Darren Petersen’s fish are more smooth and sparkly than fish in real life. His shorebirds appear more graceful and intricately coloured.
But that’s the beauty of glasswork.
“It’s difficult to make something out of glass that isn’t beautiful,” said Petersen, who’s married his love of wildlife with his passion for art in his Sparrow Glassworks studio in the Woodlea neighbourhood.
Petersen, who works with assistance from his wife Deborah, held an open house at their home studio Saturday. The public was invited to a show and sale of organic sculptures — from glass apples, pears, acorns and mushrooms, to leaves and ladybugs, sandpipers, and trout.
The Petersens also create functionally beautiful pieces in the form of stemware, tumblers, pitchers, bowls and vases. These range from clear glass, with decorative swirls, to punchy bursts of green, yellow, orange and purple colours.
“It’s quite intriguing,” said customer Denise Germain, who watched as Darren dipped a long steel pipe into clear glass in the furnace in his garage. He then rolled this molten blob into yellow and green ground glass the texture of sand.
After melting the colours together, Darren repeatedly blew through the pipe to create a glass bubble. He shaped the glasswork-in-progress on a steel-topped table, imprinted it with a pattern from a mold, and repeatedly immersed it back into the furnace to keep it hot, so the glass wouldn’t crack by cooling too quickly.
Minutes later, he produced an amber-coloured globe that could hang from a Christmas tree, or reflect light in a window.
“It’s very complex,” observed another patron. “You could do six of the same thing and they’d all turn out a little differently. That’s what I like about it.”
Darren grew up painting and drawing the wildlife he saw around him in his hometown of Edson. He never knew he’d want work with glass until he began experimenting with different mediums at the Alberta College of Art and Design in Calgary.
“Art school seems to redirect people,” he said with a chuckle. “When (glasswork) was first introduced to me, I remember thinking, that’s not why I’m here.” Yet the process quickly hooked him because “playing with molten glass is pretty neat.”
While some people find working in thousand-degree temperatures scary, Darren said the challenge suited him and somehow made sense. “It’s not complicated, it’s just a matter of gravity and temperature. But a lot of people struggle with it. It takes a long time to get to do what you want, but it’s just a lot of practice and repetition.”
Darren, who is also a fly fisher, bird watcher and painter, believes the organic fish and shorebirds forms he creates are very suitable to the medium. “The glass very naturally wants to be fluid and to take an elegant shape.”
The immediacy of transforming a molten lump into a beautiful sculpture continues to appeal to Darren, who met his wife Deborah beside a glass furnace in art class. The couple were married a week after graduation.
When they decided to relocate to a smaller centre from Calgary about 17 years ago, someone suggested Red Deer, and it proved to be a good move for their family, which now includes a son and daughter.
“This is a great place to raise kids,” said Darren, who with Deborah, manages to make a living solely from creating glass artworks. The couple sell primarily from home to corporate clients and individual collectors. Their prices range from $30 for a small decoration to $400 or more for a large fish or bird.
“It’s not a way to get rich quick, but I frequently have it pointed out to me that not very many people are able to do this for a living,” added Darren, who credits their success to teamwork.
While Deborah has her own bead-making sideline, her assistance to Darren is vital. The glass maker said he couldn’t create his intricate sculptures and vessels without Deborah first preparing and then passing him other metal rods tipped with glass for applying fish fins and bowl handles. “This can’t be a one-person job,” he said.
Deborah, a details-oriented person who enjoys experimentation, said, “We’ve been working together for so long, he doesn’t have to tell me what he needs. You recognize when there’s a need for this or that. You just know, without needing a lot of communication.”
Darren first draws the designs that he intends to make. The resulting three-dimensional glassworks turn out virtually the same as his two-dimensional sketches, said Deborah.
“He makes exactly what he wants to make — it’s really amazing.”
For more information about Sparrow Glassworks, please call 403-346-1975.