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Saturday, March 24, 2007

Metal, sweat and fire come together in elegant art


In a cavernous brick warehouse on a quiet block in Brooklyn, N.Y., a woman kneels near a row of furnaces that heave with glowing orange flames.

Glassblower Michiko Sakano
Glassblower Michiko Sakano (left) and assistant Amber Cowan work on a creation in Brooklyn, N.Y. BETH HILLMAN PHOTO

She twists a thin metal pole topped with a pumpkin-colored glob, watching it intensely as it rotates, as if calculating a complex math problem in her head. "Blow!" Michiko Sakano shouts suddenly, her brow furrowed and gleaming with sweat after repeated trips to the "glory hole," a hulking inferno that heats glass for shaping.

At the other end of the pipe, her assistant for the day, Amber Cowan, caps her mouth around the stainless steel and puffs into the 870-degree Celsius lump as Sakano guides it into shape with huge tongs. "Blow hard!" she yells again, then heaves the pole upward for another dip into the fire.

Sakano moves in quick, practiced strides to the glory hole, which she welded herself from slabs of metal. The whole space -- a former motorcycle parking lot -- is, in fact, largely her creation. Sakano, originally from Japan, founded One Sixty Glass seven years ago, working with her partner, John Pomp, to attempt to live her dream of becoming a professional glassblower in the U.S.

Despite some tough times, Sakano has established a steady stream of clients, along with occasional teaching gigs and the frequent chance to create her own glassware projects.

Born in Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture, Sakano grew up in her mother's kimono-making studio surrounded by craftsmen, and its artsy influence emerged at an early age.

"When I was a kid, I'd collect cardboard boxes and build stuff in the house, like a post office," Sakano says, adding that her family didn't buy her regular toys, but rather bricks and other building supplies, which she would paint and stack into structures.

When she entered a prestigious high school, her freshman homeroom teacher "freaked out" when she told him she had no specific goal in life. This cycle repeated each year until she decided that, before she'd continue onto a Japanese university, she'd take a year off and study in the U.S.

After a few semesters at a small college in Boston, she was accepted to Syracuse University, enrolling in the 3D arts department in 1995. Though she majored in metal fabrication, she happened to try glassblowing and was instantly hooked.

"It was just one of those things," Sakano says. "When I saw it for the first time, I had to drop everything and do it."

After getting an MFA in glassblowing at Massachusetts College of Art, she freelanced her skills for other artists' projects across the East Coast, but had trouble supporting herself as a professional glassblower, since work was scarce.

When her father died in 1997, she moved back to Japan for six months, but returned to the U.S. when she landed a professorship at the Cleveland Institute of Art she had applied to months earlier.

Thrilled at first to have a full-time job doing what she loved, Sakano says she had already grown bored after two years in Cleveland when her friend John Pomp asked her to become his partner and set up their own glassblowing studio in New York.

The two borrowed thousands of dollars, purchasing a spacious lot in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and slaved for a month to weld from scratch the huge, fire-filled machines and prepare the warehouse for business, which would include both six-week and one-day glass-blowing workshops.

Though opening the shop was a risk, Sakano believes it was one she had to take. "I had a chance to do this once in my life, so I had to do it.

"I thought, 'I'm going to do my best and see what happens. If it doesn't work, it doesn't work.' You live only once."

But after the studio's first year the attacks of Sept. 11 seemed to prove that the risk was indeed too dangerous. In the week after the tragedy, not a single customer called or visited. "I thought we'd have to close," Sakano says.

But then, though America's economy took a sharp downturn, One Sixty Glass actually saw an increase in customers, as the attacks encouraged many people to seize the day and pursue things that they'd been curious about but never tried, like glassblowing.

"A lot of people thought, 'I've saved so much money, but it's not worth it. I want to do something I want to do' -- and they started taking classes."

Though she tries not to compare Japan and the U.S., where she's now spent half of her 35 years, Sakano believes it's easier to make dreams come true in America. "In the States, if you make effort, there's a result," she says. "In New York, as long as you're responsible, you can do whatever you want."

After smoothing a white chunk of liquid glass over the glowing orange-green piece to create a two-toned effect, Sakano trims a hole in the orb with diamond-shaped shears, then rolls the glass against the worn wooden paddles Cowan presses against it.

Plumes of smoke and sparks flicker up and out, fluttering in front of Sakano's face. She squints as she pumps the slowly flattening ball against them, its shape growing rounder, until, after repeated trips to the glory hole to keep it hot and malleable, it begins to resemble a bowl.

The '80s love ballads drifting from Sakano's Mac laptop are interrupted by the frequent pop of exploding glass and shards shattering across the floor -- the fate of glass that hasn't been cooled properly. To avoid that, Sakano and Cowan carefully slide the now finished bowl into the annealer, which will gradually cool it from 480 degrees to room temperature, and a muted opal olive brown, by the next morning. In 40 minutes, Sakano has turned a lifeless lump into a sleek, elegant creation.

Seeing this change, she says, is her favorite part of glassblowing. "What's most interesting is, when you look at the equipment, it's not glamorous -- it's dirty, it's hot -- but the product is so beautiful. Beautiful things come out of nothing." She pauses and grins. "I like that."

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