I noticed the ad for Oulu Glass in Duluth’s Reader Weekly several times, intrigued by the pictures and more so by the fact that no one I know seemed to know anything about it. My Dad was visiting from Chicago, always a good reason to act like a tourist and see some of the more interesting parts of life in the Northland. So we set out for Oulu, Wisconsin on Friday afternoon.
It’s a nice drive on US-2 from Duluth over to Brule, Wisconsin (pop. 627), where we had a hearty lunch in a local bakery, bar, and restaurant. The directions on the website took us 2 miles further east, then 5 miles north. Were it not for the little handmade signs – “Oulu Glass: 3 miles” – I probably would have thought I was lost.
A last turn brought us in sight of – well, one of the most unusual buildings I have ever seen in my life. round, stone, with round windows and a roof that looks like the cap of a mushroom. The entryway took us directly into the workshop, where the artisan and his helper were resting and preparing for the next round of glass blowing demonstrations. The path into the studio and shop is, essentially, a spiral that occasionally opens out into rooms and display areas. The walls on both sides are filled with glass objects of all sorts: goblets and glasses; bowls and vases in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors; perfume bottles ; hanging ornaments, jewelry, stained glass, even handmade marbles (with handmade glass stands to display them). In the largest gallery at the top of the spiral were desktop lamps, oil lamps, hummingbird feeders, and a variety of larger objects.
Just about the time when we had seen most of the glass, the call went out: another demonstration was about to begin. Jim Vojacek and a helper were going to make a bowl. Jim asked two women in the group that gathered to help him, but his instructions to them were so vague and incoherent that the conversation quickly became humorous. “Do you think I should that one?” he would say. “Which one?” they would ask. “Oh, you think I should use the other one!” At first, I wondered it this was bad stand-up comedy. As Jim kept working with the glass – and making use of the glass shards and threads that his helpers provided, I realized that this schtick was a way of keeping people interested and involved while he carried out the many steps involved in creating this piece. He added texture and color (with powdered, colored glass) which, after much swirling at high heat, spread through the glass in a really beautiful pattern.
When it seemed the piece, though small, must be almost done, he pulled on parts of it with some giant tweezers, snipped through the glass to create feel to flanges, and began to work from the other side. Always keeping up the repartee with the two women – who were remarkably good sports – he would put the piece into the flames, pull it out to shape it or blow it a bit larger, or add more glass, working swiftly and confidently. The doors were wide open – and the 45 degree breeze felt cool – but by the ovens, Jim was working in shirt sleeves.
All of a sudden, a few swirls of the rod to which the bowl was attached and the sides flared out in beautiful waves, with the feet now turning into an elegant base. With a brief flourish, Jim said, “Looks like a bowl!” then detached it from the rod, wiped it a little, and placed it into a special container to cool more slowly. All told, it probably took 30 minutes or more to make the bowl – but it was interesting to see the entire process.
Oulu Glass only has these demonstrations during November and December. If you find yourself in the Northland, I can certainly recommend a visit. Small children would probably get bored, but older children – and adults – would probably be as fascinated as I was.