A Passion for Glass

by Carol Wills

The first thing Lisa Oakley made when she fired up her glass furnace in September 1996 was a witch’s ball. She was following an ancient tradition among glassblowers of inviting friends and family to contribute bits of glass to an ornament – the uglier the ball turns out, the better, she says. It’s supposed to forever hang in the rafters of her studio to keep evil spirits at bay. And, she says, laughing, it’s still hanging there – and it seems to be working.

If the Oakley name sounds familiar, it’s because Lisa’s father, Sid Oakley, a well-known potter who was named a North Carolina Living Treasure in 1989, is co-founder and co-owner of Cedar Creek Gallery at Creedmoor. Her mother, Pat Oakley, is a fine potter as well, although she now spends more time practicing massage therapy and holistic healing.

Lisa grew up around the energy of creative people and the nurturing environment of Cedar Creek Gallery, which is located in a woodsy setting and enhanced by the beautiful gardens surrounding the showroom and studios. While in college, she spent time working in the gallery, and it was there, in January 1994, that she spotted a beginner’s class in glass-blowing in the Penland School of Crafts catalog. “I give a lot of credit to my parents,” she says, “because they were so supportive though out this whole process When I said, ’I think I’ll take a class at Penland,’ their response was, ‘Those classes fill up fast. You’d better call today.’”

The beginner’s class only lasted for two weeks but almost immediately says Oakley, she felt that she was moving in the right direction. “The first night, I was already planning how I was going to do glass-blowing for the rest of my life. Even now, when I blow glass, I think of things that I learned in that first class. A lot of the work is letting the glass work for you, letting heat and gravity move the glass rather than using tools to move it.” Whenever she talks about the process, her face lights up. She frankly admits to having a passion for her work.

“Glass-blowing is exciting to watch,” she says “You’d think if you know the process, the mystery would be gone – but the mystery is still there.” After her beginner’s class at Penland, Oakley began looking around for a place closer to home where she could continue leaning the craft. She discovered that there was no place east of Spruce Pine (where Penland is located) where she could take classes. She briefly considered commuting two days a week to a studio at Virginia Commonwealth University, but that proved too expensive and impractical.

”So,” she says, “I signed up for an eight-week class at Penland and rearranged my life so that I could take those two months off.” At Penland, she learned how to weld and how to build the equipment that she would need for a glass-blowing studio of her own. Upon her return home she began building a studio at Cedar Creek. “I was still working full time,” she notes, ”so it took about two years. I did most of the construction work myself, using other glassblowers’ designs. John Martin, who works here at Cedar Creek helped me a lot – and toward the end, I hired another person to work with me to speed things up.”

Now that the studio is in full swing, Oakley looks back with pleasure and amazement at how it came into being. “I didn’t know enough to build a studio,” she admits, “but I didn’t know enough not to build a studio. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, I just knew that I had to do it.”

At first, she remembers her glass-blowing skills were pretty marginal “As much was hitting the floor as was coming out of the annealer,” she says. (She explains that a newly formed glass object will explode because the outer layer coals faster than the inner layer unless placed in an annealer, a computer-regulated oven that allows the glass to cool slowly and gradually over a number of hours or even days.) One of her first platters, which she gave to her father, is still on display in his studio – and, she says, now it seems rather small.

But, with support and encouragement from the other Cedar Creek artisans, she continued to work on her skills. “I think I had some advantage in being isolated here, because there was no one to tell me what I couldn’t do,” she says. “A lot of people like to tell you what you can’t do, and if you believe them, then you don’t do it. But if you don’t know that you can’t do it – like I didn’t know that I really didn’t know enough to build a studio – you just do it. I did it.”

Now Oakley works steadily about 60 hours a week, sorting and shelving containers of glass chips that will produce the glowing colors of the finished products, doing the actual glass-blowing and finishing, and packing and shipping her works to buyers across the country. She produces glass balls in an infinite variety of sizes and colors, which may be used as Christmas ornaments or as decorating accessories year-round. They look especially pretty hanging in a window. She makes vases, platters, bowls and tumblers, as well. One of her most beautiful pieces on display in the gallery at Cedar Creek is a small lamp that has silver and gold melted into the glass. And on those days that she feels more inclined to do intricate work, she also makes jewelry formed with delicate beads of glass.

“I work with glass because I enjoy it,” she says. “This is not something I ever expect to get rich from. But that’s not why I’m going into it. It’s a lifestyle. I love working for myself. I put a lot more pressure on myself than anyone else would. I think it’s worth it. If I want to take a vacation, I know that I just have to work harder before or after I take time off, or both.”

Oakley continues to take classes to further develop her skills. Last summer she attended an international glass-arts conference in Japan. She stayed with a Japanese family, took some workshops and spent some time in a Japanese glass factory. Next summer she and her family plan a trip to Italy to look at the glass-blowing studios there.

Is the work hard? Yes, she says, but more frustrating than hard. Frequent minor burns are annoying, but not a major deterrent. “I’ve acquired a lot of endurance,” says Oakley, who also does a lot of scuba diving, which might account for the fluid, organic lines of some of her colorful gloss platters, which seem to bloom upward like exotic underwater plants. “You have to have some kind of affinity for the heat and for the whole physical aspect of what I do,” Oakley says. ”I think I thrive on the whole process. I go to the gym because the better shape I’m in, the better job I can do.”

Making her work an integral part of her life is a deliberate choice on Oakley’s part. “Sometimes I come to work and sit down in the front yard and think about how fortunate I am to be here,” she says.” I get up in the mourning, drive away from city traffic and come to this beautiful, green spot to be with other creative people. Whenever I take a break, I step into the gallery and walk around among all those beautiful things, just feeling the energy of people.”

The impersonality of modern life troubles her, and the way technology allows people to become more and more isolated from actual contact with other human beings. “The sense of personal communication is getting lost,” she says. “And that’s why artists and craftspeople have such an important role to play in years to come, because through our work, we’re bringing soul back into people’s homes The objects we create carry the energy of the person who makes them, so every time I make something, I’m giving away a little bit of my energy.”

It’s the endless possibilities of the glass-blower’s art that keep Oakley motivated and interested. “I could be 90 years old, still be working with glass in some capacity and not have gotten stale,” she says. ”It’s a tremendous way to spend my life.”

For information on Cedar Creek Gallery, call 528-1041, or visit www.cedarcreekgallery.com.

Wills, C. (11/3-9/1999). A passion for glass. Independent Weekly, XVI(44), 41.

Reprinted with permission. Independent Weekly of Durham, NC. Reproduction does not imply endorsement.

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