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April 11, 2005   Email to Friend 

Conversations In Glass
Cindy Riley

Artist Cal Breed shapes hand-blown glass into timeless treasures at his Fort Payne studio.
His pieces have been described as sophisticated, classic and innovative--a remarkable blend of color, technique and design. For Cal Breed, they reflect a passion that could not be denied.

"I can't tell you the exact moment I blew glass for the first time, but in my mind I can see it moving, and I remember the way it felt when I was able to touch it," Breed explained. "For me, working with glass is like having a conversation. No one remembers their first slur as a baby, but they do think back when they began learning words, and now they can speak eloquent poetry."

Breed, owner of Orbix Hot Glass in Fort Payne, Ala., is clearly enchanted with the art form that dates back to 25 B.C. With a screaming orange furnace fire swirling at 2,350 degrees Fahrenheit, Breed prepares for the delicate dance where carefully choreographed steps produce extraordinary objects. His collection of centerpieces, pitchers, vases, suncatchers, bowls and ornaments are clearly the result of grace, skill and tremendous vision.

"Technically, glass is a bizarre material. It takes an almost scientific approach to learn how to make your ideas work. You build and design your own equipment and carry out experiments. But there's a lot more to it. Perfecting the quality, color, transparency and projection of color and light--that's what makes it so beautiful," Breed said.

For Breed, the blurring of disciplines comes naturally. The son of an engineer and artist, he developed an appreciation for the analytical and aesthetic. Although he was close to completing a degree in marine biology, Breed couldn't resist his true calling.

"While I was at Auburn (University), I decided to take a stained-glass class. The instructor lent me a book with an image of a man blowing and spinning glass for a window, and I was intrigued. Then, while I was in Birmingham, I met Cam Langley, who allowed me to watch him and gather glass out of his furnace. I had the chance to experience the way the material felt, and I knew I was hooked," he said.

Breed went on to study with Paul Cunningham at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Maine and earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from The Ohio State University in 1997. He further honed his skills under the tutelage of various glass masters, including those at the legendary Pilchuck Glass School near Seattle.

"The longer you study, the more you come to realize the innate beauty of glass. You can mold it into even more wonderful shapes, because you better understand it."

Using raw batches of sand and other materials shipped from North Carolina, Breed slowly fills his furnace in limited quantities, protecting the crucible from the highly acidic substance. Once the correct temperature is reached, Breed manipulates the glass until it reaches the appropriate form.

"Once it's finished, I can lay the edge of a five-foot long pipe or metal rod and dip into glass and turn and pull it out, just like you would honey out of a jar," he said.

At his bench, Breed uses a variety of tricks to create shimmering treasures, including an overlapping process to create optical distortions. Multiple transparent incalmo bands(where two bands of blown-glass bubbles are joined) also produce dramatic results.

"There are many options as far as glass and color are concerned," Breed said. "You can layer it and add color by using chips, powder or chunks that you've made into molten blobs that are smeared in. It's similar to blowing a colored balloon into a glass. There's like a skin of color."

Breed has suffered minor burns through his years of glassblowing, mainly from reaching for utensils that haven't properly cooled off. "I use tweezers, shears and even tongs to force tapered indentations by squeezing the glass as I turn it. I also put wet newspaper pads on my hands to create shape. It's as close as you can get to actually touching the material while it's hot," he said.

Breed says one of the biggest frustrations of working in his chosen medium is the obvious.

"You break things a lot, especially in the beginning. It's definitely a skill of patience, focus and concentration. It's a dangerous situation if you start to fall in love with a piece, because you do drop down your guard, and the glass is destroyed very easily," Breed said. "I can make a sketch and then work on a piece for three hours and lose it right before I finish it. Someone can drop sweat on it and crack the piece, or you can tap the rod on the edge of the furnace and a section falls off. A million things can go wrong. You just have to put that rod in the bucket, grab another and start over. But I do save shards that I really love. If there are lots of pieces on the floor, I'll find the best one and hold on to it."

Breed often has music playing in the background while he creates with the help of his assistant Rich Hulsey.

"We work well together," Breed said. "People who stop by for tours are often surprised that we don't talk to each other. There's really no need, because we know what each other needs as we inflate and shape the pieces. It's a very organized production."

The results are impressive. According to fellow artist Langley, "Breed's works are crisp and clean, and very formal. And he's a quick study. He truly has the desire, and it shows in everything he makes."

Sue Jaffe, owner of Gallerie Alegria in Birmingham, has admired Breed's style for years. "Technically, he's a very proficient artist. His pieces can be used, but they stand on their own as well. Cal's work has been very well-received in our gallery, which specializes in sculptural glass work," she said.

Breed's wife, Christy, helps coordinate their showroom of Studio and Signature Series glassware, while their children make contributions of their own. Four-year-old Jonah helps make fragile holiday ornaments that 2-year-old daughter Anna enjoys shattering. The family also helped name the business.

"Orbix is tied to the fact that the glass is always revolving as you're working," Breed said. "On a deeper level is the fact that we relate to one another in these orbital patterns. Some people we see once a day, others only once in a lifetime. The way we all interact with one another is interesting to me. I guess I sometimes see things in a different way. It's just part of who I am."

For more information, visit www.orbixhotglass.com.

Cindy Riley is a freelance writer from Birmingham who covers the arts in Alabama

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