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45 years in glass

Walking into the Worcester Glassworks studio in Kula feels a bit like stepping into the laboratory of a steampunk scientist.

A rainbow of powders and pellets in neat bins line the “wall of color.” Activity buzzes around a reheating chamber fabricated by glass artist Bill Worcester from largely repurposed materials, including a giant Navy cooking pot he found at a Haiku garage sale a few years ago. Fellow artist and business partner Sally Worcester, his wife, cools her glassblowing pipe over a fountain he engineered from a funky, 1950s-era coffee table, some tubing and an industrial metal harp – the pump is powered by a battery pack salvaged from one of his power tools.

“Lately, I’ve come to feel that the only limiting factor in this studio is human,” Bill Worcester says. “We can pretty much make anything if we can physically do it.”

Sally and Bill Worcester have been sculpting glass for the past 45 years, honing their craft, innovating new techniques and expanding their Kula studio into a family business, recently adding their artist son, Mike Worcester, as a partner.

Bill Worcester was a graduate student in oceanography at the University of Hawaii when he joined a Honolulu artisan’s studio called “the Foundry” and signed up for a glassblowing class “as a lark” in 1969. The ancient technique was new on the American arts scene, so few practitioners knew how to do it. After a few months, Bill and a friend received a grant from the State of Hawaii to teach glassblowing.

Then Sally, who was then working as a schoolteacher, wanted to try too. Soon, the couple was hooked.

“Molten glass is such an immediate art form. You might work on something for an hour or two or three, but then it’s essentially done,” Bill says. “That was really appealing.”

“I would call it seductive,” adds Sally. “It was a definite challenge, confronting your fear of the heat, the weight, knowing your limits. It gave you a sense of yourself that I wasn’t getting from anything else.”

And glassblowing was still “a man’s thing” – with fewer than a handful of other women artists in the field.

“I could remember a time when a man was going to buy a piece, and then he found out it was mine, and he wouldn’t pay me because he said a woman couldn’t make that,” says Sally.

Being a pioneer for women in the art form both challenged and inspired her.

“My hands are smaller, I’m not as strong as they are, so learning to use the tools was a real challenge,” compared to her husband and son, Sally says. “But I wanted to be an example to young girls, that they’re not just what society says they are, and they can go beyond that.”

The couple later moved to Oregon and set up a studio. Although they reflect today that they were still learning the craft, the art form was still so new that buyers were intrigued anyway. An early decision to place their studio in the same room as their gallery, so passers-by could watch them at work, added an element of performance and education that helped attract curious customers.

The Worcesters ended up moving back to Hawaii in 1985, and launched the Makawao studio Hot Island Glass in 1992, which they sold to their glassblowing nephew and a friend in 2000. They’ve been working out of their studio on their Kula property ever since.

Meanwhile, Mike Worcester wasn’t so much seduced by glass as he was absorbing it by osmosis.

“I even remember doing it at the Foundry back in 1969,” he says. “I’d make a couple little lumpy things.”

He helped sweep up around the studio, and made a few trinkets to sell in the summers, but as a teen in Oregon was often more interested in surfing than learning the art. After graduating from Maui Community College culinary school, he spent some years working in restaurants before he got the opportunity to spend two months studying at the Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina, where his parents were teaching.

“At some point I start realizing, with glass you can do pretty much anything you want with it,” he says. “It just became a creative outlet to figure out how to push it into different areas.”

Mike eventually opened his own studio in California, then moved back to Maui to join Worcester Glassworks in 2004.

“I’ve been around this medium from a very young age,” he says. “I just know intuitively what the glass is going to do. Possibly there’s a lot of better glassblowers out there with more training, but I think I just understand it from spending so much time around it.”

Even after working with glass for more than four decades, the Worcesters are continuing to develop their craft. Most recently, Sally and Bill have been working on a new technique with color, layering colors over white or clear glass, almost like a watercolor painter. Mike has been perfecting a rare and challenging Scandanavian technique called graal, which involves engraving intricate patterns or images into the glass at different stages of the glassblowing process.

“It’s amazing,” says Sally. “He’s a better glassblower than we are – and that’s the way it should be. He has a tremendous understanding of glass.”

* Ilima Loomis is a Maui-based writer and editor. Do you have an interesting neighbor? Tell us about them at neighbors.maui@gmail.com. Neighbors and “The State of Aloha,” written by Ben Lowenthal, alternate Fridays.

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