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Annapolis artist has spent years perfecting glass technique

ANNAPOLIS — Some like it hot.

Gayla Lee likes it hotter.

So hot glass has the consistency of molasses. So hot different-colored pieces melt into each other.

Lee is a glass artist. The 31-year-old Annapolis resident prefers the term craftsman, but anyone who has seen her panels, platters and other pieces would tend to argue.

“They all have that wow factor,” said Linnell Bowen, executive director of Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts in Annapolis, one of two places Lee teaches. “She’s unbelievable. Her product, her students — it’s a new dimension for Maryland Hall.”

Lee began as a glass blower, but these days does more fusing. Both involve shaping. Glass blowers breathe into a tube to fashion pieces after glass is heated to 2,100 degrees.

Fusing involves cutting and arranging pieces of glass and then heating it to 1,500 degrees in a kiln. True to her do-it-yourself form, Lee recently made her own kiln.

“It makes me feel like a mad scientist,” she said.

Her designs feature bold geometric patterns, and sometimes incorporate metal. Others draw on her experience with origami. A platter she finished a few years ago contains 4,000 pieces.

“Glass can look like anything,” Lee said. “That’s what fun about it.”

She teaches fusing and origami at Maryland Hall and fusing at the Corning Museum of Glass in New York.

“Her work is definitely some of the highest-quality,” said Mark Ditzler of Seattle, who also teaches at Corning. “People don’t appreciate how time-consuming it is.”

Lee learned fusing from Ditzler and served as his teaching assistant. This summer, she’ll do that again as both head to Turkey to lead a class.

Lee’s love affair with glass dates back to when she was 8 and went to the Maryland Renaissance Festival. As soon as she saw a glass blower, she told her friends to go on without her. She stayed behind, transfixed.

“I said, ‘I want to do that.’ It looked hard and it looked different and exciting, all hot and melty. All that drama.”

Once she graduated from Annapolis High School, she headed to Baltimore and pestered a glass blower to take her on. It took 18 months to convince him. She worked as a stagehand in the meantime.

She apprenticed four years and also took classes at Corning. Lee spent four more years as the glass blower’s main assistant before moving to back to Annapolis and opening her own studio a couple years ago.

“She’s very energetic and really wanted to learn,” said glass blower Anthony Coradetti, who now calls her for advice on fusing.

Lee prefers hands-on experience to book learning, which is why she didn’t go to art school. “Arts and crafts as an academic exercise didn’t appeal to me,” she said.

Typically, people either do glass blowing or fusing, not both, but Lee incorporates some blown glass into her fused pieces.

“Gayla represents a new generation of artists (who are) experimenting with materials in a different way,” said Pamela Diamond of the American Craft Council.

Lee participated in the council’s recent Baltimore show. “I’m very impressed with her work,” Diamond said.

Lee’s switch to fusing happened gradually, and was mainly related to what she wanted to make, although the cost of setting up a glass blowing studio also factored in. She likes the patterns and precision of fusing, but her inspiration can come from anywhere.

A walk down the street or a stroll among trees can provide the starting point for a design. Sometimes, though, ideas pop into her head fully formed.

Whatever the origin, she first makes rough sketches, then gathers materials. She cuts glass with a special tool that sounds like a zipper as it moves along a sheet of glass. She then snaps off the piece with pliers.

It doesn’t take long for her to get “in the zone.”

Everything eventually goes into the kiln, but one design can have multiple firings. “Some things are good at high heat, others at low,” she said. “Part of the trick is knowing how things will look when they melt.”

This especially applies to color.

For example, red and blue pieces of glass stacked together turn to a drab brown in the kiln. “There’s complex chemistry between the colors,” she said.

Lee’s biggest challenge has nothing to do with art — it’s knowing what to charge and how to market herself. Her work is priced from $32 for earrings to $4,000 for an elaborate platter.

“I do not make a good living at this,” she said. “But I love it. And when you do something you find interesting every day, you don’t need a lot more. If I wait until I’m comfortable, I won’t push myself hard enough.”

Lee considers herself to be at the “journeyman phase” of glass work. “I’m definitely not at the rock star level,” she said.

But her teaching is music to the ears of her students. They describe her as “inspirational.”

“She knows how to speak to her students,” said Claire Shepherd of Annapolis, who is taking her fifth class with Lee. “There’s not a dumb question. She makes you want to learn.”

Lee taught Bowen how to make a necklace.

“She’s a wonderful teacher,” Bowen said. “She’s fun and her students have fun.”

Lee’s task on the first night of a new session of advanced glass fusing at Maryland Hall last month was to introduce new techniques and let her students experiment. The idea was to have them discover which methods they’d like to use for a project.

Teaching has always come naturally, just like her interest in art.

“If I know how to do something, I try to teach it to other people,” she said. “It’s an interesting challenge to figure out how to best describe something.”

When her students get the creative spark, the feeling is pretty close to what she gets when she herself is working with glass.

“Glass seems to hit all the right notes for me. It’s complicated and technical, just the way I like things to be, although I try to make it clear and simple for my students. (Glass) is everything.”