Feel the heat

Alex Smiley is fired up about the art of glassblowing

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By SUSAN MONTGOMERY

Alex Smiley has a sort of worldly wisdom that goes beyond his 20 years. Maybe it comes from growing up the youngest in a family of five children in River Forest (his oldest sibling is 40), and having the opportunity to travel to places like Israel, Egypt, Alaska and Europe from the time he was little.

So he's thoughtful when explaining why the art of glassblowing has become his passion.

"I've always been drawn to a simpler life within a hectic lifestyle. That comes through in working with a piece of glass," says Smiley, who's completing his junior year at Illinois State University where he's studying art.

"Glassblowing focuses every bit of my concentration on the process of heating it up, adding layers of color, blowing it, shaping it. I have an overwhelming sense of joy and appreciation and have no other way of expressing that except in a way that mimics how I feel inside."

Glassblowing is complicated and difficult to master. A furnace must be heated to 2,350 degrees to melt glass. The liquid glass then is captured on the end of a long blowpipe or punty (metal rod), rolled on a slab (marver), shaped. The glass might be reheated, and colors or designs added, before it's slowly cooled..

"Glass is such a technical medium. The learning curve is huge," says Smiley.

Glass, he explains, is "incredibly strong and fragile at the same time. Even in its molecular state, it's always moving. The science behind glass is intriguing. I appreciate those who understand the science. I'm more interested in the technique and artistry of working with glass."

Smiley's obsession with glass started when he was very young.

"I was always attracted to things I couldn't touch," he recalls. That included his mother's fine crystal and glass collection.

At Oak Park and River Forest High School, Smiley and his dad, Alan, took a glass bead-making class. He had his parents buy him an acetylene torch and set up a workshop in a room in the family's basement, where he began working with glass rods. After his sophomore year, he asked to learn more, so Alan got the name of an artist in northern Michigan, and Alex enrolled.

"Despite the heat and heavy lifting, Alex, at 16, took to the work like a duck to water," recalls him mom, Nancy.

After that summer, Smiley apprenticed with Chicago glassblower Lance Friedman of Shatterglass Studio. He chose Illinois State for its glass program, and has been able to attend workshops at the Pilchuck Glass School in Seattle,Wash., the artistic home of Dale Chihuly, and at Urban Glass in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Friedman, Smiley recalls, told him never to be satisfied with something he didn't feel was perfect. Better to break it and start again.

A vase for Wright

Smiley has created and donated a 3-foot, elongated, white, translucent vase to be auctioned off at the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust's A Night for Wright on Friday, on the opening night of the Merchandise Mart's Eighth Annual Antiques Fair.

"For me the design and process of making art follow a couple of different rules. The piece I made for the Preservation Trust auction is a piece that speaks of function. It relates to a vase. It's made using traditional Venetian glassblowing techniques and yet I adapted it in style," he says.

"The white color is stiffer glass. There is air inside its form. It expands when heated. Not all walls are of the same thickness. That causes the potential for collapse. It's a trial and error process. Once you add color to glass, it becomes exponentially harder to work with," he explains.

While some of his work is functional, like the vase, Smiley is experimenting with how to include his own philosophical concepts in his art. One set of pieces, for example, incorporates seeds and other natural elements to suggest beginnings and endings in the cycles of life.

He's presently gathering ideas for a conceptual body of work which will tell stories, like the story of the biblical fisherman on a quest for knowledge. That story resonates with Smiley, who feels he's on his own quest.

He's just about to embark on a three-month tour of Australia, New Zealand and Japan, to study glass and glassblowing, learn more about the world, and learn more about himself.

"Sometimes it's daunting to go to places where people are making glass art that far exceeds what I'm doing. I remind myself that I'm only 20. And then I make a commitment to challenge myself, improve my skills and learn what is art," he says. "It's invigorating."

A Night for Wright

Alex Smiley's blown glass vase is one of a number of items that will be auctioned off at the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust's A Night for Wright this Friday, April 29, from 6 to 8 p.m. on the opening night of the Chicago Antiques Fair at the Merchandise Mart. Also available will be fine art, home accessories, travel packages and more.

Money raised will go to support the trust's ongoing restoration of Wright's Robie House in Chicago. A Night for Wright will also feature a reception and an exhibit of Robie House's art glass, including panels in pre-restoration condition and the conservation plans that will restore them to Wright's 1910 vision.

Tickets are $25 and include admission to the Chicago Antiques Fair. For information, call 848-1976.

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