Sun | Feb 23, 2020

A touch of glass - Glass-blowing studio creating intriguing pieces

Published:Sunday | September 1, 2019 | 12:27 AM
Toni Gerlach adds a tail fin to a glass fish sculpture created in her glassblowing studio in Deadwood, S.D. Since 2013, Toni Gerlach has been-blowing minds with her blown glass art at her Mind Blown Hot Glass Studio located in the Pumphouse Coffee Shop and Deli in Deadwood.
Toni Gerlach (centre) her assistant Jasmine Wittler (left) and her coffee shop manager, Shelby Clarkson (right) stand outside Gerlach’s glass-blowing studio


Since 2013, Toni Gerlach has been blowing minds with her blown-glass art at her Mind Blown Hot Glass Studio located in the Pumphouse Coffee Shop and Deli in Deadwood, a quaint little town in South Dakota.

“My favourite thing about glass is once you start something, you have to finish it,” Gerlach said. “When you’re working with it, it’s something so hot and malleable and you have to find the right tool to shape it because you can’t touch it. Then when you cool (it), it’s something so solid and fragile.”

Gerlach grew up with the bright neon lights of Las Vegas but fondly remembered visiting relatives in the Black Hills.

“When I was younger, I was always into art,” she explained. “My mom got me a paperweight (making) class, and I thought it was the coolest thing ever.”

Gerlach said once she graduated high school, she tried a few different careers, but nothing quite fit.

“I was a real estate agent. I did some other things and moved around the country quite a bit in that time,” she said. “When I was in my mid-20s, I decided I wanted to blow glass.”

After graduating from California State University-San Marcos with a visual arts degree, she decided to try her luck in Deadwood.

“I came up to kind of figure out what I was gonna do with my life and then it found me,” she said.

Gerlach said she’d always wanted to open a glass-blowing studio in Deadwood, and when the opportunity came to rent the old gas station at 73 Sherman St, she jumped at the chance.

Business boomed

She explained that the business had been converted into a coffee shop in the past so all the equipment was already in place. Shortly after the shop opened, Gerlach applied for and received a loan to open her studio. The studio quickly began to outshine the coffee shop for Gerlach, so she hired a manager to run the day-to-day operations of the Pumphouse, the Black Hills Pioneer reported.

“Even though I am the business owner here, I do have a coffee shop manager who makes my life easier,” she said. “(Shelby Clarkson is) always happy, very motivating, especially when you break stuff. She’s like, ‘Oh it’s OK, it’s great, Toni!’”

Due to the help she received from Clarkson, Gerlach said she was recently able to upgrade and expand her glass-blowing equipment.

“We shut down for two months and completely remodelled the studio,” Gerlach said. “I got some new equipment that I drove up here from Tucson – bigger and better.”

Gerlach said glass-blowing can be a fickle art form.

“One of my friends says, ‘All glass has an expiration date,’ one day it will break,” she said with a laugh.

Glass-blowing has been around for centuries, and many of the tools and techniques have remained the same.

“A lot of the tools are the same as back in the day,” Gerlach said. “Obviously, upgraded a bit with modern technology but same basic thing.”

Gerlach explained that all glass starts as sand; however, other minerals are added to enhance the strength and workability of certain types of glass.

“Sand (turns into) glass closer to, I think 8,000 or 10,000 degrees,” she said. “But they add all kinds of other stuff to it so that it melts at a lower temperature, at 2,100 (degrees).”

She said that some minerals are added to glass to create the vibrant range of colours used to create masterful works of art. These different coloured glass can be incorporated into the final piece through either rolling the molten glass through a fine powder or chunks.

“Powdered glass covers things more completely, whereas chunks of glass give it more polka dots all over,” she said.

Gerlach also said that solid bars of glass are available, which can act as a colourful coating.

The different additives in the glass can also affect the practical uses of the glass. Gerlach said the glass she uses in her shop is meant more for display pieces although she does make drinking glasses and bowls.

Gerlach said that having her studio in a coffee shop is a fantastic venue to showcase the art form.

“It’s really fun for me to watch (customers) come in just to get a coffee and run into so many people that they haven’t seen in a while or they wanted to catch up with,” she said. “It’s fun to be such a place in the community.”