Out of a large studio in North Portland’s St. Johns neighborhood, Andi Kovel and Justin Parker, the owners of Esque Studio, spend the day creating intricate pieces of glass art.
They make anything from simple but functional glass dishes to complex and abstract light fixtures that seem to resemble bubbles floating in midair.
“We really want to create pieces that express a different way of seeing glass. I’m very aware of the history that’s come before, and I’m also very interested in pushing the medium into the future,” Kovel said.
The artists poke and prod long metal tubes into a large furnace, which can get as hot as 2,000 degrees. After a few seconds, they pull the tubes out, revealing a small glob of molten glass, still bright orange from the heat, ready to be formed and shaped into whatever piece of art they want.
The process requires collaboration. On one recent piece, one person shaped a bubble and the other blew air into the tube. Communication was constant, as Parker stretched and pulled at the molten glass, while Kovel provided the necessary air to expand the bubble.
The bubble soon became a wine decanter, but that was not enough. To truly make it their own, Parker added one final detail.
“Justin makes this solid sculpted gold skull and we’ll put that piece inside the decanter,” Kovel said. “And what’s really cool about it is, you fill it with red wine and as the wine goes down the skull kind of emerges.
Once the decanter was formed to their liking, Nic Speed, Kovel’s nephew and assistant, took the final product and put it into a kiln to keep warm and finish the process.
Esque’s skull wine decanter is just one of many pieces they have made that reflect the duo’s creativity and willingness to stand out. Traditional glass blowing relies on specific techniques learned through years of practice. But the fun for Kovel and Parker comes from exploring how those techniques can be changed, and the ending results.
“There’s a lot of techniques where you get from point A to B, and it’s 10 steps, and I might stop it in the fifth step and be like, ‘That looks really cool,’” Kovel said. “You would never stop the glass at that part if you’re a technical glass blower … And really love messing with that.”
For 20 years, Kovel and Parker have created intricate glass art pieces for a wide range of clients like Andee Hess, owner of Osmose Design and the Doug Fir Lounge in Portland and the W Hotel in Seattle, while keeping true to their artistic roots.
The marriage of form and function is at the heart of every piece that Kovel and Parker make in their studio.
“We can take a lot of the pieces and put them in a gallery and say they’re fine art pieces, but we really love the idea of our glass being handled. We want you to touch it, we want you to hold it, we want you to use it,” Kovel said.
Walk around their workspace and you could imagine it almost as an art gallery. On one side are finished products stacked, ready to be shipped to their clients. On the other, three giant lit furnaces keep the space warm while they work.
The main electric furnace is a giant cylinder with only a small door for them to open and retrieve the glass. When the glass melts, it has the consistency of honey, which allows them to manipulate the glass into whatever shape they need.
“It’s this amazing gooey fluid, sticky oozy material when it’s hot and soft and then when it’s cooled and hard, the way it captures light, holds light, reflects light, refracts it thick and thin,” Kovel said. “I mean it’s just got so many amazing properties and we want our work to be all about celebrating that.”
Kovel got into glassblowing almost by accident. As a student at New York University studying fine art in the 1990s, she saw a glassblowing class at Parsons School of Design. She figured it would be a good skill to have and ended up taking the course.
She loved the immediacy of glass blowing. She could design a piece on one day and then hold it in her hand the next. Before she knew it, she got a job working as a glassblowing assistant.
That’s where she met Parker, who was teaching glassblowing at the time.
Once they struck up a friendship, they realized that they wanted their own studio where they could work on what they wanted. They headed west and settled in Portland.
They chose the name Esque as a reference to the outside influences that can be seen in their work.
“Every idea comes from somewhere. And as much as we work by ourselves in the outreaches of St. Johns, we’re not working in a vacuum from human experience,” Kovel said.
What makes their partnership work, Parker said, is their opposite personalities, which each compliment the other.
“Andi is very fine art and I am very technical,” Parker said. “So it’s a really good relationship that we have because we have what the other one doesn’t.”
“Justin is in charge of the studio and I’m in charge of the office and so we really have a good balance with the way that we both add to the company in the value of it,” Kovel said.
Eventually, their work caught the attention of a much larger audience. In 2020, Kovel competed on the second season of the Netflix reality competition show “Blown Away.”
“It was such an amazing opportunity that I just felt like I if I didn’t do it, I was going to always think, ‘What would it have been like if I had?’” she said.
Kovel competed against other glassblowers from around the country in a series of challenges that tested her creativity and her skill as a glassblower.
Filming the show while also trying to create glass art was complicated.
“You work with a different assistant every challenge, and then you’re also working in a strange studio, and their glasses are really different from ours or their glass is a lot stiffer,” she said.
But despite the challenges, she said, she made a lot of wonderful connections through the show, so much so that she and a few of the people she met are working on a long-form collaboration.
“And so I came up with this idea. Let’s collaborate, let’s do this series and let’s have it where we are the authors of our own stories and where we have our own voices and it’s not being edited and turned into a story that serves a different purpose,” she said. “It’s a fun exercise, but it’s one that I thought would be a really great way to connect all of us.”
Esque has gotten more attention since the Netflix appearance, but ultimately, Kovel and Parker look to continue creating art that expands perceptions of how glass can be shaped.
“I see my career in the future going back toward fine art and keeping its roots and in design,” she said. “I’ve got lots of ideas and ready to get the time in the studio to get those going and then out in the world.”