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Heart of Glass

After 30 years of molding glass, Elizabeth Mears embarks on a new direction.

For Elizabeth Mears, the glass objects that glimmer back at her from every corner of her Fairfax Station home are more than an exhibition of her life's work. They are also a source of inspiration.

Since picking up glassworking over 30 years ago, Mears has learned and taught within the field, moving from a rudimentary understanding to gaining an Award of Excellence two years ago at the Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show. She displays the work of other artists in her home, as well as her own.

"I need to surround myself with things that feed my spiritual inner self. I feed off that, and it helps my own creativity," said the 60-year-old studio artist working in glass and mixed media.

Mears has also become an artist without fear, according to Patricia Ghigliano, director of the Washington Sculpture Center, where Mears is teaching classes in flameworking and glass sculpture

"She's adventurous," said Ghigliano. "She explores, with no fear, different techniques, which is quite unusual for an artist."

Along with awards from other craft shows and exhibits in over a dozen states, Mears has also designed and installed stained glass windows in churches in Burke, Springfield and Bethesda, Md.

"I love making things, and I have been a maker from a very early age," said Mears, who will be exhibiting in a pair of high-profile retail craft shows this fall: the Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show in early November, and The Washington Craft Show two weeks later at the Washington Convention Center.

THE EVENTS mark Mears' return to the world of retail craft shows this year, after a brief hiatus since the late 1990s. What brought her back was the desire to display her new passion for flameworked glass sculptures, to which she has devoted herself for the past four years. Her new project, titled "Bundles of Twigs," features flameworked glass rods sculpted to evoke the style of twigs, then sandblasted for a matte finish and tied together in bundles.

After spending nearly 30 years working with glass, it was less than 10 years ago that Mears says she actually considered herself an artist.

"I always had assumed that everybody could do the things I did," said Mears, who studied science and education at Purdue University, and prepared for a career teaching. In 1970, however, while living in Jacksonville, Fla., she was struck by the stained glass sun-catchers she saw in a gift shop.

"I was fascinated with the idea that I could have stained glass hanging in the windows of my own home. I didn’t know people could do that," she said.

Instead of buying them, Mears learned the craft of stained glass through a weekend workshop and gradually began to teach herself the techniques involved in working with flat glass.

As the years passed, Mears used the money she made from selling her smaller pieces to purchase new equipment and learn new skills. A turning point in her career came when she spent several weeks each summer in the early 1990s at North Carolina’s Penland School of Crafts, learning a skill called "flameworking."

Instead of shaping glass with a furnace, flameworking is a method that uses a propane or natural-gas bench torch to soften the material. Flameworked glass is more delicate and detailed than glass blown from a furnace, and it became popular among glass artists in the late 1970s since it allows the artist to work in a much smaller studio.

When Mears discovered flameworking in the early 1990s, though, she learned she was behind the times.

"I spent the first few years working 12 hours a day, seven days a week, to catch up to all these people who were younger than I was and had already put in so many years," she said.

With the knowledge of flameworking, Mears set out making and selling thousands of flameworked sculptures. In 1999, though, she was inspired by the simplicity of the leafless limbs and branches on the trees outside her windows in winter.

"I thought, ‘I want to interpret that in my own way.’" she said. "I thought [my work] was too busy. I wanted to get more at what I consider the essence of what I was trying to say."

MEARS CREATED the "twigs" by using her bench torch to soften solid rods or tubes of glass, at a temperature of around 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit. Once they are softened, Mears blows or sculpts them into the form of twigs.

Her creative direction changed again five years ago when she began collaborating with her daughter Lindsay Mears, also an artist, to create "glass books," sculptures created by fusing panels of glass together in the shape of pages of a book. Once the panels are fused, Mears sandblasts a design onto the pages, along with words, and her daughter applies ink to create the illusion of a book.

"Her work is very unusual. For me it's very mesmerizing. The type of sculpture she does I feel transported to another time in history when I see her work," says Ghigliano.

Mears and her daughter opened an exhibit together in July in Virginia Beach and have since sold two of the five glass books on display there. Mears also plans to display several glass books at the retail craft shows this fall. She hopes to draw attention to both her new projects and hopefully sell them to interested collectors.

Small-format glass books, which are 9 to 10 inches high, cost from $1,800 to $3,900, and large-format books, nearly 2 feet tall, begin at $4,000.

"I’d love to come home with a nice little amount of change in my purse," Mears said. "It’s very fulfilling to have people love your work enough to spend the amount of money they have to own it."

Although Mears is now entering what she calls "the wise crone stage" of her life, she believes her best work is ahead of her. Through teaching and exhibiting at shows, she now feels that passing on her knowledge is where her career is heading.

"The fascinating thing about glass is that no matter how much you think you know, there’s always something to learn," she said with a smile. "Hopefully, 60 years of living have given me some wisdom, and hopefully the work I make will reflect that."