Glass working- it’s all about the light

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A mosaic flower set onto a clear glass platter.

A mosaic flower set onto a clear glass platter.

After 20 years of working with glass in various forms, Sarah Miller is finally starting to think of herself as an artist.

In a studio beside the home in West Creston that she shares with her husband, Dan Miller, she makes glass mosaics and fuses specialty glass into stunning pieces that change according to the light that reflects off or penetrates through them.

Best known in Creston as one of the Kastelan family members that owned and operated Wear Withall for many years, Sarah has delved into art with the same enthusiasm she once had for the popular, quirky business that closed after her mother, Beth, died last year.

Becoming an artist has been a slow process.

“I was ‘the intelligent one’ as a student, and I didn’t get encouraged to take subjects like art,” she recalls. “Mom didn’t force me into art classes. I wish she had.”

At the age of 35, though, she read Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.

“It was wonderful!”

She made an acrylic painting of her nephew as her first art project, then got into making tiny sculptures with FIMO, a soft polymer clay that is fired in a kitchen oven.

Her first venture into the world of glass came in a course at College of the Rockies in Creston where she learned to make garden stepping stones decorated with stained glass mosaics (disclosure: the instructor was this story’s writer). She thought it would be safe, because unlike stained glass work it wouldn’t involve a blowtorch.

“Then you told me there were no blowtorches used in stained glass, so I took that course afterward!” she said. “I just really wanted to get a feel for it—to learn to cut glass. I always wanted to make windows using copper foil (which allows pieces to be soldered together).”

As a beginner, she was a careful worker. Now? Not so much.

“I hardly ever cut myself back then,” she laughs. “Now I always do! It feels like I go out of my way to stab myself!”

For her first stepping stone, she drew a pattern with Koi fish. Her first stained glass window depicted a spider plant. She still has both.

Encouraged by Dan, Sarah bought a kiln in 2009 and set about learning to fire glass.

“I had seen a glassblower as a kid in Medicine Hat and I liked the idea of glass melting, becoming a liquid and then cooling again into a solid. What could I do, I wondered.”

Her first piece featured a tree trunk and branches made of stringers (fine, spaghetti-like strings of fuseable glass–to fuse glass, each element has to be compatible, sharing a common melting point, or the piece will break as it cools). She fired it in a mold so that the molten glass slumped into the shape of a plate.

Recently, Miller has been taking glass fusing to a new level, creating pictures of West Creston scenes (and pet animals).

To make the landscapes, she begins with a sheet of fuseable glass from Portland’s Bullseye Glass Co. She dumps a pile of fine black glass powder on it, then goes to work with a variety of implements, including dental tools. She drags the powder around, creating the lines of tree trunks and branches, or bridge braces, or the twigs of brush-like plants.

It is a process that demands precise and careful movement, and a steady hand to transfer the powder-covered piece to the kiln. And don’t even think about sneezing!

A strong element of surprise is in play at that point, because after perhaps 20 hours of heating and cooling in the kiln, she can only hope for a good result.

“The colours in the base sheet of glass change dramatically in the kiln while the powder is melting and fusing to the surface,” she says. “For instance, the scene with the dramatic orange sky started with a predominantly green colour with only little highlights. I was astonished when I opened the kiln.”

Seeing the two West Creston scenes now on display in the Kunze Gallery on Northwest Boulevard at Pine Street, it comes as a surprise to learn that Miller created them in preparation for her interview for this story.

“I wanted to be able to show you how this works, drawing with glass powder,” she smiles. She is part of a Facebook group of glass workers, and the new pieces have drawn glowing reviews from her fellow artists.

Gallery owner Sandy Kunze said on Friday that the pieces grab the attention of visitors.

“I had a visitor last week who spent a lot of time looking carefully through the entire gallery,” Kunze said. The woman then introduced herself as someone who had operated her own gallery for 35 years.

“She was very complimentary about the artists’ work we have on display, and about the way the gallery is laid out,” she said. “But then she pointed to Sarah’s new pieces and said, ‘These are really special.’”

It has been a long, winding path from reading Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, and the thoughtful and introspective Sarah Miller wouldn’t have it any other way. The joy she takes in explaining each piece is clearly an extension of her creative process, moving from the quiet solitary work in her studio to the public realm of social media and art galleries.

She loves pointing out the way light makes its way through opaque glass, or reflects off pieces that have an iridescent or metallic coating.

“I love everything about glass,” she says. “Working with tiny shards, watching a picture develop as I work on it, holding my breath when I open the kiln lid.

“But it’s really all about the light.”

Readers can follow Sarah’s art journey on Facebook at Sarah Miller Art or check out her latest pieces at Kunze Gallery.