Arts and Entertainment

Glasswork guided by the motion in the ocean (even in Kingston's backwoods)

Umphress was picked as one of the top glassworkers in the nation at the 2009 NICHE Awards for her glass octopi. - Courtesy Photo/Jen Umphress
Umphress was picked as one of the top glassworkers in the nation at the 2009 NICHE Awards for her glass octopi.
— image credit: Courtesy Photo/Jen Umphress

Kingston-by-way-of-Maui artist Jennifer Umphress brings home top honors from annual American Craft industry awards.

Jennifer Umphress doesn’t know quite how she, her husband and 13-year-old son ended up in Kingston, and she’s still not all that sure just how she feels about it.

A free-spirited surfer-girl-type who creates colorful, often oceanic-themed glass sculptures, she seems a little bit out of place in a big, cold, industrial studio tucked back in the woods at the end of a dirt road in Kingston. It seems like she should be at work on a sandy beach somewhere.

But the fledgling lampworker is right at home in the rural wooded suburb of Seattle, amidst a hot bed of glass art and similarly secluded glass artists who are scattered throughout the greater Northwest.

Umphress moved here from Maui, Hawaii, where she’d found her passion for glasswork in between time spent snorkeling and diving. She began apprenticing at a small studio retail glass shop on the island in 2000.

She furthered her artistic endeavors spending time at the Sundance Art Center in her hometown of Santa Cruz, Calif., and also studied under Cesare Toffolo for a month in Murano, Italy. But after 15 years spent in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, she was starting to feel isolated from the glass community in which she longed to be more involved.

So she and her family came to the Northwest.

Since relocating to Kingston, while she’s had easier access to materials (most of which she says come from Portland, Ore.), Umphress noted that she’s also had the opportunity to meet, workshop and even talk shop with a few of the artists who have influenced her throughout her years as a glass artist. And, while this recent economic downfall certainly has, she said the move to Kingston, itself, hasn’t had much of an effect on either the creation or distribution of her work.

She still continues to create and ship her work to galleries across the country. And given that, the seeming seclusion of her new location hasn’t had much an effect on her visibility as an artist, either.

Recently, in its annual industry awards for 2009, the insider publication, NICHE Magazine — “the exclusive trade publication for North American retailers of American Craft” — tagged Umphress as the top glass lampworker, during its awards ceremony earlier this month at the Philadephia Buyers Market of American Craft.

She was pegged for the award on the strength of one of her patented glass octopi — a staple of her movement-based, marine-themed repertoire.

She’s done all sorts of brightly colored, fantastically bodied glass creatures — from octopi to squid to seahorses, frogs, turtles and dragonflies. But her art is more about each piece’s intrinsic movement than it is about any particular subject matter.

“It’s more about the motion,” she said when I got the chance to meet her after she’d been announced as a finalist for the NICHE award. “The subject could be anything.”

She had experimented in other artistic media before she found what spoke to her through glasswork. She said she started in the glass medium by piecing together geometric shapes of stained glass for quite some time, but noted that she wasn’t happy with the “mathematics” of it all.

When she found lampworking — an oddly named art form in which the artist uses a gas torch to melt rods of clear and colored glass and then forms and shapes it with a variety of tools and hand movements — she fell in love.

“I love it, because it’s just so in the moment,” she said.

In her online artist statement, she elaborates on why glass is her ideal medium: “Once I discovered the rush of creating with constant motion and having no time to think but instead feel my piece, I was completely captivated,” she writes.

And it’s likewise completely captivating to watch her work.

“I work all the time,” she said. “Ten hours a day, six days a week most times, but it doesn’t feel like work, and if it did feel like work, I don’t think I’d do it.”

She hands me a pair of heavy-duty workshop glasses with heavily-tinted lenses for protection when I get to her shop. Then she flips on a propane/oxygen torch that shoots a fierce foot-long flame into the air above her work desk. When she holds the glass to the flame, the fire reacts with a bright white burst that melts the tip of the clear glass rod into a molten glob. Then she brings in one of the colored glass rods, melds it with the clear glass and swirls the colored rod as she pulls it from the fire, stretching it into shape, capturing the movement as the glass cools.

She’s rhythmic and poetic and focused in her movements. She’s so deft and fluid it’s almost non-chalant, until you see the incredible detail that is rendered in the finished product.

SEE UMPHRESS' GALLERY OF GLASSWORK at www.jenniferumphress.com and also check her out at the internationally renowned Vetri Gallery in Seattle, www.vetriglass.com.

See the list of 2009 NICHE Awards at www.nichemag.com.

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