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Blown away

Molten magic at Cloud Cap Glass

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Wolfville Lane just south of Florence off U.S Highway 93 doesn’t look very enticing to passers-by. The graveled drive seems mundanely typical of Bitterroot civilization, incongruous with the wild namesake of the address. There’s a used car dealership and a strip of small warehouses, home to businesses that fit in the Bitterroot: taxidermy, welding, snowmobile accessory, car repair, each space busy with the drone of compressors, the clink of wrenches, the blaring of the classic rock radio station.

But despite appearances, there is something wild going on here. Step inside the space labeled with a block-lettered “D” next to the unassuming hand-painted wooden “Cloud Cap Glass” sign and the zoning classification “light industrial” still applies. You see steel tanks filled with various volatile pressurized gasses linked to torches that would scorch a truckload of crème brûlée, furnaces cranking BTUs enough to cremate a body, heavy tools sharp and hot enough to tattoo a heifer with more brands than a NASCAR driver’s jumpsuit.

This is Cloud Cap Glass. At a glance, it might be the kind of place you’d stop in to fix your windshield or have the panes in your storm windows re-glazed. But the work that goes on to the beat of Led Zeppelin here is not nearly so utilitarian. This is an artists’ space, a studio, a hot shop, which, in the lingo of glass-blowers, is where with a big iron stick you take a gather of molten hot glass and begin to create something decidedly more soulful than the camshaft of a Toyota.

Glass-blowing might seem more at home in the Firenze of Italy than the one just south of Missoula. But for three Bitterroot transplants and artists, the pursuit of this Old World craft seems to work just fine here. And their neighbors—tutti i gusti son gusti, to each his own—don’t seem to mind at all.

“Some of our music might have raised their eyebrows, a bit,” says Cloud Cap co-founder Richard Langley, with the shy hint of a mischievous grin, “but other than that, we all get along just fine.”

Before you get the wrong idea, this operation is not a collection of half-assed hippies melting old beer bottles to make their own bongs. Even a casual glance through recently completed work on the shelf of their studio, or through Cloud Cap’s online catalog, reveals the work of artists well-versed in the more traditional forms of glass—vases, bottles, and bowls—in addition to some eclectic innovations of their own.

In Julia Boriss’ rendition of an exuberant nude female torso, for example, there’s a subtle, suggestive twist that suggests notions of movement, a body at play—a pliable, animated irony in contrast to the fragility of the medium. Langley, whom Boriss and third Cloud Cap partner Robin Rogers both concede is the more accomplished master of standard forms, adds his own touch of originality, creating hues and swirls of blues and greens that accent the nearly mystical quality of the light inherent in well-done studio glass. And if hippie subject matter is really your thing, Rogers has created a to-scale model of an air-cooled VW engine, mounted on a metal frame, out of clear glass. The eye wanders from piece to piece, and the beholder wonders, “How’d they do that?”

The first impression upon walking into Cloud Cap is one of seriousness. Sure, the dogs are there, the music’s blaring, but as contradictory as it may sound, a laid-back intensity pervades this studio—one that dismisses stoner-silly notions about hapless bohemians making art. There are people who dig Zen and think it’s really cool, and then there are serious Zen students. If that religion was the subject at Cloud Cap rather than glass, there would be some heroic zazen taking place here.

All three partners involved in Cloud Cap are experienced blowers who not only know their craft but can get you far into the intimate details of the history of glass-blowing—from its beginnings, shrouded in secrecy, on the island of Murano near Venice on the Italian coast, to the arrival of Italian glass-blowers who gave a much-needed boost to the fledgling American studio glass movement of the ’60s and ’70s.

“The reason they put really reputable Italians on an island,” says Rogers, “was that they didn’t want their methods to leave the country. So if you left the country, or tried to, it was considered treasonous. They might cut your hands off, but if you made it to England you were knighted. That’s how much their stuff was admired and in demand.”

Judging by the centuries elapsed, Italian glass artists looking for a change of scenery more often came under a boss’ heavy blade than a scepter of the royal crown. Though factory glass had been blown in the states for more than a century, only a few brave American souls were creating artistic “studio” glass. When the first Italian craftsmen arrived on American shores, they showed these artists that they were laughably uninformed.

“And these guys weren’t even the masters,” says Langley. “A lot of them were foremen in factory shops or assistants to master blowers in studios.”

Nonetheless, their ideas, according to Langley, revolutionized American glass-making. By the time Langley discovered the joys of glass-blowing, he was able to apprentice himself to artists in Bend, Ore., and Seattle. Before leaving Oregon, he was taking welding classes at a community college in preparation for building a hot shop of his own. He and girlfriend Boriss relocated to their Wolfville Lane space, living and working there for nine months before opening their doors to the public.

“It was kind of scary,” recollects Boriss. “I’d wake up in the middle of the night and think the place was on fire, but it was just the glow of the furnaces.”

The idea, Langley and Boriss claim, was to produce their own work in addition to teaching classes to the general public and renting space to other artists. Soon after the grand opening, someone told Robin Rogers—now a partner in Langley and Boriss’ venture—that there was a glass shop opening south of Missoula.

“I’d always dreamed of running a hot shop somewhere,” recalls Rogers. “So a friend dropped me off here one afternoon. I was renting space from them, helping them produce their own work, and working on my own stuff. I was here five or six days a week, and when that first fall came around that time they asked me, ‘Why don’t you buy in?’”

Rogers did buy in, in the fall of 2001, which, according to all three partners, has created a synergistic relationship, benefiting both the art and business of glass-making. And then some: it also allowed Richard and Julia to move out of the shop and into a house in Stevensville, which they share with Rogers. It’s easy to imagine the three getting tired of each other, but the consensus among the trio is that the love of their craft supersedes petty grievances.

“There’s a lot of submission in glass-making,” says Boriss. “We all take turns working on our own stuff, and whoever is making glass on that day is in charge. An assistant basically has to follow the orders of the glass-maker.”

“You also get totally absorbed in the work,” adds Rogers. “I’ve blown glass in front of 200 people, and you just forget about everything, forget anyone else is in there. Blowing glass is totally energizing. It’s hard work, but I could do this 10 or 12 hours a day, no problem.”

“Working with glass,” adds Boriss with a self-conscious giggle, “isn’t like any other medium. It’s magic.” 

Cloud Cap Glass (417 Wolfville Ln. D; 1.6 miles south of Florence on Hwy. 93) will be hosting a Halloween open house from 3 p.m. to midnight on Saturday, Oct. 26. There will be drinks, food and candle-lit glass-blowing demonstrations. Costumes are encouraged. Call 777-3886 for more information.

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