Meet the master glassworker who has been keeping the exquisite art alive for over four decades
At 70 years old, Sirius Glassworks founder Peter Gudrunas is sharing his craft with a new generation
In the tiny hamlet of Gasline, Ont., works a man who makes glass. Quietly — aside from the salsa music you might hear pouring out of his workshop — Peter Gudrunas operates one of the longest-running art glass studios in the country. The master glassblower began Sirius (Greek for "glowing" or "scorching") in 1976, eventually settling in a converted greenhouse on the shore of Lake Erie. (In fact, the very gasline the community is named for powers Sirius's furnaces.) Gudrunas counts among the first generation of studio glass artists in Canada; he's also one of the last of that generation still producing today.
And, for the past month, he's been especially busy. Sirius Glassworks' annual open house, Dec. 4-6, serves as both its major exhibition and sale. This year, for the first time ever, the event will happen entirely online. Though Gudrunas may be a longtime practitioner of an ancient art, the glassmaker has been learning to dance nimbly with the moment. He's hosted younger artists interested in the craft. His work is for sale in hip boutiques. And last year, he appeared in a fashion shoot for a Toronto retailer, which led to a spate of inquiries and nearly spurred a late-in-life modelling turn (although he says '60s Italian is more his style). The 70-year-old glassblower is riding a new wave of appreciation — and he looks to be having fun with it.
The basic recipe for glass is simple. For the most part, Gudrunas says, it's just three ingredients: soda, lime and sand. You start with seven parts silica. Add roughly one-and-a-half parts sodium carbonate to lower the melting temperature and another part limestone to stabilize the mixture. While this would produce a vessel fine enough for your morning OJ, like any pro, Gudrunas uses a few extra tricks. His house recipe is jazzed up with a pinch of this and that for durability and brilliance. Then, the batch gets heated to 2400 F — hotter than the magma inside a volcano.
Next comes the hard part. With a long iron rod made red hot by a second furnace, Gudrunas gathers a ball of molten glass — now the consistency of honey — from the crucible. He rolls the glowing orange bulb against a metal slab called a marver to cool and shape the glass. With the rubber hose worn around his neck resembling a bolo tie, he blows air into the viscous mass, which expands like a bubble. Then, it's back into the crucible to gather more glass before subsequent marvering, spinning, pinching, squeezing, stretching, a death-defying baton twirl to elongate the softened glass, and even more shaping until the form of the tumbler, the goblet or what-have-you has been finalized. On a good day, he says, he can finish maybe 10 vases.
When Gudrunas began Sirius after college, art glass was a nascent industry just transitioning from the work of dedicated factories to an enterprise that one or two artists could practise in the studio. That meant there wasn't much technical support or experience to draw from. Many of his teachers were just a couple years older than him. Materials, too, were difficult to come by, and you had to fabricate some of your own tools and machinery. He taught himself the business by trial and error — a lot of error, he emphasizes.
Unlike today, when pigmented glass is manufactured industrially and widely available, Gudrunas learned to mix his own colours the old-fashioned and somewhat dangerous way: by melting raw minerals at high temperature. Cobalt, for example, makes that familiar blue. Chromium makes green. Cadmium and selenium make red. Gold can make red, too. "Mix that with nickel," Gudrunas says, "and you get violet." Sirius enjoys the distinction of being one of just a few glass studios left in North America that still produces colour from scratch.
The XL body of knowledge Gudrunas has gained by, as he puts it, "mucking around in the dirt so long," has begun to make Sirius something of a destination for a younger generation of makers interested in the rudiments of glassmaking. His daughter and studio manager, Iris Fraser-Gudrunas, started a residency program there, which has welcomed artists like L.A.-based sculptor Kelly Akashi and cartoonist Seth Scriver. Others visit just to see glassmaking up close. There's so much interest that Sirius is tinkering with the idea of holding courses in the near future.
From the small showroom set up at the rear of the studio, the glass — lining racks and display cases — comes alive in the light of the low sun. Sitting there, Gudrunas calls this a period of renewal. "It's a delight for me," he says. It can be nasty work: heavy, dirty, sweaty. You're often alone. "You almost feel crazy sometimes." But then he sees how the products of this heavy, dirty, sweaty work can make people feel. Of course they come alight, because he makes such beautiful things. But he demurs: "Well, I'm dealing with such lovely material. I just enhance that."