If the harvest moon wanted its luminosity perfectly captured, it would seek out glass artist Laurene Howell to cast its portrait.
Born in Idaho and raised in Portland, Howell, 64, was a dental hygienist for six years before she decided to go to medical school at age 29 and become an ear, nose and throat surgeon. “I’ve been interested in art since grade school, but I didn’t start taking art classes until 15 years ago,” she says. “I took a watercolor class that took me to the Greek island of Mykonos, where I discovered watercolor wasn’t my medium. Then I lasted a day and a half in a three-day painting class. I’d play with collage and embellishments from time to time. I’ve always been fascinated with glass art, but when I was practicing medicine, I couldn’t do anything with glass because I couldn’t risk cutting my hands.”
Now she’s a retiree with two kilns and a glass-making studio in the back of a warehouse near the train yards in the Southeast Portland neighborhood of Brooklyn, where she makes plates (above), bowls and three-dimensional, half-inch-thick landscapes in glass such as the diptych Winter Trees (left). “I work from back to front, so if I’m using mainly clear glass, I first sandblast the back of the piece so that it is more translucent than see-through,” she says of her process. “Then I work on the distant horizon, adding a background layer of faraway trees. I like to think of a destination in the distance, often putting in a path that you can follow into the piece. I put frit on a little spoon that I’ve bent into a funnel and tap it so the frit falls where I want it. Then I’ll pick up a brush and push the frit where I want it, or I’ll take glass rods and put them under the torch to create branches. For the leaves, some are frit and sometimes I make leaf shapes in glass. I love the palette in this winter scene; it’s just cold blue sky and snow.”
With every layer, she thinks, Am I really finished with this layer? Then she fires it. Each piece takes 9 to 12 firings. “The thicker the glass, the more I have to change the firing schedule,” she says. “I may have a schedule as long as 20 hours, heating up the piece to temperatures from 300 to 1,000 to 150 degrees. I never know whether I got what I was trying to get until it comes out of the kiln. If I’m disappointed in a piece, I have the same feeling as if I’d dropped a piece of glass on a concrete floor.” Winter Trees, two 4-by-12 landscapes, sells for $750. which includes a powder-coated black steel custom shelf. The 12-inch-wide bowl sells for $100.