Wilson Design Studio in Petersburg is a Glass Act
From his side of the basement worktable, Charles Wilson assembles the eyes, lips and nose on a turquoise tiki mask, lining up spiky glass hair strands to show where they will go. Across the table, his wife and professional partner, Sara Dolph, pours a small portion of crushed, spring-green glass into one end of a flat, teardrop-shaped mold, adds a pinch of white glass to form a stripe, then scoots it all over to make room for the Christmas red, which, in its pre-firing stage, looks more like gold. When fused in the small kiln nearby, Dolph’s creation will become a solid ornament.
“Glass,” she says with the excitement of a kid in a candy store, “is the most amazing stuff.”
For the past 20 years, Wilson Design Studio has been producing colorful fused-glass objects, from whimsical yard sculptures, fluted vases and framed animal images to functional pieces like deviled egg trays, serving platters and the bestselling cheese boards made from discarded wine bottles. Originally from Texas, the pair moved to a sprawling, 66-acre farm in Petersburg four years ago, where they live with two cats and three German shepherds.
An accountant by trade, Dolph had already dabbled in beading, but it wasn’t until she took a fused-art jewelry class in the early 1990s that she found her artistic niche. “I made jewelry for maybe six months,” she recalls. “And I thought, ‘You know what? I want to make big stuff.’ ”
She’d recently met Wilson, a now-retired contractor with a background in three-dimensional Plexiglas sculpting and an eye for color and design, and he soon became interested in the art, too. They started with six small molds – back then, it was hard to find them at art stores, so they turned to restaurant suppliers for stainless-steel shapes – and now own dozens, along with a portfolio that includes shimmering iridescent sinks and other architectural pieces. Their work is available through their website, at craft fairs and the occasional trunk show they host at their home.
Most of the fused pieces begin as poster-size sheets of brightly colored glass or shards left over from another project. “She can break one in half perfectly, so I let her break them,” Wilson says with a laugh. “It scares me – breaking a big chunk of glass.”
After scoring the basic shapes with a sharp knife, one of the artists (they work together but not on the same pieces) arranges them on a base of clear glass, with Wilson using a grinder that resembles an old phonograph machine to smooth the edges. The object is then fired for 15 hours in one of two large kilns in the freestanding shop behind the house, cooling slowly to avoid breakage before undergoing the “slumping” process, a second firing in which the piece takes the shape of a mold and assumes its 3-D characteristics.
Dolph fashions her bubble ornaments – the studio’s only blown-glass wares – by pouring ground glass into a beaker-like, clear Glaskolben (German for “glass bulb”) with a ball shape on one end, then using a propane torch to melt the pieces and coat the inside. Blowing it like a flute, she turns and enlarges the bulb part until it balloons into a larger sphere, and fires it at 960 degrees.
“Glass is a liquid and the molecules are always moving,” Dolph points out. “It’s just that they move really, really slowly within a pane of glass. When you heat glass up, the molecules move a lot faster.”
In addition to making glass art, she and her spouse offer daylong beginner classes, with some students driving hours to get there. Dolph teaches them how to cut the glass and assemble it, while Wilson helps them master the grinder, ring saw and other machines.
Like many artists, Wilson and Dolph take much of their inspiration from nature, frequently snapping photos outdoors and at zoos.
“When you go out in the world and you’re looking at things, both of us are constantly thinking, ‘What would that look like in glass? How can we reproduce that?’ ” Dolph says. “You see a bird or an insect and you think, ‘That would be so cool.’ ”