario, is popular on Netflix and in its second season, profiling glass artists as they compete for best-in-glass bragging rights and $60,000. The general curiosity about glassblowing fits into larger DIY trends across society, as people demonstrate a desire to disconnect from their dependence on digital devices and reconnect with the art and craft of creating something beautiful and original – maybe even magical – with their hands, said Chris Battaglia, who handles publicity for Waterfall Arts.

Because of the cost of equipment, glassblowing has remained somewhat out of reach for people who are casually curious or interested in dabbling. There are private studios across Maine where people can take lessons, like the one Jacobson operated for almost a decade, and Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle operates one of the most prestigious hot glass studios in the Northeast. But lessons and tuition are expensive. The studio at Waterfall Arts will make it easier for people who want to give glassblowing a try, Battaglia said.

“There is just a lot of good energy around this project,” he said. “A lot of people seem to be interested, and I think it will open doors for a lot of cool partnerships.”

Working with blown glass is a dramatic, physical experience, involving hot ovens and open flames, malleable materials, and industrial-style tools that demand dexterity and hand-to-eye coordination. Working with hot glass also requires precision in technique and timing, almost like a dance, and often involves working in tandem with another artist. As with any art form, successful projects come with many failures, and failures in glass are announced with loud crashes.

The glassblowing studio at Waterfall Arts will serve newcomers, emerging and established artists, Fleming said. It will give experienced artists who lack their own studio a place to work on projects, experiment and grow, while providing a platform for others to get into the field or expand their interests. The role of the studio, she added, will be to serve the needs of the community as those needs and the community itself evolve.

Bowl by Carmi Katsir.  Photo courtesy of Carmi Katsir

Newcomers can expect to make a vase, bowl or drinking glass, Jacobson said.

Waterfall Arts is still working out its pricing and structure for classes and open studios and wouldn’t give a general cost range, but Fleming said it would be priced so people can afford it. In addition to classes taught by Jacobson and Katsir, there will be one-day and weekend workshops, demonstrations with artists from Maine and around the country, and open studio hours when people can reserve equipment for their own projects, all conducted in a pandemic-safe environment. “Glassblowing is inaccessible in Maine for the majority of the public, and it’s very expensive if you can be a part of it,” Fleming said. “That is about to change. We are going to offer affordable glassblowing, and we will have scholarships available for people who cannot afford it.”

In addition, Waterfall Arts has begun conversations with Belfast High School about offering glassblowing to students as soon as this fall. Only a handful of high schools in the country offer glassblowing. Community glassblowing studios are also uncommon. There’s one in New Hampshire and another in Boston. Community studios powered by vegetable oil are less common, Fleming said. “As far as we can tell, we will be the only sustainable glassblowing studio in the Northeast. The closest is in North Carolina,” she said.

The glassblowing community is wrestling with the fossil fuel dilemma. Some studios have stopped operating entirely, while others have converted to electricity and other fuels. Jacobson researched his options, talked to studios that have converted to vegetable oil, and began asking businesses in Belfast about collecting their used oil. Sherian Swindell, co-owner of the Only Doughnut of Maine in Belfast, was glad to off-load her soy shortening.

The doughnut shop, which opened in the fall, burns through about 220 pounds of shortening per week for its fryers and expects to increase that amount to about 280 pounds a week when the shop receives new fryers this winter. Swindell stores discarded oil in large drums behind the store, and offers the oil to a local farmer who uses it for lubricating farm equipment and for mixing in with his animal food. After the glassblowing studio is up and running, Waterfall Arts will get first dibs, she said.

“They had this amazing donation of glassblowing studio equipment, and I was trying to figure out something creative to do with the massive amount of oil we go through in a week,” Swindell said. “I am so excited they are doing this, and so is the community. They are an asset to Belfast and to Waldo County in general, so anything we can do to help, we’re all in favor of.”

Jacobson, 68, got hooked on glass as a freshman at Kent State University. It was spring semester, and the glassblowing studio set up outside. “I could see the sparkle of the glass in the sun, and I thought, ‘What is that?’ I knew I needed to learn how to do that,” he said.

He later earned his bachelor’s degree in art with a focus on glass from the University of Minnesota, but glassblowing remained more an interest than a career. He made his living drawing cartoons, moving to New York in 1985, where he drew a daily newspaper cartoon for The Journal News in White Plains, and worked for the New Yorker, New York Times and Washington Post and was syndicated by United Media. All the while, he kept his interest in glassblowing as a hobby.

He moved to Maine in 2003 and continued cartooning for newspapers and magazines until 2013, when he fulfilled an early dream and opened his own glass studio in Montville. All was going well until the pandemic shut him down, prompting his move to the coast and this turn in his career.

Glassblower Carmi Katsir, right, and Tim Biggs frame a wall in a basement room at Waterfall Arts. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Katsir, who lives in Montville, teaches glassblowing at Hidden Valley Camp in Freedom. He is a second-generation glass artist. His father, Dani Katsir, is an established glass artist in Michigan, and Carmi Katsir has been making glass art since he was 5. He is 36 now. He and his wife moved to Montville six years ago, from San Francisco. “We were working really hard and part of the rat race,” Katsir said. “We decided we wanted more space and more control of our lives, so we moved to Maine to live year-round.”

Work by Carmi Katsir. Photo courtesy of Carmi Katsir

Katsir loves teaching and sharing those moments of magic when people make their first object from hot glass. “It’s something they never forget, and I am looking forward to many of those moments,” he said.

Jacobson shares that sentiment. That moment always reminds him of the afternoon at Kent State, when the sparkle of glass in the sun caught his eye and piqued a creative curiosity he is still exploring. “I teach people to make things for themselves,” Jacobson said, demystifying the magic as something tangible and within reach.

“The majority of people will say, ‘I have no talent, I can’t do it.’ I tell them, ‘That is not true.’ And they always leave excited and elated that they have worked on something in 3D, created something new, and accomplished something challenging and something fun.”


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