By Brian D’Ambrosio
When George O’Grady explains the act of glass blowing, he sprinkles the discussion with descriptions such as “dance,” or “ballet,” or “duet.” A pillar of one of Santa Fe’s many artistic niches, O’Grady has spent about 30 years heeding the rhythm of the glass, following its cadence, adhering to its beat. Call his journey an accident or call it destiny – either could be right.
Honorably discharged from the Coast Guard, O’Grady served as a paramedic, firefighter, and emergency medical technician before a dreaded sense of burnout and a grim hand injury sustained in a skiing accident led him to finding the sphere of seared glass. The chance and the time and the need had come together, lending a special intimacy to O’Grady’s work that remains to this day.
“For a while I was wearing a gizmo on my hand after the accident that looked like Edward Scissorhands (a 1990 Johnny Depp movie featuring a character with scissors for hands),” O’Grady said. “The repetition of the hand movement of making the glass beads was just what I needed. I was hooked. I spent whatever I had left and bought a torch and some glass.”
In 1994, he met Tesuque Glassworks founder Charles Miner, who taught him the essentials of “offhand glass blowing.” The style starts with a blob of fused glass built up at one end of a blowpipe inserted into a furnace and kiln. (Lampworking, the other major form of glass blowing, only requires a bench torch to melt the glass.)
He spent about 10 years with Miner, soaking everything up, watching him and his crew, learning techniques, and swapping two hours of work at Tesuque Glassworks for one hour of his own work on the furnace.
From there, O’Grady worked independently and traveled frequently to teach workshops, before he returned to study under his mentor once again. A couple of years ago, O’Grady joined Prairie Dog Glass in Santa Fe, where he teaches workshops and trades labor for furnace and kiln time.
O’Grady creates such things as marbles (mesmerizing chunks that resemble solar systems and asteroids), spinning tops, mazelike pendants, bottle stoppers, and blown chili peppers, as well as an array of alluring glassware, vases, and dishes.
“Glass blowing requires coaxing, not an abundance of force or aggression,” O’Grady said. “Occasionally, you need to exert more pressure or muscle if you are trying to accomplish something of great size or dimension. But, for the most part, you coax it and let it do its own thing and follow the rhythm. That’s why my head is moving when I’m working, speeding up, slowing down, or stopping to change directions or approaches to a design.”
One of the most difficult things for a glass blower to do, he said, is to develop his/her own line of unique color recipes. It takes a lot of tweaking and experimenting, because the colors of blown glass don’t always follow the same mixing sequence of the common color wheel. After working with various minerals and oxides to tint and shade the glass, O’Grady gives a free rein to a rainbow of colors to create patterns, swirls, and schemes.
Frequently, he will share a newly discovered color sample with a cohort – and vice versa. In this, O’Grady said that the leaders of the Santa Fe glass blowing community – people such as Miner, Elodie Holmes (Liquid Light Glass), Patrick Morrissey (Prairie Dog Glass), and Lucy Lyon – have taught each other, supported each other, learned from each other, and mothered each other.
“Glass blowing is a unique community,” O’Grady said. “Glass blowers could talk glass all night long. And, for the most part, they never tromp on one another’s toes, and they look out for one another. The cutthroats don’t last very long.”
O’Grady said that he likes to think of himself as “a jack of all glasses,” yet still a lifelong learner, always observing and incorporating new practices.
Explaining his longstanding connection to glass blowing, O’Grady likens it to a conversion experience, where he lives in the present, engulfed in the experience.
“It’s a lot like riding a wave in surfing,” O’Grady said. “You are in it – the zone. There are some days when I’ve lit the torch at 10 a.m. and next thing I know it’s dark outside, and the clock says that it’s 3:30 in the morning.”
Ultimately, it’s a sense of freedom, purpose and joy that impels O’Grady to continue chasing the craft six days a week – four days offhand blowing at Prairie Dog Glass and two days torch blowing at his home studio.
“I’m not great at what I do,” O’Grady said. “It just happens that I’m stubborn and refuse to give up, and I’m still around because of it. I’m 63 and it’s cool to see people in their 20s, or 30s, who are having just as much fun as I am.”