Downtown glassworks hits the bricks

by Brian Clarey

Glass is a fascinating medium,” says Avery Shaffer from his downtown Greensboro studio and gallery, Ellenburg Shaffer. “It’s pure color because light passes through it. And we as humans kind of respond to it because of its watery nature, its illusory qualities. It kind of has a magical feel to it.”

Glass is Shaffer’s medium. He paints images between layers of glass and cooks them down in his custom-made kiln at temperatures that reach above 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit. He builds sculpture from stained panes of glass, framing the images in wood boxes or chicken wire or whatever else suits his fancy. He melts it down, bends it to his will, shapes it to his liking, colors it, transforms it.

Take this bowl made from tempered glass, thick shards fitted to a concave shape like a punchbowl made from chunks of ice, purely decorative — any punch poured into it would quickly seep all over the tablecloth.

“It’s that wild concept of just having something pretty around,” he says.

Or look at this nude, nearly large as life, trapped between shimmering layers of the stuff. It was a commissioned piece, he says, and the model might not appreciate her naked figure reproduced on the pages of a free weekly newspaper.

Or how about this one, titled “Open-Hearted, Broken- Hearted, Set Free,” a depiction of St. Sebastian as imagined by El Greco after the arrows of martyrdom failed to end his life, eyes woefully heavenward as he awaited his fate.

The piece is centered around a painted image of the saint limned by leaded stained glass and the whole thin framed in a box made of wooden slats and chicken wire all painted the color of freshly spilled blood.

It’s both inspirational and macabre, and, says Shaffer, “a little bit blasphemous.”

He’s repurposed the St. Sebastian image for more than a few pieces.

“It’s a very redemptive image,” he says. “There’s something about the face at peace while the body is filled with arrows.”

His training is more or less classical — a BFA in painting and drawing from East Carolina University — but his education in the business of art has taken place here at the studio near Hamburger Square, where he has plied his trade since 1997, before Natty Greene’s, the Green Bean and M’Coul’s moved in.

“It’s been a great place for me to be able to hone and develop my business,” he says, but he and partner George Ellenburg are moving on nonetheless, to studio/galleries in Raleigh and Norfolk, Va.

“We’ve loved Greensboro,” Shaffer says. “We’ve had 12 great years. I have reason to believe I have good business opportunities in Raleigh and Norfolk.”

The move won’t happen until the beginning of 2010. In the meantime, Shaffer says he will continue his Fused Glass 101 course, which will take place on three consecutive Thursdays beginning Oct. 8.

“The class is geared towards teaching people the basics,” he says. “Cut glass, lay it out in the kiln. It’s a beginners’ class; I believe anyone can do it.”

The problem with glass, though, is that it’s fragile. And occasionally, but not too often, a work of art gets dashed to pieces.

“I have broken pieces,” Shaffer says, “but it’s a part of my philosophy that glass can be recycled. Pieces that have broken can be worked into other pieces, usually greater pieces.”

Avery Shaffer stands before his giant, custom-made kiln. Inset:“Open-Hearted, Broken-Hearted, Set Free,” one of Shaffer’s pieces basedon El Greco’s image of St. Sebastian. (photos by Brian Clarey)