At Terminal City Glass Co-op, badass blowtorches fire up art

By Andrea Warner, November 15, 2012

A block off the sketchy north end of Clark Drive, tucked into a relatively untouched pocket of Vancouver’s industrial history, Terminal City Glass Co-op is situated in a large ground-floor suite of the Mergatroid Building. Outside, it’s cold, wet, and dark; the streets are empty save for the occasional semi truck. Inside, it’s a world of blood, sweat, and tears—sometimes simultaneously.

Huge furnaces (in what’s known as the hot shop) glow yellow and orange, blowtorches of all shapes and sizes are at the ready, and swing music plays out of an old ghetto blaster as a small crowd of people watch Terminal City cofounder (and Bocci designer by day) Jeff Holmwood heave a six-foot-long metal tube, known as a blowpipe, from a 2,200-degree-Farenheit furnace. Molten glass shimmers at one end as he sits down and begins to shape the material before it hardens. A variety of assistants help him in this cumbersome, risky task, while artist Sonya Labrie blows into the pipe. After a few minutes, Holmwood stands up and steadily guides the contraption into the reheating station, called a glory hole.

Glass blowing and flameworking are an equal mix of naughty terminology, badass danger (you could spend hours comparing scars), science-nerd smarts (thermal stress and oxidizing flames), and wild creativity (almost anything is possible). As Holmwood waves a blowtorch at full flame precariously close to himself, we’re less than an inch away from third-degree-burn territory. It seems like a lot to risk for what will become a vase, albeit a beautiful one.

“Jeff’s a bit of a loose cannon, and at times perhaps ever so slightly irresponsible,” says Holly Cruise affectionately as she surveys Holmwood’s “mad artist” antics.

Cruise and Holmwood founded Terminal City earlier this year with fellow artists Morley Faber and Joanne Andrighetti. Faber, who owns the building, hosted a roundtable discussion in late 2010 to determine whether there was interest in a cooperative studio in Vancouver. There was: in February of this year, they signed the incorporation agreement and in June hosted their grand opening, with Holmwood crafting the studio’s inaugural piece. Glance upward, and you can see it sitting at the top of the 
hot shop, a ritualistic “sacrifice to the furnace gods”, Cruise says with a laugh.

So far, the gods must be appeased. Terminal City (which opens its doors to the public from Friday to Sunday [November 16 to 18] as part of the Eastside Culture Crawl) now has more than 55 members, and receives two or three applications every week from prospective glass artists.

“It’s almost more important to us that people want to be a member of a co-op than that they have glass experience,” Cruise says. “We accept novices, but what we want is to start a community, create a learning environment, and we want people who are going to want to work with other people.”

Terminal City is member-owned and built almost entirely on donated labour and materials. It offers a full range of classes in glass-making arts and techniques to members and nonmembers. Across the room, away from Holmwood and the chaos of large-scale glass-blowing equipment, is the smaller, less imposing flameworking equipment used mainly by jewellery makers. At one end of it, Maria Keating is crafting sandblasted pieces that mix clear glass with smoky, textured elements. At the other, cofounder Andrighetti demonstrates the melding of tiny Italian glass pipes in a bright blue flame. The glass melts as she pulls and twists the pieces together, eventually forming a beautiful, large bead that weaves a zebra pattern of black and white. Keating admires her friend’s handiwork and smiles proudly.

“I’ve been melting glass for about 10 years now, and it’s always about ideas and it’s always about sharing,” she says. “Glass has so many secrets that we’re all trying to unravel. There’s so much chemistry involved, imagination, using gravity, other glass, and fire as your tools. It’s not like painting or drawing, yet it is. It’s just taking it to the next element.”

That’s a large part of the reason why Andrighetti became a founder. A glass expert for more than 30 years, she had plenty of experience as a solo artist, but prefers what Terminal City offers.

“I’ve operated a studio by myself and it’s a lot of responsibility,” she says. “It’s expensive and there are a lot of technical and physical challenges. I just think it’s a great idea to have a studio where all the work is shared, the equipment is shared, and it’s not on any one person’s shoulders. Glass blowers need to stick together and support each other because it’s still a relatively obscure art form.”

But maybe not for long, thanks to Terminal City.