From the Flames

Story by Spencer Adrian

Photos & Multimedia by Will Kanellos

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As storms roll in along the West Coast, the Alderhouse glassblowing studio stands as a stronghold against bone-chilling winds. The studio’s furnaces reach temperatures of nearly 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, offering a warm escape nestled in the woods just off Highway 101 south of Lincoln City, Oregon.

Inside, glass spheres hang from the ceiling swaying in the breeze while vases sit next to paperweights encasing coral-like glass figures. The roar of the furnace nearly drowns out sounds of rain as hot molten glass is molded into works of art. Buzz and Anne Williams, who run the small studio along with their son, Ian, work together to give daily demonstrations to everyone who walks through the door. The family crafts small cups or vases in fewer than 30 minutes with the hope that everyone who stops by Alderhouse has an opportunity to see a piece take shape.

The Alderhouse is the oldest glassblowing studio in the Pacific Northwest and has stayed true to its humble beginnings. Buzz, along with two fellow Portland State University (PSU) students, Mike Smith and Megan McQueston, opened the studio in 1969. At the time, none of them had experience working with glass. Buzz’s background was in drawing and painting, but for Buzz, glassblowing held a certain allure. “It just happened,” Buzz says. “We said it would be fun to do a glassblowing studio. None of us knew very much about it at all.” Before opening the studio, he had only taken one weeklong glassblowing seminar at PSU—the rest of his skill has been self-taught.

During its first year, the business suffered a great setback. Eight days after reopening for the 1970 spring season, the studio’s power went out, leaving the furnace unregulated. Fire from the furnace quickly spread throughout the studio, and the partners were left with nothing.

However, Buzz never gave up on his dream, and in the fall of that year, he built Alderhouse II. It was a half-spherical, geodesic dome structure that came as a kit. After the dome was completed in 1971, the artists quickly began blowing glass again. “It’s almost like the phoenix,” Buzz says. “It burns up and then rebuilds out of its ashes.”

Even after rebuilding the studio, a period of trial and error came with the glassblowing equipment. The brick, mortar, and piping, were all installed by hand, and Buzz recalls going through five furnaces in just a couple of years. But, he says, that was part of the learning process for the team of artists.

As time went on, Alderhouse’s popularity grew and more people began pulling off the highway into Buzz’s small studio. In 1984, Anne, who then worked at Oregon State University (OSU), came out to watch a glassblowing demonstration. “I just thought it was the coolest thing I had ever seen,” Anne says.

Anne and Buzz kept in contact, and a friendship quickly grew. Anne eventually left her job at OSU to join the studio and soon after married Buzz. He taught Anne how to blow glass, and together they taught their 16-year-old son Ian the craft. As a team, the family works in the studio creating stunning works of art using techniques dating back to the Roman Empire.

Tragedy struck again in 1998 when the Siletz River flooded and brought two feet of water into Alderhouse II. The furnaces had been built to survive a natural disaster such as this, and were still running when Buzz opened the door to his flooded studio. Unfortunately, the structure surrounding the furnaces was lost, and Buzz once again began rebuilding the studio.

The current studio, Alderhouse III, has been standing for 14 years and features two furnaces. Both glow and radiate such intense heat that Buzz keeps the studio windows and doors open, even on rainy days. One furnace contains molten glass, while the other is used to warm glass before being shaped. On nearby shelves, small plastic containers hold minerals that are added to the glass to create colors such as cobalt and crimson. Metal molds and forms sit alongside specialized tools where the Williams family, along with fellow glassblowers Treasure Collupy and Kyle Gribskov, work on their glass creations.

Together, Anne and Ian work almost seamlessly, responding intuitively to each other’s needs without murmuring a word. Anne quickly narrates the process to onlookers during demonstrations, while Ian moves between the furnace and tools, working the glass with ease. He blows a small amount of air into a long metal tube with the molten glass on the end. He then puts his thumb over the end of the tube to trap the air inside. Slowly, the heat from the glass warms the trapped air, causing it to expand, and the glass begins to bubble out. Ian tilts the tube and points the glass towards the floor to let gravity draw out elongated shape he’s looking for. Next, he uses sheets of wet newspaper to shape the glass into its semi-finished form. “This is the Wall Street Journal. Buzz’s line was that he always used the editorial page,” Anne jokes. “It can take the heat.”

After Ian has achieved the shape he wants, Anne uses a wooden paddle to flatten the top into a cylindrical drinking glass. The lip of the glass is perfectly clear, while spirals of red curl towards the bottom. Ian has only been blowing glass for three years, but his skill is evident in his confidence. “When you are first learning, you use clear glass,” Anne says. “You blow what you blow.” Beginners start with small pieces, but with time, they can move up to vases large enough to hold several bouquets or spheres with intricate sea-life sculptures trapped inside.

Over the years, Buzz, Anne, and Ian have become experts in their craft. As their popularity has grown, Buzz and Anne have tried to remain small, turning down requests to mass-produce items. They enjoy being a small studio tucked away from the big city. “My main enjoyment still is the people who come out here,” Buzz says. “You get everything from truck drivers to astronauts.”

Now, nearly half a century old, the Alderhouse is more popular than ever. During summer months, Anne and Buzz stay busy creating glass pieces and showing off their art to tourists. They remain hopeful the tradition will carry on, and that the furnace inside will continue to burn bright, keeping the oldest glassblowing house on the West Coast warm.


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