Martha’s Vineyard Glassworks marks its 20th year

This drop vase was designed for MV Glassworks' 20th anniversary by Michiko Maekawa. — Photo courtesy of Martha's Vineyard Glassworks

Martha’s Vineyard Glassworks in North Tisbury entered its twentieth year this summer without a lot of fanfare. It probably doesn’t need it, because its small studio packs an impressive array of glass designs. Once customers find their way there, they are likely to return. Unlike most glass studios, MV Glassworks features the work of more than six different artists, each with his and her own style and approach to making works of art out of glass.

Proprietor Mark Weiner started the business with two Cambridge glassblowers, Andrew Magdanz and Mr. Magdanz’s wife Susan Shapiro, who are Chilmark summer residents and display their work at the studio. As a freelance glassblower, Mr. Weiner had worked for them, and when they decided to start the Island business, they got in touch with him.

The resident glassblowers include Mr. Weiner’s wife, Michiko Maekawa, who brings a Japanese sensibility and a fluidity to her craft; Russell Carson, who makes glass objects such as scrimshaw, whale’s tales, and anchors, as well as vases; Mr. Maglanz, whose signature mini-vases have linear patterns and unique color patterns; Robert Phillips, who spends winters in Sweden and brings a Scandinavian influence to his multi-colored sculptural work; Ms. Shapiro, who lends a folk-art perspective to her vases; and, of course, Mr. Weiner, who makes classic vases, glasses, bowls, pitchers and other objects in vibrant colors. The newest addition is journeyman Joey Huang, who is still establishing his style.

“This is not an easy job,” Mr. Weiner said in an interview last weekend. “For me, it’s like milking cows; it never stops. You can’t stop in the middle of blowing glass.” The mission of Glassworks is as much about education as it is about sales, he suggests. MV Glassworks tries to teach the public about glass’s physical characteristics, about good design, and about not being fearful of glass art objects or their fragility.

“Everything we do here is teamwork,” says Ms. Maekawa. She outlined the basic steps in the art of glassblowing that people will see if they visit the studio. The process begins with a product called batch, a powder that contains all the necessary minerals and chemicals to create glass art. Mr. Weiner compares it to a cake mix.

The batch is heated to a molten state in the crucible or pot of a furnace that is kept running 24 hours a day and reaches temperatures higher than 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Mr. Weiner is quick to point out that both the Cape Cod Light Compact and Vineyard Propane have helped MV Glassworks make their business more energy efficient and use their resources more effectively, important since their furnace runs nonstop throughout the season.

In the next step, molten glass is gathered on a pipe or rod so that it can be removed from the furnace, shaped and worked. Once gathered at this stage, the glass may be returned to what is called the Glory Hole, a heating chamber that re-softens the substance to the right temperature for blowing and working. A glassblower introduces an air bubble into unformed glass and the piece of work begins to take shape.

Forming takes place on a workbench with egg-shaped, wetted tools called blocks, or, if the piece is more free form, with wet newspaper. A third option at the forming stage is to work with the glass on a marble or steel table, rolling it or shaping it with tools such as jacks. Ornamental bits of glass and color may be added to the partially blown or formed piece of glass. Handles, lip or body wraps and stamps can be added at this point. More color elements and decoration come in at a variety of stages.

“We make one design all day,” Ms. Maekawa says. “Otherwise you have to change the whole setup.”

While it might seem that once the molten glass is blown, colored and decorated, the glassblower’s job is done. That’s not the case. If blown glass cools down too fast, it will crack. Finished creations will often stay in an annealing oven overnight or longer, depending on the size of the piece.

Many other secondary processes, like sandblasting, cutting or polishing can be involved, according to the design that is being executed. Ms. Maekawa does sandblasting on some of her larger pieces, and she describes the process as like etching the glass.

“You don’t need to blow that hard,” says Ms. Maekawa. “It’s pretty much working with heat. It’s like dance.” She grew up in Japan looking at traditional kiriko glass, and was fascinated by it. “The reason I love glassblowing is that its transparence reminds me of water.”

Some of the studio’s most popular glass art includes its garden floats and seasonal pieces like pumpkins or snowmen figures. Another is a colorful set of glasses with pitcher called the Frut Lup.

Martha’s Vineyard Glassworks, 683 State Rd., West Tisbury. For information, call 508-693-6026 or go to