Glass art with John Gibbons

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by Lex Valtenbergs

Tucked away in a small alley behind Six Rivers Solar on Broadway in Eureka is John Gibbons Glass. At his glass art workshop, Gibbons can be found coaxing hot molten glass into stunning art pieces or after melting down raw glass in his homemade furnace.

Photo by Lex Valtenbergs | John Gibbons (left) and Matthew Gagliardi (right) shaping a glass sphere at Gibbons’ glass art shop in Eureka on Feb. 1

Gibbons was first introduced to glass art by his father at antique glass shows when he was five or six years old. He’s been hooked ever since. While studying glass art at college, he dreamed of it when he slept.

“All I could think about was blowing glass,” Gibbons said. “I dreamed about it every night for a year.”

The glass artist community in Humboldt County is small but tight-knit. Matthew Gagliardi, a glassblower with three decades of experience under his belt, has worked with Gibbons for the last five years. Gibbons and Gagliardi both use soft glass, a fluid type of glass that is ideal for sculpting.

“We all kind of work with each other,” Gagliardi said. “There’s only so much of us in the county that work with soft glass.”

Photo by Lex Valtenbergs | Michelle Coelho diverts heat from John Gibbons’ face with wooden heat shields while Gibbons shapes a glass sphere in his shop in Eureka on Feb. 1

Michelle Coelho is another one of the few Humboldt-based glass artists who works with soft glass. She has been doing it for 20 years, about as long as Gibbons has. Gibbons, Gagliardi and Coelho all specialize in Venetian glassblowing, a technique that dates back to the 8th century AD. The type of tools that they use goes back to the 14th century AD.

The trio worked in synchronized harmony on the morning of Feb. 1 to transform a glob of raw glass into a beautiful pendant light, a lime green sphere with a hypnotic spiral pattern rolled into the glass on a steel table – a marver – and inlaid with a mold.

“It’s like a well-orchestrated dance,” Coelho said. “John’s body language tells us what to do next. It’s not so much verbal, it’s visual.”

They were constantly in motion to prevent the glass from losing its temperature and shattering or drooping down towards the floor like viscous honey falling off a honeycomb, as Coelho put it. They have to be on sharp alert at all times. Not only is the glass is heated up to over 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, the operating costs involved are expensive as well.

“There’s a lot of trust, and also money,” Gibbons said. “You gotta trust them not to break your investment because there’s a lot of money that goes into it.”

Photo by Lex Valtenbergs | A close-up shot of a hypnotic pendant light made by John Gibbons, Matthew Gagliardi and Michelle Coehlo at Gibbons’ glass art shop in Eureka on Feb. 1

Gibbons hired a media assistant in April 2021 to vamp up his online presence. Makayla Sandifer worked in information technology before she found a niche in media production and picked up the job at Gibbons’ shop.

As a Black woman in a white and male-dominated field, Sandifer enjoys the opportunity to work in such a dynamic space that fosters her creativity.

“It’s honestly awesome,” Sandifer said. “It allows me to bring diversity to spaces that didn’t have it previously and to reflect that in my work. It’s super gratifying.”

The product photos that Sandifer takes for Gibbons’ Etsy profile do justice to his vibrant glass art pieces. Whimsical starfish vases, turtles with bubbles of glass trapped inside their shells, and light fixtures adorned with alluring spiral patterns boggle the mind with their complexity, vibrant colors, and otherworldly beauty.

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