Farmer & glass blower Alan Cottle a jack-of-all-trades
Photo courtesy of Alan Cottle
Alan Cottle's love affair with glass blowing began in elementary school during his class's annual trip to Joe Serpa's Edgartown glass studio, now long gone. Some 40 years later, Mr. Cottle spends his winters making vases, bowls, cups, planters, bull's-eye panes, and ornaments in his Lambert's Cove glass blowing studio behind his father's lumberyard, E.C. Cottle, in West Tisbury.
Mr. Cottle is a member of an Island family that dates back to 1652, when his ancestors literally washed ashore after the boat bringing them from England was shipwrecked. Like other members of his family not in the lumber business, Mr. Cottle has many irons in the fire.
Tractor work, excavation, and stonework and masonry keep him in demand and pay the bills. In summer, haying makes for long hot days: he estimates that he harvests 10,000 bales of hay a year.
Severely dyslexic by his own description, Mr. Cottle left school at 16 and went to work for Herbert Hancock building houses. He had already started building his own house at the age of 12, and when he joined Mr. Hancock, he learned many different skills related to the building business. If Mr. Cottle did not excel at schoolwork, he did master a host of other practical skills.
At age 23, he replaced his earlier house with a bigger, more complete model on the farm where he and his wife, Debbie Farber, make their home. Ms. Farber grows fantastic vegetables which she retails at a farm stand at home and wholesales to Cronig's, the Scottish Bakehouse, and others.
Mr. Cottle's handiwork appears all over the house and property. In the woodwork shop adjoining his glass blowing studio, the bones of a 40-foot lobster-style "yacht" wait for the next step in construction. Inside the glass blowing studio that he converted from what was a grain storage building for 20 years, he has glass mistakes that are often as interesting as his more perfect objects alongside them. One example is a furniture inlay made in the shape of Martha's Vineyard with the Island's major ponds tinted blue.
"We make things that work, too," he says, smiling. Flower sconces in a deep blue provide one example; another is a clear paperweight with a scallop shell suspended in the center. "It's a trick," he explains, when asked how he does it.
Some of the handsomest pieces of his glasswork appear as fixtures on his wood furniture, made with Island timber he has gathered and milled. A hanging wall cabinet has glass bull's-eye doors, and one of his hutches is festooned with glass drawer pulls and a glass flower that lights up.
When he counts up the hours spent working on his glass art and the cost of supplies, the prices he charges don't make the work profitable, but that hardly concerns him. Sales did cover his rent at the Menemsha studio in a season some have called terrible.
While his love affair with glass blowing started in childhood, Mr. Cottle didn't become a serious practitioner of the art until 2004. He commuted to the Rhode Island School of Design that year to take a course in basic glass blowing techniques. For a while, he rented space from Martha's Vineyard Glassworks in North Tisbury, gradually collecting the furnace, glory hole, and other equipment needed to blow glass. When necessary, he designed what he needed, like his glass "garage" that fits on top of a pipe warmer to save room. Two assistants, Martina Musilova and Russell Carson, work with him, since it takes three people to make the kinds of glass objects he likes to produce.
"I was doing it as a hobby," he says. "Then I decided to start selling." He rented half of a building, once used as a fish cooler for flash freezing the catch brought in to Poole's in Menemsha, and hung out his sign, a picture of a Zephyrus-like creature blowing through a glass-blowing pipe. Next to him in what used to be Poole's chandlery is another small crafts enterprise, the Copperworks Shop of Scott McDowell. By the end of the season, though, Mr. Cottle closes the Menemsha shop and returns the business to his Lambert's Cove studio. This summer he started showing his work at the Vineyard Artisans Festival.
"I like the hand-blown look," he says. "I like it funky looking, not perfect." He doesn't want to become somebody who makes glass art that's thin and perfect. Although some of his glass bowls display smooth, lush colors, he doesn't favor them as much as the ones that aren't. "I like it [color] when it's stretchy and you can kind of see the flow of the glass," he says. "Then it looks like a painting."
Bull's-eyes are a lot of fun to make, according to Mr. Cottle. "If you've ever seen one made, you'd understand," he says. The glass must be very hot, and the blower has to spin it very fast until it flips out into its characteristic, flat spiral shape. As he walks through his Lambert's Cove studio, Mr. Cottle points out the beetlebung framing on a window, picks up a small bird he's whittled, and points out the paintings on the wall, one of which depicts the Edgartown lighthouse. He says he made it when he was 10 years old.
He offers one last parting shot: "I don't like plastic."
Lambert's Cove Glass, 40 Cottle Lane, off Lambert's Cove Road, West Tisbury. For information and fall hours, call 774-563-0006.