Manipulating the looking glass with flame, color

Sept. 20, 2007

From the outside, Devin Somerville's home on South California Street looks like any other house in Bay View. Step inside, and you might feel a bit like Alice in Wonderland.

You've stumbled across a place where exotic blossoms twist and tangle and bend the light. Carrot-colored flowers are in full bloom inside small spheres, surrounded by swirling stripes. Pick up another marble-sized orb and resist the temptation to get lost in its sparkling vortex, as if a black hole from a distant galaxy had been captured and preserved.

Somerville works in glass. But that's an understatement. He meticulously coaxes glass from solid to liquid and back to solid, using a flame to persuade form, color and texture to meld into a mesmerizing dance of elements.

NOW Photo by Charles Auer

The official name of Somerville's technique is "lampworking," and it is not the same as glassblowing. Lampworking involves using a tool much like a welding torch to melt tubes, rods and strings of glass until they are malleable.

"It's all the same types of techniques as ancient glass," he said. "It is still a pretty mysterious thing for most people, but people are becoming more educated about it."

Honing his craft over the years

Somerville said art glass has been enjoying a renaissance within the past 30 years or so, particularly in the last 10 years. That is due, in no small part, to master glass artist Dale Chihuly, who was first exposed to the possibilities of the medium at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and whose work has been exhibited throughout the world.

Somerville, a Green Bay native who studied art and architecture at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, became fascinated with glass when he met a Racine-based lampwork artist.

"I used to watch and be totally hypnotized to watch something go from liquid to solid," Somerville said.

So Somerville began teaching himself the lampworking process. He often referred to the work of other glass artists, using reverse engineering to determine how they created particular effects.

A turning point for Somerville was a flameworking competition in Oregon, where he won the People's Choice award as well as the paperweight-making competition. His prize was a torch, kiln and other tools he would need to hone his craft. He also landed two teaching jobs as a result of the event - a week-long class in Berkeley, Calif., and a class at the Eugene Glass School in Oregon.

Somerville moved to Oregon to concentrate on his work and, in 2001, opened a shop in Northern California.

About a year later, Somerville returned to Milwaukee and opened Ring of Fire Glassworks with Paul Stephan, a studio and gallery in Walker's Point. Ring of Fire closed its doors in late 2005, and both Stephan and Somerville began working on their own.

Teaching technique to others

Today, Somerville creates a wide range of work that attracts particular groups of collectors, including unique marbles, paperweights, beads, belt buckles, rings and pendants. He also produces wine glasses, bowls and vessels, and a series of botanical sculptures that seem to have sprouted from space-age spores. His pieces pulsate with color.

"They kind of develop as they go. There's really no blueprint for anything," he said.

Somerville works primarily with borosilicate glass, the same type of material used to make beakers and other equipment for scientific laboratories. It's extremely durable, he said. To add color, he adds crushed colored glass and dichroic glass, which incorporates metal to give the piece a reflective quality.

He still teaches on occasion, and will soon head to Kyoto, Japan, to teach a class in torchwork. He also will be participating in the International Lampwork Festa in Kobe, Japan, in October.

Somerville said he has found many students who are initially fascinated with lampworking soon decide that they would rather admire the work than create it.

"It's really hard, and it really takes serious dedication and passion," he said. "I get cut and burned pretty much every day."

Somerville markets his work at fine arts and crafts fairs and bead shows across the country, and during the summer he spends most of his time working on smaller products for those events. As autumn rolls in, however, he hopes to devote more attention to sculptural pieces, which can take days to complete.

Someday, he said, he would like to create an entire installation of his luminous glass flowers in one location. Sounds like Wonderland.

Somerville's art glass can be viewed at

Nan Bialek keeps tabs on the South Shore's creative side. To contact her about an art topic, call South Shore NOW at (262) 446-6632 or e-mail

This site uses Facebook comments to make it easier for you to contribute. If you see a comment you would like to flag for spam or abuse, click the "x" in the upper right of it. By posting, you agree to our Terms of Use.

Suburban News Roundup

E-mail Newsletter

Your link to the biggest stories in the suburbs delivered Thursday mornings.

Enter your e-mail address above and click "Sign Up Now!" to begin receiving your e-mail newsletter
Get the Newsletter!

Login or Register to manage all your newsletter preferences.

Community Watch

» The Prairie School to host event on gifted children 11/27

» Plans for Alyson Dudek ice skating center move forward with donation 11/25

» Missing Franklin man found dead on Nov. 24 near Oak Leaf Bike Trail 11/25

» Police identify body found near bike trail as missing Franklin man 11/25

» Oak Creek girls basketball team looks to dominate with depth 11/24

» Wisconsin DOT: South 27th Street is open for business during holiday season 11/24

» Meijer to provide food for Oak Creek's annual 'Evening of Blessings' 11/24

» Greendale School Board Academy to be held for prospective spring election candidates 11/24

» Franklin girls basketball team has talent, looks for depth 11/24

» Oak Creek pulls away late to beat Brookfield Central, 59-46 11/21

» Oak Creek 8th graders 'view the world' as journalists in writing unit, 4 essays to be posted online 11/19

» Updated state championship game rankings of area prep football teams and players 11/19

» Franklin's $37 million budget has no tax change 11/18

» Rawson Avenue closure beginning Nov. 18 11/18

» Cudahy man found dead near hunting tree stand in Adams County 11/18

» Greendale trustees raise tax levy 1 percent, bump up budget by 45 percent to construct fire station 11/18

» Coming off good season, will Oak Creek football team dare to be great? 11/17

» Nine Oak Creek athletes sign letters of intent 11/17

» Franklin, Oak Creek swimmers finish well at state 11/17

» Hales Corners Chamber of Commerce to host social on Nov. 24 11/17

» Oak Creek Culver's to host annual Kids2Kids Toy Drive 11/16

» Hales Corners 2016 proposed budget sees 'nominal increase' 11/16

» Legacy Spa & Salon to host networking event on Nov. 7 in Hales Corners 11/16

» Greendale's first fire engine, which entered service in 1938, returns home 11/16

» Videos: Arrowhead stuns Franklin in epic football finish 11/14

View All Posts Got a tip? Welcome rss


Local Business Directory