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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 somervilleglass.com.

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 amuehlbauer@cninow.com.

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