Sunday, December 1, 2002

Artist at work

The magic of sweat, fire, sand


Most of the time, we don't get to look over the artist's shoulder. Generally, I suppose this is a good policy. Maybe we don't really want to know how somebody mixes his paints. Maybe the sloppy potter's wheel is better unseen. Maybe it's better to think it's magic.


But I couldn't resist.

James Michael Kahle's work can be seen at The Design Consortium on Madison Road in O'Bryonville. And that's a pretty heady experience, all by itself. Exquisite paperweights, plates, vases, bowls, lamps. Some of it soars into enormous splashes of color, which turn impossibly intricate as they snare the light. Mr. Kahle (rhymes with sail) creates art glass, achingly pure and fragile.

Decidedly industrial

The artist himself is many miles away in a decidedly industrial setting, a converted brick five-and-dime store in the tiny northwestern Ohio village of Rockford. He's wearing a black, sleeveless undershirt and Birkenstocks. His gray-blond hair is pulled back from his face. And he's sweating. His studio is very hot.

The batch furnace registers nearly 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit as powdered silicon and 18 other proprietary materials in his personal recipe are turned to molten glass.

"Flame," he says, "has no regard for anything or anyone. It burns everything in its way, steals the oxygen around it." He has been burned, he says, but not often and not lately.

"When we turn everything on," Mr. Kahle says, "it's enough to heat 35 average homes." When he's really cranking, he consumes 7 million BTUs an hour. He came to Rockford for poetic and prosaic reasons. His utility bills are cheaper. Plus he is "blooming where he was planted."

A native Ohioan who studied at the Toledo Museum of Art, he started blowing glass in 1990. Before that, he was a charter member of the management at Ben & Jerry's ice cream, known as much for its social policies as for its Chunky Monkey and Cherry Garcia flavors.

His own social policies include "the Hot Glass Experience," which only offers training and has contributed thousands of dollars to high school art programs. He manages to talk about this without tooting his own horn and without using the phrase "giving back."

I give him points for both.

He has finished talking to me. He's ready to blow. He flexes a bicep, which is encircled by a flame tattoo. Perfect. The art is fragile. The artist is not.

He hefts a 60-pound blowpipe and considers the blob of molten glass at the end. "It's planned," he says, " but then you have to listen to the glass." He does so with a beatific smile, working his way through several "gathers," heft and color added to the bubble. He puffs and twirls. He cradles the bubble in a water-soaked Wall Street Journal - "archival quality, no acid and the ink is vegetable-based."

Then there's no talking, because there is no real explanation for what happens between James Michael Kahle and the glass, which grows and glows to an astonishment of cobalt with undertones of sunlight and silver.

It's magic.

E-mail or phone 768-8393.

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