Caliente Hot Glass Studio will re-open to the public this September with twice the space to host demonstrations, classes, and other events to engage the public with the ancient art of glass blowing.

During a recent tour of the warehouse space in the Eastside, Glen Andrews II rolled out glowing glass, iridescent white-yellow on the cool grey steel tabletops. His dark arms are pockmarked by burn scars where many have tattoos, and his polarized lenses protect him from the furnace rather than the sun.

Len Andrews II shapes the hot glass with a specially designed tool. Photo by Scott Ball.
Glen Andrews II shapes hot glass with a specially designed tool. Photo by Scott Ball.

The gallery and studio closed down for renovations and expansion in August and will briefly re-open Wednesday evening for a media-only sneak peek before its public grand opening celebration on Sunday, Sept. 13. The monthly “Second Sunday Funday” events are free and open to the public.

The gallery, 1411 N Hackberry, will be open every Thursday 3-6 p.m. and by appointment. Find out more about classes or becoming a member at www.calientehotglass.com.

Caliente opened in 2007 when owner Ralph Laborde took up glass blowing. Ralph also owns a utility equipment repair shop, River City Hydraulics, next door. In the industrial setting filled with equipment next to the railroad tracks, Ralph turned his hobby into a facility unlike any other glass studio in the city.

Making glass is extremely costly. The equipment for keeping molten sand at 2,050 degrees Fahrenheit is expensive and the energy required each time it’s fired up is immense.

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“Because of that cost, at most studios there is a hierarchy and most artists are actually production workers following templates,” said artist and Caliente Creative Director Ruth Bushman. “Ralph’s goal isn’t to manufacture anything. His goal is to make his art and explore and play. So he made a space where other artists can do the same. Everything you see here is because some artist wants to make it.”

This kind of autonomy for glass blowers is rare, Andrews said.

“There’s no other place in San Antonio where artists can buy time and (take/teach) classes. I was about to move away from the city to find a place that better supported my art form, but when this place opened it was clear that it’s an open space for creation. It’s exactly what glass blowers like me were looking for.”

Glass blowing is basically just the combination of heat, sand, and water, but Andrews has spent years and may spend a lifetime on perfecting that combination.

“Glass is particularly frustrating and beautiful. When I got into it, I found the constraint of not being able to come back and adjust a piece difficult,” he said. “Once you make it, and it’s not right, you have to do something new again rather than trying to change the piece afterwards. Sometimes I would fixate on what needed to change. When I realized there was no way to go back and correct it, I could let it go. That limitation gave me a lot of creative freedom. Rather than fixate on your errors, you have to let go and go back to create again.

“Early on, I created this raking color technique and thought I was the business. The pieces looked really cool, and no one had taught it to me. Then I looked in some textbooks and saw the exact same technique in some pieces from BC Egypt. So I realized that there’s nothing new under the sun, it’s just about the personal style the artist puts on it.”

Apprentice Ruth Bushman holds out her gloved hands in anticipation of holding the hot glass after it's been removed. Photo by Scott Ball.
Ruth Bushman holds out her gloved hands in anticipation of holding the hot glass after it’s been removed from the furnace. Photo by Scott Ball.

Not all glass blowers are alike, Bushman said.

“Certain artists are better at one technique than others, so when clients want to commission pieces, we connect them to the glass blower that matches their intended style. That’s part of the advantage of having so many different artists sharing the space,” she said.

The studio has about a dozen members, whose memberships last for a year and include the ability to purchase blocks of time. The studio artists are drawing in members of the public through demonstrations, corporate seminars, lessons, and excursions into the glass blowing experience.

Apprentice Ruth Bushman holds a completed piece. Photo by Scott Ball.
Apprentice Ruth Bushman holds a completed piece. Photo by Scott Ball.

“Caliente offers opportunities for the public to participate in a one of a kind experience. There’s lots of places where you can go and watch, but here participants can be a part of the creative process,” Bushman said. “We want people to come and play with the artists. The way our artists think and live is very different than the average person, and we want people to come be a part of how we work here.”

Melinda Kimmey, drove to San Antonio from outside of Houston for a chance to try glass blowing. She brought her grandson, Tanner, who is 11, to participate with her. “It’s so rare for a studio to offer this, that soon after I heard I knew I had to come here and try it. I’ve never done any glass blowing before, but it has been on my bucket list for a long time.”

A student and his grandmother wait for their educational workshop to begin. Photo by Scott Ball.
Melinda Kimmey and her grandson, Tanner, wait for their educational workshop to begin. Photo by Scott Ball.

The expanded studio, new this month, will mostly be used for demonstrations and classes, which were a tight fit before.

Visitors may be surprised to find such an artform next to the railroad tracks on the Eastside.

“This part of the Eastside works well for Caliente,” studio and gallery owner Laborde said. “We’re close to the Pearl, right by Alamo Beer, we have easy highway access. Organizations devoted to the Eastside like SAGE have also helped us get established.”

Andrews said glass blowing has a lot to teach artists outside of the art itself.

Len Andrews II works with glass at his studio. Photo by Scott Ball.
Glen Andrews II works with glass at his studio. Photo by Scott Ball.

“Sometimes your mistake is your rhythm. If you’re three seconds off, the piece will crack and shatter. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do to keep it in tact.  That’s all part of the gig. If I start thinking of mistakes and failures, and using those words, it changes my perspective. The glass will show you that negativity and anxiety through an inferior form.

“One of the reasons I’m hung on it is because it’s a barometer for your energy. It taught me teamwork, it taught me resilience, and it’s changed my relationships. My work really elevated once I realized, I’m not making glass. If I make something perfect, it’s because I treated it a certain way, and it became that. I didn’t make it. Now I approach people in the same way, you can’t control anyone or hardly anything, but if you treat them a certain way, something beautiful can happen.”

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 *Featured/top image: Glen Andrews II blows through a metal tube, expanding malleable glass. Photo by Scott Ball. 

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Mitch Hagney

Mitch Hagney is a writer and hydroponic farmer in downtown San Antonio. Hagney is CEO of LocalSprout and president of the Food Policy Council of San Antonio.