By Robert Blood
[Editor’s note: The following interview was culled from conversations between the reporter and Matt Faulkner, artist and owner of Freefire Glass. Contact him at FreefireGlass@Gmail.Com or at 928-235-7910.]
How did you get started doing glasswork?
The long version is that I was going to school at Louisiana State University, it was my freshman year, and I was in a dorm. The dorm sucked, so I found someone to rent an apartment that was in a ghetto outside of the LSU campus. It was super shady, but one of the neighbors told us they knew someone who wanted to set up their glass torch in a room nearby. We had a kitchen we weren’t really using, so we said sure, why not. I watched him and, in retrospect, this guy had no idea what he was doing and was just basically learning himself, but I was 19 years old, had never seen that before, and was really into it. We weren’t using eye protection, which is a big no-no, and after watching the torch for something like eight hours straight, I my vision was black and white. Luckily the color came back, eventually, and after that I freaked out and got the proper glasses. … I wanted to learn more, so I saved up and after a few years was able to buy my first set up with a torch, glasses, and everything else I needed. It became an obsession pretty quickly. I didn’t finish school; I dropped out and started my own business, Glass Monkey Studios in Baton Rouge around 2005 and sold my stuff at farmers’ markets around New Orleans. I made pendants, mostly, at that time. I did that until 2008, when Hurricane Gustav came through and smashed in my house, which was where my glass studio was. So, I’m sitting there with a hole in the roof, trying to figure out what to do and here’s Hurricane Hugo coming in five days. We packed up and went to Boone, North Carolina, where a friend of mine from high school had a room to rent and a job. So, we moved up there — and we left behind more than we took — and the glass stuff went to the back burner. I started working with spray-foam insulation. I set up in his basement and the glasswork became more of a hobby. … In 2015, I started Freefire Glass and started doing glasswork full time again.
Why the name change?
Before, I was just in a different mindset: I was 20-something and I didn’t have a grasp on where I wanted to go or how I wanted my craft to progress. Back then I knew how to make pendants and pipes. Back in 2005 to 2008, there simply wasn’t as big a market as there is for pipes now with marijuana legalization. … I was self-taught, so the vast majority of what I learned to do was through trial and error. The good part of that was that it allowed me to develop my own unique style in the glass world. The bad part was that I realized I could’ve progressed more quickly if I’d learned from others or even if YouTube tutorials were more widely available then. In 2015, I got on Instagram and Facebook and joined glass groups and could see how much more quickly people who were just starting were able to progress. It’s taken me 10 years to get where I’m at and, even though I could’ve learned a lot more quickly, I’ve taught myself, which is a valuable thing. One thing, though, I found out right away was that I was missing crucial information about how to make larger pieces. I’d put 20-25 hours into a piece only to have it break at the end. It happened so many times that I realized I was obviously missing something. So, there’s some good things about learning from other people’s techniques. When you think about it, there are so many variables at play with glasswork and changing just one little thing out of 500 can have a profound effect on the result. That’s one of the reasons I’ve been so fascinated with glasswork. I’d always been artistic, but mostly stuck to ink and a sketchpad. I’d tried painting and sculpture, but they didn’t allow me to get the amount of detail I could get with ink. Glass allowed me to go into that amount of detail. I liked the layering effect, the perspective, the magnification, the optics, the illusory effect that glass creates. It literally opened up a new dimension for my artwork.
Could you talk a bit more about a glass as a medium?
Sure. What glass can do is amazing. Scientifically, it’s an amorphous solid, and has qualities that are unique, even in that category. As a medium, it’s gotten a lot bigger in the past decade. When I started in 2004-05, there were two color companies and about 12-15 colors from each company. The most expensive color was $60 a pound. Now, there are 10 color companies and each one has 130 or 1 40 different colors. The prices are up to $130 or $160 a pound now. Now, $60 a pound is the low end. Most colored glass comes in 7-millimeter rods, about pencil diameter. It also comes in 60-inch tubes, and there’s plate glass as well. Those three varieties cover the basics. The color comes in frit, a fine powder of crushed glass, in gauges. The higher the gauge the more powder-like the glass. At about 130, it’s a pretty fine powder. … Have you heard the term Murano glass? It’s name for a town in Italy and also called soda-lime glass or soft glass. So, glass is often defined by its COE, which means Coefficient of Expansion. On an atomic level, it contracts and expands while heated at certain rates. You know how, when you weld, certain metals aren’t compatible? Well, the same principal applies for glass. In the early 1900s, Corning invented a new type of glass that eventually became Pyrex glass. It’s a borosilicate glass that became popular in the ’40s and ’50s for cookware. It’s very thermal shock resistant. The problem with soda-lime glass is that it’s very sensitive to temperature change; it cracks and breaks easily. It also used to be made with lead, which is why glassblowers had notoriously short lifespans. Obviously, that’s not the case anymore. Soft glass is what you see people working with in kilns — that kind of glass work. Borosilicate glass is primarily for lamp working, though there are some people who use soda-lime. Because it’s durable and hardier, you can use borosilicate for functional items. You can drop it and it won’t necessarily break. According to Corning, if you didn’t shatter it through misuse, borosilicate will last 10,000-20,000 years, which is amazing to think about.
How does all of this play a role in your glass art?
For my space designs — the nebulae and galaxies — I use clear glass to magnify the colored glass. In the same way you can create false third dimensions in 2-D drawings, you can create false dimensions with 3-D glass. It’s hard to explain exactly what I mean, but it gives you the opportunity to show these different perspectives simultaneously. … One of the first techniques I learned is called implosion. You blow a bubble on a tube, then draw something on the outside of that bubble, then you melt it down. The easiest way to think about it is taking a sock and turning it inside out. You do that with the glass tube: The color you put on the outside now becomes the inside, and it pushes that color out, and it blooms like a flower. There are so many possibilities with that technique, and I’m still exploring and pushing that. You could, for instance, draw a person, system by system — nerves, bones, muscles, then skin, you name it — and when you turn it inside out it’ll be reversed. And a cross section would show each layer intact, stacked on top of each other. I’ve never reached that skill level but it’s something I’m working on. Right now I’m focusing on jewelry and sculptural pipes, but glass can be pretty much anything. On the industrial/design side, I’m doing cabinet knobs and trying to figure out other sculpturesque things for home décor with harder glass. One of the things I saw from glassworking early on is that a lot of people specialize. It’s how you develop a following. But I’m still trying to push myself to try new things.
How has the move toward legalization of cannabis affected glass art?
The last five years has been absolutely dominated by pipes. At a certain level, if you don’t make pipes, it’s hard to get attention or respect from a certain part of the industry. Even people who worked soft glass back in the 1960s and ’70s, who were the mentors for a lot of modern glassworkers, are getting into it. Robert A. Mickelson is a name that comes to mind. Legalization has created a demand that needs to be met by the industry. There are people for whom the bottom line is, a pipe is a pipe, but, like any hobby, there’s a range of people and if you’re going to spend a lot of time and money on something, there’s a market for high-end products. In the past five to ten years I’ve seen the most expensive sculptural pipes go from $1,000 all the way up to $100,000. Part of that’s based on hype. Let’s be honest: It’s an uneducated consumer base. The average person doesn’t know how glass pipes are made and everything that goes into it. It’s a new thing for a lot of people. There’s a bubble in the industry, I think, and it’s going to pop in a few years. Another thing it’s done is polarized the artists. There’s a whole American glass vs. Chinese glass thing, and a lot of it has to do with retailers. Head shops realized they could pay $1 for something from China that would cost $10 from an American source. And the Chinese market takes designs — and, let’s be honest, there’s no easy way to copyright this stuff — and makes them for a fraction of the price. The norm for an artier, sculptural piece in the U.S. is $600 and you can usually get a China knockoff version for $60. Still, there are quality issues across the board, to say nothing of the labor conditions or of the paint that’s used to color some pieces instead of frit — paint you clearly shouldn’t be heating up to smoke out of. Still, the American market is just getting educated to all of this.
Now for the practical stuff: How much does your glass art cost?
The universal energy pendants start at around $35 and the average is about $45. My sculptural pieces, the functional pipes, are around $900-$1,000, though I have a few that I’ve priced a lot lower, at around $250. I realized that the message I want to convey isn’t necessarily for the same people who can afford it. I hope something of that message resonates with every piece, though.
Find out more about Freefire Glass by contacting artist and owner Matt Faulkner at FreefireGlass@Gmail.Com or at 928-235-7910.
Robert Blood is a Mayer-ish-based freelance writer and ne’er-do-well who’s working on his last book, which, incidentally, will be his first. Contact him at BloodyBobby5@Gmail.Com.
IMAGES: Glass art by Matt Faulkner, courtesy photos.