Glass art is a gas guzzler. Can Seattle stoke the flames of environmental change?

As the region embarks on the first-ever Northwest festival of glass, artists hope to make the industry more sustainable.

Two artists work on blown glass

Glass artists Mary Quinn, left, and Brandyn Callahan, both of Seattle, blow glass together in the community hot shop at Pratt Fine Arts Center in Seattle on Oct. 16, 2019. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

When Scott Darlington opens the hatch to an arched furnace, all that emerges is a blinding stream of orange, yellow and white light. It’s like staring into the sun. Your eyes never really adjust.

Inside the massive metal-clad furnace at the center of Pratt Fine Arts Center’s glassblowing facility, a ceramic bowl holds a thousand pounds of clear, molten glass. Before its dipped into powdered pigments, the glass is kept liquid thanks to a constant temperature hovering near 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, fueled by a continuous stream of natural gas.

“It stays on 24 hours a day, seven days a week. For years at a time,” says Darlington, glass studio manager at Pratt. Heating the equipment sucks up so much energy and time that there’s no use in turning it off. It burns at least 84 cubic feet of gas every hour. Next to the furnace, three reheating ovens (also called glory holes) gobble up a minimum of 100 cubic feet of gas each hour they run.

Pratt’s fuel usage is not exceptional. While the glass art industry blows oxygen and life into intricate glass chandeliers, vases, bowls and complex sculptures, it also consumes hefty amounts of natural gas and propane while filling the air literally with tons of carbon dioxide. Other issues, like heavy metal pollution and low levels of recycling, add to the industry’s sustainability concerns.

“So much of the process of making glass adds to global warming, from the fuel that we use to the resources we are depleting,” says Brandi P. Clark, executive director of the Glass Art Society, a Seattle-based nonprofit with worldwide reach.

A 2015 study on the state of the art by the Glass Art Society and Chihuly Garden and Glass determined that “the ramifications of the heavy carbon footprint created is just beginning to be discussed.”

Four years on, awareness of climate change has grown, but the glass art industry is still reckoning with its environmental impact and reliance on fossil fuels.

As the city embarks on Refract, the first-ever Northwest festival celebrating the region’s rich history of glass-art making and status as an epicenter of glass art, glimmers of sustainable efforts emerge. During the four-day festival, more than 50 glass art organizations, local studios and artists open their doors for live demonstrations, art shows and open studio days. But local attempts to be more energy efficient are taking place largely behind the scenes.

In the glassblowing studio at Tacoma’s Museum of Glass, new equipment means the shop uses 40% less gas, though the studio’s brand-new gas meter is tucked away from the public.

Glass artist Marci Rheinschild of Bellingham gathers glass from the furnace in the community hot shop at Pratt Fine Arts Center in Seattle on Oct. 16, 2019. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

Other local art glass centers, such as the famed Pilchuck Glass School, an internationally renowned seat of glass art education, as well as Pratt, also have recently invested in new equipment to curtail gas usage.

Pilchuck’s new equipment provides energy savings of up to 35%, the school says. Pratt installed a new furnace with a recuperated burner system in the hot shop (which will be open to the public all weekend as part of Refract) about a year ago. Darlington says he has seen a 25% reduction in gas usage month to month.

In the small office near the glassblowing studio, Chuck Lopez, Pratt’s glass studio technician, does some back-of-the-napkin math — albeit on a piece of a paper — with the help of Google and a calculator.

Pratt’s furnace emits about 13.5 pounds of carbon dioxide per hour, he explains. That’s about one-quarter of what a car spits out per hour.

“So if you want to be environmentally sound [as] a glassblower, get the hell out of your car and stop eating beef,” Lopez says.

A car, however, doesn’t run 24 hours a day, seven days a week. On a monthly average, the furnace emits 10 times more than the average carbon dioxide emissions per car during the same period.

It would be fairer, however, to use a bus rather than car analogy for Pratt, thanks to the sheer number of people using its equipment during rented shop time.

Glass, first produced thousands of years ago in Persia and later in Egypt and the Roman Empire, has long been environmentally taxing because it relies on heat.

Ned Cantrell, far right, a visiting glass artist from Denmark, works on a sculpture with Museum of Glass staff at the museum's hot shop in Tacoma on Oct. 16, 2019. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

“We have always been harmful to the environment in that in early years we used wood-fired furnaces, so we were responsible for the deforestation of large areas to make glass,” says Clark of the Glass Art Society. Later, the industry shifted to burning coal, and then natural gas.

Fine art glass making, when it emerged in the U.S. in the 1960s, and flourished in the Pacific Northwest in the ’70s, applied much of those industrial techniques on a smaller scale, with artists often piecing together makeshift equipment with hardware store materials.

“The whole Studio Movement was based on building it yourself,” says Fred Metz of local furnace production company Spiral Arts, which made the new furnaces for Pilchuck, Pratt, Museum of Glass and a more efficient furnace for the smaller Seattle Glassblowing Studio.

Metz started building furnaces in the early 1990s. On one of his first jobs, he encountered an uninsulated ceramic kiln. By wrapping the kiln in a jacket, Metz reduced its energy consumption by half.

In the ensuing quarter century, many of the innovations have been variations on the “low-hanging fruit on the energy tree” theme, as Metz puts it. Installing heat recuperators, making the doors better-fitting so less heat can escape, regulating the gas-to-oxygen ratio, and 3D printing of parts have made furnaces more efficient. Another innovation is electric furnaces, but how “clean” those are depends on the source of your electricity.

One important asterisk: many of these innovations, Metz argues, were driven more by cost-cutting than green aspirations. Electric furnaces really became popular only when oil prices “went through the roof” during the Gulf War and crisis, he says.

But that sparked change. Another wake-up call came in 2016, when Bullseye Glass, the southeast Portland glass-making company, was sued by neighbors who said their homes were contaminated by dangerous levels of heavy metals coming from the business. Bullseye settled the class-action lawsuit for $6.5 million earlier this year.

“Within a year [of the suit] they were able to create a custom system to reduce all these toxic emissions by almost 99%,” says Amber O’Brien, founder of Glass Art Energy, a Hawaii-based educational outreach program.

Research and development doesn’t focus on the problem “until the problem comes to the surface,” O’Brien says. “Now that we do realize that we’re burning all of this fuel, we’re using all of this energy, we are emitting toxic pollution … we’re starting to make changes.”

But, she adds, “the Pacific Northwest is not doing much in terms of alternative energy sources.... They are focused on efficient equipment and maintenance.”

In terms of recycling, the nation lags as well, says Clark of the Glass Art Society. “We are far behind the Europeans.… Here in the U.S., it is often more expensive to recycle the glass and to use recycled glass.… It’s a barrier for a lot of artists.”

Though Seattle company Bedrock Industries creates mosaic and tile glass from a 100% recycled glass, and smaller shops are starting to recycle more of their glass, full recycling efforts are few and far between in local glassmaking. One exception is Julie Conway of Illuminata Art Glass Design and founder of BioGlass, an organization that promotes new techniques for energy usage and equipment efficiency in glass art.

Glass artists Marci Rheinschild of Bellingham, right, and Brandyn Callahan of Seattle blow glass in the community hot shop at Pratt Fine Arts Center in Seattle on Oct. 16, 2019. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

During Refract, she’s launching a new product line of vibrantly hued lighting pendants made from 100% recycled glass, produced in a furnace running on vegetable oil and methane digesters.

But to do that, Conway says, she had to travel to Mexico because in Seattle, “there’s nothing even 1% close” to something like it. Conway says she’s spent years attempting to build a green furnace in Seattle. “It’s a lot more difficult in the U.S.,” she says. Obstacles include more stringent regulations and “a mental block” because energy sources are so abundant here.

Another roadblock, people in the glass art industry say, is cost. It’s more expensive to invest in more efficient machinery up front, particularly for small shops and independent artists.

Achieving industrywide change, Conway argues, demands a collective effort from glass art collectors, funders, education centers, galleries and makers.

Two green councils in the works are hoping to do exactly that. The Glass Art Society is assembling an international green committee to spearhead programming and resources.

Locally, Pilchuck is firing up its own green committee. The initiative was sparked by local artist April Surgent, who sits on Pilchuck’s board. The committee will assess how the school can be more sustainable, whether that’s by replacing gas-powered equipment with electric or installing LED-lighting throughout the school. Surgent hopes the new committee will be an educational resource as well.

“This is something that the glass community has to face, and it’s something we are all facing in real time at the moment,” she says.

In her own work, Surgent has long tried to cultivate awareness about climate change and human impact on the environment. In her solo show at Traver Gallery downtown (on view during Refract), Surgent’s flat glass landscape engravings depict dark, monochrome Antarctic ice fields and seascapes. She says the pieces are a way of keeping tangible records of environmental change.

Surgent says she alternates between bouts of despair and hopefulness about climate change. But if anyone will lead the charge, she believes it will be artists.

“Glass artists, in general, are pretty ingenious,” she says. “[In the Northwest] we figured out how to work with the material as an artistic medium only since really the ’70s. We’ve learned a lot since then. I think that there’s a lot of room for growth and making it more sustainable.”

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About the Authors & Contributors

Dorothy Edwards

Dorothy Edwards

Dorothy Edwards is formerly an associate photo editor at Crosscut.