Meet the Maker: Robbie Frankel of Balefire Glass

Wed Nov 18, 2020

Portland glassblower Robbie Frankel calls his new ashtrays for Tetra "paintings," which seems strange until you realize that it just might be the perfect word to describe what makes his work so special. Released under his studio name Balefire Glass, his vases and cups are distinguished by their artistic, gestural forms and their varied yet expertly orchestrated color palettes, as if they were conjured by brush. Each swirled, mottled, or iridescent-sheened piece is hand-blown or hand-sculpted, and is essentially one-of-a-kind. "There are a lot of assumptions of how glass ‘should’ look," he once stated. "I try to make things that have never existed before."

We'd been enamored with Frankel's art glass for a few years now, and couldn't stop thinking about what it would be like to have him create a smoking object for us. Luckily he obliged, and created a limited-edition series of Sunrise and Dusk ashtrays exclusively for Tetra, which he makes by layering strips of color into a thick, luminous patchwork and shaping it into a vessel with his hands. To mark the launch, we asked Frankel a few questions about his start in glassmaking, his daily routine, and how he approaches his material of choice.

Photos by Heather Lin

When did you know you wanted to do something creative, and how did you get started in your current practice?

I was always making things with my hands as a child, I always loved creating, transforming, bringing things into existence. My mom was a fantasy-romance author when I was growing up. She brought a lot of magic into the house, and glassblowing was the closest thing to wizardry I saw in the real world. I started blowing glass when I was 18 in Philadelphia. I went to college for biology, intending to study veterinary medicine, but the glassblowing studio and the art school program called too loud.

How would you summarize your approach to your work and your materials?

When I make my work I don't look to past forms or color application techniques in glass tradition/history. I start with colors and raw material and keep combining and manipulating in ways attempting to create effects I've never seen before in the glass world. Often times I lean towards visual elements that are other-worldly.

Balefire's Epiphany Cups

Did you ever have an epic fail, and what did you learn from it?

Glassblowing is full of epic fails, if you're pushing yourself that is. You're constantly on the edge of what is possible. The larger the piece, the more complicated the color application, and the longer you have to work it outside of the heat source in room temperature, at which point you're really gambling. At any moment, a slight drop in a few degrees temperature, and the piece cracks or falls off the steel rod and shatters on the floor. Whenever you push yourself to make something you weren't able to make before, a lot of loss occurs. Then you're left hot and sweaty and tired and defeated and you have to learn from the mistakes, gather your strength, and get over yourself and your frustrations to get a fresh start of molten glass and start a new piece.

What’s a typical day like in your studio?

I wake up late with my dog, who sleeps on me while I catch up on emails and computer work. Once we've eaten breakfast, we'll get to the studio around noon. I'll spend the first hour organizing color and planning production for the day. I'll set up my chunks of glass color in the kiln and turn it on so it'll be at 1,000 degrees when I need to start working. I turn the furnace up to 2,108 degrees, turn on another kiln to 950 degrees, and start the gas-fed gloryhole that will take about an hour to reach 2,200 degrees.

While all the equipment is heating up, I'll pull out and clean all my tools, glaze some of them with fresh beeswax, and pull out the blow pipes I'll use for the day. My sweet pup will be following me around the whole time. I'll blow glass from about 2pm until 11pm. I'll take some breaks for water, a few little dog walks, and a dinner break outside. I'm usually listening to NPR, various podcasts, or an audio book. Sometimes I'll put on headphones and talk to my family while I work. I don't often listen to music when I blow glass, my ADD brain focuses better when I'm doing two things at once.

At around 11, I'll turn off all the equipment and let the day's work slowly cool overnight in a kiln. I'll clean up slowly and leave the shop around midnight.

Tell us what you love about the piece you’ve made for Tetra.

To make the ashtray, I apply patterns of color to glass, break the forms, then arrange the pieces into a quilted or puzzle pattern. Each composition is a painting of its own. Instead of a thin layer of clear glass, I back these paintings with a large amount of molten glass so it can be sculpted into a heavy dish, with the painting looking up at you.