On a cold, windswept Sunday afternoon, eight students are bent to their tasks in Alyssa Oxley’s studio in Pittsfield. Belying the dull sky and winter white outside, here there is an abundance of color — iridescent blues, crisp yellows, gleaming greens, a shock of brilliant orange. Around the worktable, sounds are muted as the students — from children to grandmothers — concentrate on their projects: fused glass bowls, sun catchers and vases.
Zip. Zip. Zip. The sound of the glass cutters breaks the silence. “What’s next?” asks a student, proud of having completed the first step, assembling the colored glass for her project.
Oxley tends to each student, making suggestions, offering advice. “You hear that ‘zip’? I was hooked the first time I heard it,” she says.
An accomplished and talented glass artist, Oxley is spending two years in Pittsfield while her teenage daughter attends Maine Central Institute’s Bossov Ballet Theater program. Originally from New York, Oxley said she is taking this time to hone her craft. “I’m concentrating on getting better,” she said.
Each morning as she walks her dog in nearby Manson Park, she said, her senses are filled with inspiration: ice crystals along the edge of the Sebasticook River, a blue-white track in the snow, the way snow takes on a different texture when it begins to melt, and the subtle changes in color as winter progresses.
And it changes every day, Oxley said.
In her basement Oxley has a massive workbench for her own projects. Two kilns, a sandblaster and an enormous generator fill the space. The current series of sculptured pieces she is working on are centered on water: flowing, iced and in the form of crystals.
Oxley, 50, has a studio art degree from Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. She spent 15 years as a graphic designer and discovered glass arts only nine years ago. She apprenticed for five years with glass master Marty Kremer in New York.
“Everything I’ve learned, I’ve learned from him,” she said. “He took me to the next level.
“I feel very at home working with glass,” Oxley said. “It’s a real natural fit. What I want to feel when I’m creating is that I’ve gotten to the subconscious, what is underneath the layers of pattern and color.”
Oxley said there is a lot of repetitive work and some people find glass fusing boring. “Kiln forming is slow, but to me, that makes it meditative, cerebral. I start out with a plan but I keep my eyes open for that random thing to happen. I try to get out of my way and let what I see in nature happen in my work.”
Oxley said she began offering classes to make some connections in her new town and in hopes of networking with other Maine glass artists.
First-time students learn to make a beautiful bowl, assembling the layers of glass in whatever colors strike their fancy, learning to cut and shape the pieces, then leaving the piece to be fired — fused — in Oxley’s kiln.
It’s sort of like working a puzzle: Which combination of colors will be most pleasing? What thickness of glass will provide the best result? What pattern should be followed? Or is a random design best?
Even when completed, each piece is something of a surprise. The kiln will melt the glass and fuse the pieces together. A raised finish, which allows the texture of the glass to be more evident, will appear much more like the original. A flat finish, which melts all the glass pieces into one slick surface, can have a different look. It is very similar to the original, but with subtle movements and changes brought on by the melting.
In Oxley’s workshop, the choice of colors is wide and mixed. Melissa Bartlett is working on a seascape, a piece full of the blues and greens of the ocean. Teresa Noble, attending class for the first time, is working in purples, creating shapes that look a bit like little houses.
Noble’s mother, Sue Rollman, is using thin rods of glass to make a laserlike effect.
At the other end of the table, Peri Cianchette, 8, looking a bit lost in a giant pair of safety glasses, is creating a pair of matching vases — white with tiny rose-colored flowers.
Brandon Wilson, 18, is creating an abstract all in orange, while next to him, Samantha Bartlett, 17, is building a flower garden on a long piece of glass, tiny shards of colored glass making spiked-out petals.
“I love the look of colored glass,” Rollman says. “I am just amazed at what you can create. I am much more interested in something beautiful to look at than something to use.”
Each piece is cut, stacked, created, then cleaned and carefully spot-glued to hold bits in place for Oxley, who will place them in the kiln later in the day.
She adjusts the fusing temperatures depending on the project, leaves some pieces flat and places others over molds, such as the bowls and vases.
Students begin calling her almost immediately to see their finished work. “They just can’t wait to see the finished product. Neither can I,” she admitted.
Alyssa Oxley’s work can be found at the Daniel Kany Gallery in Portland, and galleries in Dallas, Santa Fe, N.M., and Ridgefield, Conn. She may be reached at 951-5225 or email@example.com.