The original plan was modest. Doug Auer and his friend Jim McKelvey would teach classes in glassblowing to buy a place where they could indulge their love of glass art. It worked. They bought a cluster of abandoned buildings on Delmar and opened shop - holding classes, selling glass and developing their skills.
Fifteen years later, Third Degree Glass Factory has grown to be a major fixture of the St. Louis arts scene - attracting students, artists and the curious. Hundreds of pieces of art are available to
purchase in their gallery. Third Friday’s are a major draw - offering music, food and drink, and glass blowing demonstrations.
Third Degree has also created a community of artists where there was none, putting St. Louis on the national map as a center for glass art.
Today Auer continues to develop his craft in addition to running the business side of Third Degree. He’s long had a fascination with the medium.
“It’s so unique. It’s transparent. It’s translucent. It transmits light. It reflects light. It’s shiny but it’s soft. It’s cold. It’s hot. Watching it being made is unbelievable.
“I also like that it’s this combination of art and science. Working with a fluid, molten material involves a lot of thought. After a while you just sort of feel it, but the processes behind the creation fascinate me. I love the physics of it.”
Part of the attraction he attributes to his own lack of patience. “I like the spontaneity of glass. Creating it is such a fast process, as opposed, say to making ceramics. Inside a 20 to 30 minute session, it’s start to finish. There’s no stopping and coming back later, and for me that works really well.”
The art is created in a variety of ways. Much of it takes shape through the traditional methods of blowing into molten glass, then turning, shaping and even twirling it into bowls or vessels. Other pieces are created by cutting and fusing pieces of glass into artist works or practical items like glass tiles or cheese platters. One section is dedicated to flamework, where artists produce small items like beads for jewelry.
“Glass blowing has been around for so long, much of it is rediscovering techniques that have been forgotten,” says Auer.
It’s not surprising that a community of artists would eventually emerge . As he points out, working with glass is fast, hot and potentially dangerous. “The art of glass blowing is a team sport, so we wanted to build a pool of people who could work together.
“In the beginning there were just three or four of us making glass, and today we have over two dozen artists making their art and exhibiting in the gallery. We have a team of almost thirty artists teaching classes all year, many who got their start here taking classes.”
Auer’s work has evolved over the years as he experiments with techniques and discovers new qualities of the medium.
“Right now I’m into making these translucent, colored, simple teardrops, shaped as if by gravity. There’s something really nice about the simplicity - really thick glass with a layer of transparent glass and an interior of color that sort of floats in there.”
You can see an example of one of his large installation pieces in the lobby of Scape Restaurant on Maryland Avenue in the Central West End - a complex arrangement of smaller glass pieces, forming a sculpture that impacts the space it occupies in varying and unpredictable ways. But even a small piece can have the same effect, making glass different from other types of art.
“Any time there’s glass, if sunlight comes through it, not only does the glass glow, but it creates what I call colored shadows on the floor and on the wall. And it’s amazing. And with its 3-dimensionality, you can walk around it and enjoy it from a variety of perspectives.”
The best way, of course, to understand the effects of glass is to experience it directly. Auer says there are very few “Don't’ Touch” signs in the gallery. “We want people to pick it up, feel it, experience it through touch as well as sight.” And at Third Degree visitors can watch the entire creative process - from molten glass to finished product. And after bringing the art of glass to the public for fifteen years, Doug Auer hears one comment more than any other.
“When people visit us, the word we hear the most is ‘amazing’, so we have adopted it as our unofficial motto - ‘Glass is amazing.’
“We’re here to make amazing experiences happen with glass. That is our mission.”
Visit Third Degree Glass at www.thirddegreeglassfactory.
Patrick Murphy has worked in St. Louis radio and television for the past forty years. He has produced a variety of arts-related programs for for St. Louis public television, including the series "Arts America" and "Night at the Symphony". He currently serves on the Webster Groves arts commission and is an aspiring water colorist.