Elizabeth Mears

Flameworking is a technique of working with hot glass. Rods or tubes of glass are held in the flame of a bench torch where the glass is softened and then shaped by sculpting and/or blowing. The forms created are limited only by the artist’s creativity and skill, in addition to gravity and the sizes of the bench torch and annealing kiln.

After a successful career in flat glass, and teaching its techniques in such places as the Smithsonian Institution, Elizabeth Mears began flameworking in 1990 when she studied with Fred Birkhill at Penland Craft School in Penland, North Carolina. Since then, she has continued developing her flameworking techniques and has studied further with Fred Birkhill, Shane Fero, Susan Plum, Hubert Stern, with Robert Mickelsen at Pilchuck School and with Sally Prasch at Corning Museum of Glass. She began to focus exclusively on flameworking in 1993. She works with clear borosilicate glass and incorporates colored glass either as surface treatment or color inclusions. In addition, she utilizes sandblasting, kiln fired surface paints, and gold leaf to create depth in her pieces, which range from large sculptures to functional items.

In her work, Elizabeth utilizes the contrast created by hard, shiny surfaces juxtaposed next to soft mat ones. She works in several different series. The Dream Mask Series utilizes human faces sculpted from opened glass tubing. Functional Goblets and Stoppered Bottles combine extensive use of glass “cane” and sculpted symbols. Judaica items include menorahs with symbols based in the faith. The Totem Series consists of larger pieces that combine many of the concepts and techniques seen in the other works.

Sometimes when I begin to work on a piece I have a very strong visual image or sketch to work from. Other times, I have a vague idea of what it is I want to make, so I make component parts and begin to combine them. At some point in the construction, however, no matter how I begin, the piece takes over and dictates to me what it needs.

In my work I utilize several different techniques. Not every technique is used in every piece, but most contain several. I begin with glass forms that I have made from sculpting or blowing solid rods or tubes of glass in different diameters using the flame of a bench torch. The torch is fueled with propane and oxygen. I vary the size of the flame constantly from a very fine, soft flame to a very large, bushy one that is extremely hot. The type of work I am doing determines the kind of flame that I need. I always begin with clear glass, but sometimes I combine colored glass with the clear in either internal compositions or surface decoration. Some of the smaller creations are made quickly with very little kiln work involved and are put in the annealer only once or twice before they are completed.

My favorite pieces to work on however, are those that take many steps to make and combine many techniques. Very large pieces are made in sections, which go in and out of the holding kiln many times. The sections are annealed separately then carefully put together and annealed a final time. Often after a piece is made, I will mask off parts of it and sandblast the rest. This creates a soft matte surface that is a wonderful contrast to the hard shiny surface of the flameworked glass. The sandblasted surface can be left as it is, or it can be painted. The painting is done with enamels and/or lusters. Once applied and allowed to dry, they are fired in the kiln. The painting requires at least two firings, but more often than not, many more times than that. A large piece can require a dozen firings.

For years I have had a love affair with glass. The beauty of the material in all its many forms attracted me even as a small child. As an adult, its beauty, and its demanding character are what keep me enthralled to this day. It is the ultimate material, providing endless challenges and learning opportunities. In its cold form, the challenges are of design and structure. Working with the hot material calls to mind the primitive nature in all of us: the fire, the heat, the sound, the smells, the intensity, the absolute concentration - knowing the material, so I can make it do what I want, but also, knowing it well enough that I can follow where it takes me.

For many years I worked with glass in its cold form and created pieces in small scale to large, including all the windows in both the sanctuary and chapel of an Episcopal and a Presbyterian Church. I worked with the glass using many different techniques, such as, leaded, copper-foiled, sandblasted, laminated, and created both flat and three-dimensional projects. It was when I began flameworking however, that I truly “connected” with the material. Now I can work directly and more spontaneously on the three-dimensional pieces that I love to make.

My work is inspired by my dreams, my subconscious, symbolism, and by nature. It is also inspired by my sense of humor. I live in the woods so am constantly aware of the forces and creatures of nature. My dreams are the message carriers from my subconscious and are puzzling, thought provoking, and reassuring. As I became very aware of symbols in our lives and the universality of some to most cultures and religions. I love to laugh. All these inspire my work and enable me to tell the stories I want and need to through my glass.

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