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Fired Up

Mt. Hood Glassworks is upper valley's artists' hot spot<BR>

Glass artist Michael Andrews is appropriately dressed in a flame shirt as he shouts above the din of the home-made furnace, which casts an orange-red glow around his shop and hisses like a giant blowtorch.

"This furnace runs just on propane," he says. As he talks, a truck driver outside unloads from a flatbed dozens of tall oxygen tanks and a few fat propane tanks, propping them like mini-submarines near the shop wall.

"We go through about 30 oxygen tanks every week," Andrews shouts, explaining that most of his glass-blowing implements run on a combination of oxygen and propane.

"But this one --" he gestures at the glowing furnace -- "is what we call the offhand glass blower. It burns at up to 2,500 degrees."

As he yells, Craig Graffins maneuvers a blowpipe -- a long steel pipe with molten glass on the end -- inside the furnace. He stares into the furnace through a pair of didymium goggles which protect his eyes from the blinding glare and allow him to see the glass within the flames. After a few minutes, he pulls the blowpipe out of the furnace and holds it upright, letting gravity stretch the molten glass into an oblong bulb.

"When we're working with torches, we use a lot of tools to shape the glass," Andrews explains. "But with this, we use simple things like gravity, wet paper, cherry wood."

Today, they are just playing around, getting used to the new furnace, "getting the concepts down," Andrews says. But this -- the fusing shop, the furnace -- is the culmination, or perhaps just the beginning, of a dream.

"This is what we've been wanting," Andrews says. "This has been the dream, to blow glass out of a furnace."

***

The dream has been a long time coming. Andrews and his wife, Leigha, landed in the Hood River Valley nearly eight years ago. Before that they lived in Los Angeles where they had a thriving glassworks business. Then came the Northridge earthquake in January of 1994.

"We lived four miles from the epicenter," Andrews says. Nearly everything they had was destroyed. The couple decided to find a new place to settle and, after traveling through several western states, discovered Hood River after a day of snowboarding on Mt. Hood.

"There are lots of places that have the beauty, but not the kind of people we found here," Andrews says. "The people here are just amazing." The couple settled in -- eventually moving to Parkdale -- and several of their friends followed.

Andrews had worked with glass for years, first with his father, a glass artist, then on his own. But he'd worked primarily with stained glass and he wanted to branch out into more sophisticated glass art.

After he'd settled in Parkdale, Andrews "bought a torch and spent a lot of late nights figuring it out," he says. He got some of his old friends interested in glassblowing and taught them what he knew. They spent long hours working in the basement shop at Andrews' home, and later in the "fusing" shop housed in a separate building nearby.

Together, they opened Mt. Hood Glassworks in July. The Parkdale studio is a combination gallery and shop. Andrews works on small glass pieces with a torch in the front of the shop where customers can watch him. The rest of the studio is divided into several rooms filled with glass art in multiple forms -- from picture frames to jewelry to hummingbird feeders.

Much of the glasswork is made by Andrews and his studio co-owners, Craig Graffius, Mike Robertson, Aaron Harwood and Leigha Andrews. But other Hood River Valley and Mid-Columbia glass artists also are represented.

"It's been great to interact with all the other glass artists in the Gorge," Andrews says. "It's amazing how many glass enthusiasts are out there."

Between the studio at Mt. Hood Glassworks and his home shop, Andrews and the others have the capability to work in several different areas of glasswork -- from stained glass to "lampworking," which involves heating and softening a glass rod or tubing in a flame to form various shapes. But fusing is what Andrews loves most.

Fusing allows the glass artist to join pieces of glass together by melting them in a kiln. After working with molten glass in the offhand glass blower, the glass artist shapes the piece at a so-called gaffer's bench. Then it's placed in a kiln where it can be fused with other pieces.

"It's in the kiln for most of the day," Andrews explains. "Then we come out and see what's been made. It's like Christmas."

The Andrews have two children -- Forest, age 8, and Ahnauna, 5, and even they are getting into glassworking.

"They've each made marbles," Andrews says. Forest likes watching Andrews and the others work in the fusing shop. Despite the intense heat of the large furnace, fusing is safer for the kids than using a torch, according to Andrews.

Right now, the Mt. Hood Glassworks crew is ramping up their "seasonal stuff," creating ornaments and other holiday gift items which will be available not only at their gallery but at some of the holiday gift bazaars and markets in the area. After the holidays, they hope to offer classes in glassblowing in their studio and continue to push their own boundaries in glass art.

"Every day we're evolving, pushing our limits, doing something bigger and nicer," Andrews says. "We all feel really blessed. We love what we do and we want to share it."

Mt. Hood Glassworks is located on Second Street in Parkdale. It's open Wednesday and Thursday from 11 to 4, Friday through Sunday from 11 to 6. The studio's phone number is 352-4170.

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