Saturday, November 22, 2008

Looking through the glass: Micheal Nourot

Article:Looking through the glass: Micheal Nourot:/c/a/2008/11/21/HOA413N869.DTL

Looking through the glass: Micheal Nourot
Nancy Davis Kho, Special to The Chronicle

Saturday, November 22, 2008

When Pope John Paul II visited the Bay Area in 1987 and celebrated Mass for 70,000 Catholics at Candlestick Park, there were more than a few details to be worked out. One was how to serve Communion wafers and wine to the enormous crowd, which is where Micheal Nourot of the Nourot Glass Studio stepped in.

"For the pope job, we made Communion platters, pitchers and goblets," Nourot said, holding up a delicate white plate swirled with clear glass that held the wafers. "We also had to make a special plate for his hat to rest on," he said. "The pope's hat can't just sit on the chair next to him."

The commission of 1,200 artifacts, though high profile, was just another day's work for the glass studio founded by Nourot and his wife, Ann Corcoran, on the shores of Carquinez Strait in Benicia. The couple's older son, Nicholas, 25, has joined the family business, while Corcoran takes a behind-the-scenes role to raise their younger son.

Nourot, 59, grew up in a military family and lived in Fairfield and Davis before moving to Benicia. His grandmother was a hobby ceramist and Nourot inherited her love of the arts. In 1968, he entered the California College of Arts and Crafts. (The school was renamed California College of the Arts, and the omission of the word "Crafts" still rankles Corcoran.)

A short flirtation with the college's weaving program ended abruptly. "With weaving," Nourot said, "you have to do so much planning beforehand - gathering your materials and setting up the loom. Basically, you solve what you want to solve long before you finish the piece. I wanted to be able to think up an idea, work on it and get results instantaneously."

A teacher guided him to the ceramics department, which, along with a few other programs in the country, had become fertile ground for the studio glass movement. This movement, which gathered momentum during the late 1960s, sought to establish glassblowing outside of its industry applications.

Ceramics Professor Harvey Littleton at the University of Wisconsin started a graduate glass program in Madison in 1963. Littleton is considered the father of the studio glass movement. His earliest students included Marvin Lipofsky, who started the glass program at California College of Arts and Crafts, and Dale Chihuly, who had a recent exhibition at the de Young Museum. Chihuly went on to establish the glass program at the Rhode Island School of Design before helping to start the Pilchuck Glass School in Stanwood, Wash.

Some of the seed money for the Pilchuck school came from a grant awarded jointly to Chihuly and Ruth Tamura, who was Nourot's teacher at California College of Arts and Crafts. Nourot was invited to help set up the glass shop at Pilchuck, which, at that time, in 1971, was an empty field.

"It took all summer to get the shop up and running; it really was just open land at that time," Nourot said of Pilchuck's glass school.

To broaden his training, in 1972, Nourot moved to Venice and took a job at venerable Italian glass factory Venini, on the island of Murano. "I was paid 87 cents an hour," he recalled. But the job meant working alongside craftspeople whose families had worked with glass for centuries.

"I learned how to make glass from a guy whose family had melted glass for 300 years," Nourot said. He also learned about the hierarchy in Italian glass production. "There were three jobs: owner, glass master and designer. I knew I wanted to be all three."

That meant a move back to the United States in 1973, where he joined Eric Sinizer, who wanted to open the first contemporary art glass shop in the country. Light Opera Gallery soon opened at Ghirardelli Square, with Sinizer's glass shop in the front and Nourot's working glass factory in the back. "We could never do that at Ghirardelli Square now," Nourot said with a laugh. "We had huge furnaces going at 2,000 degrees at the back of the store." (The gallery is now near Union Square.)

His glass expertise made Nourot a popular lecturer at local glass programs, and it was while teaching a glass workshop at CCAC that he met his wife.

Shop in Benicia
The couple opened their shop on the waterfront in Benicia in 1974; in 1987, they moved across the street to their current location.

The strait provides a cooling visual contrast to the fiery heat of the work inside, as Nourot and his employees turn out blown glass vessels, lighting (lamps, chandeliers and sconces), corporate awards and art glass objects. Even on a chilly fall day, shorts and T-shirts are sufficient inside the studio - along with a pair of sturdy shoes to walk through the brilliantly colored shards on the workroom floor. "I like to say we make the prettiest landfill in California," Nourot said.

Given his training in Venice, it's not surprising that Nourot starts by melting his own glass. "We use five different colors of molten glass; most other blowers use clear glass that gets colored during the process, but it's harder to develop a unique look that way."

Nourot is particularly renowned for his two varieties of red glass, called Red Satin and Scarlet Nova. Once or twice a week, 99.9 percent pure silica, soda ash and calcined limestone are mixed in barrels, along with heavy metals to create colors in the glass.

Once the glassblowers are ready to work, glass is placed into a ceramic cistern inside a furnace running at 2,000 to 2,500 degrees. A series of hollow, long blowpipes used for gathering the melted glass are in a second furnace, their tips glowing red hot.

When the material melts and hits the right consistency - which Nourot likens, depending on the temperature, to honey or water - an acrobatic pas de deux begins. Nourot explained: "You have to choreograph a series of steps so that you can capture the flow of the heated glass before it cools. You really have to know what you're going to do before you do it."

On a recent visit, Nick Nourot acts as gaffer, making what the Nourots call a cabinet flute (a tall V-shaped vase with a ruffled top) in a Red Satin finish. He is helped by Rachel Tucker, an 11-year employee.

Nick Nourot gathers a gob of melted glass from the furnace and sits at a traditional Italian glassblowing bench. The bench is a simple wooden chair with one crucial element: Its high, solid arms rise about 18 inches above the seat so that the gaffer can lay a red hot pipe across the arms in front of him and roll it back and forth without burning his thighs or chin.

Nick Nourot slowly rolls the blowpipe with one hand, the other hand cooling and shaping the glass with a pad of thick, damp newspaper that chars as it comes in contact with the molten material. The process of gathering, rolling and reheating is repeated with different colors of glass to attain a layered effect, requiring precisely timed trips back and forth to the furnace.

Once the glass starts to take on a more elliptical shape, Tucker sits down on a low stool next to the glassblower's bench. As Nick Nourot rolls, she slowly blows a puff of air into the blowpipe to create a parison, a space inside the vase. At other times, she is ready with jacks, pincers or a punty so Nick can make rapid-fire adjustments to the glass. "For the bigger pieces, we sometimes need four people to manage the process," Nourot said.

Once the final shape is achieved, the object is put into a special kiln called a Lehr for the process of annealing, in which the glass is slowly cooled to relieve internal stresses until it is stable.

That process can take hours or days, depending on an object's size. In the grinding and polishing room, small imperfections are buffed out, and each piece is signed and numbered by the artist. Much of the work is available for sale in the gallery at the front of the studio, which is open to the public. The rest is shipped to craft and gallery stores across the country (carefully packed, of course).

Highly collectible
The work that Nourot Glass turns out is highly valued by collectors. During the Reagan presidency, the studio was commissioned to make a paperweight for Mikhail Gorbachev. Even so, tough economic times have put pressure on the studio, which sells vases ranging from $175 to $1,750. Nourot has had to lay off skilled staff members, and he worries about younger glassblowers who are just establishing their businesses.

"The costs to indulge have certainly gone up," he said. "The gas to heat the furnaces is more expensive, and so are the tools and materials."

But even after more than 30 years in the craft, Nourot is finding artistic challenges, working on a new "green" glass process that would use the shards discarded in the traditional production process. This craftsman has certainly found the right medium to meet his desire for instant results.

"Glass is not a solid - it's always moving," Nourot said. "The challenge is to try to catch that movement in the design before it cools."

Blowpipe: An iron or steel tube, usually 4 to 5 feet long, for blowing glass. Blowpipes have a mouthpiece at one end and are usually fitted at the other end with a metal ring that helps to retain the gather.

Chair: (1) The bench used by the gaffer while forming a glass object. Traditionally, it is a wide bench with arms on which the gaffer rests the blowpipe with its parison of molten glass and rolls it backward and forward so that the parison retains its symmetrical shape during the forming process. (2) The team of glassworkers who assist a gaffer.

Gaffer: The master craftsman in charge of a chair, or team, of hot-glass workers.

Gather: A mass of molten glass (sometimes called a gob) collected on the end of a blowpipe, pontil or gathering iron; used as a verb, it means to collect molten glass on the end of a tool.

Parison: A gather on the end of a blowpipe that is already partly inflated.

Punty or pontil: A solid metal rod usually tipped with a wad of hot glass, then applied to the base of a vessel to hold it during manufacture. It often leaves an irregular or ring-shaped scar on the base when removed. This is called the pontil mark.

Source: "Glass: A Pocket Dictionary of Terms," Revised Edition

-- Nourot Glass Studio: 675 E. H St., Benicia. (707) 745-1463,

-- Nourot's Open House and Holiday Sale: 20 percent discount. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Dec. 4-7 and 12-14.

-- Smyers Glass Blowing Studio annual Open House and Holiday Sale: The public is invited into the hot glassblowing shop to watch the artisans at work. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Dec. 4-7 and 13-14. Studio shares the building with Nourot Glass Studio.

-- Pilchuck Glass School: (206) 621-8422,

-- Nikolas Weinstein Studios: 1649 Valencia St., San Francisco. (415) 643- 5418,

-- Light Opera Gallery: 460 Post St., San Francisco. (800) 553-4800,

E-mail Nancy Davis Kho at

This article appeared on page F - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle