Think Out Loud

An afternoon in the glass blowing studio with artist Evan Burnette

By Gemma DiCarlo (OPB)
March 16, 2023 10:28 p.m.

Broadcast: Friday, March 17

A man in a floral shirt drips molten glass from the end of a rod onto a metal table.

Evan Burnette, owner and head designer of Portland's Local Art Glass, drips molten glass onto a metal table in his studio on Friday, March 3, 2023. Burnette says molten glass can reach temperatures hotter than lava, but the steel table cools it enough to shape.

Dave Miller / OPB


We’re starting a new series of conversations that will take us on deep dives into people’s work lives. We want to learn what it takes to do different jobs – the skills, the craft, the tools – and also how jobs change us.

First up is glass artist Evan Burnette. He’s the owner and head designer of Portland’s only public glassblowing studio, Local Art Glass. In addition to the studio’s range of vases, ornaments and drinkware, Burnette produces his own glass art that ranges from glittery chickens to flying pickles.

He gives us a tour of his studio, demonstrates blowing a vase and tells us what he finds so magical about glass.

Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. We’re starting a new series of conversations today, deep dives into people’s work lives. We want to learn what it takes to do different jobs – the skills, the craft, the tools – and also how jobs change us. We’re going to begin with a glassblower. Evan Burnette is the owner and head designer of Local Art Glass. His studio is in North Portland in a place called The Pickle Factory. We met Evan there a few weeks ago. The brightness of his Hawaiian shirt matched the colors that were all around us – iridescent glass vases and floats and works of art in every hue. I asked him to describe an average day.

Evan Burnette: First thing I do when I come in with the dog, I turn the reheating chamber, the glory hole, I turn that on. It needs to get up to about 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit within about an hour when my workers start showing up. Then I open the kilns. I take out what we did the day before, put it in a tote, set it off to the side, send the kilns up to temperature. The kilns need to sit at about 900 degrees, and it takes about an hour to get up to that, too. So, while I am waiting for our equipment to get warm, I either take a look at my emails or if we made Christmas ornaments the day before I will be going through those and putting little hang tags on all of them. By the time I finish all that, usually our workers, our glassblowers, are showing up. Just get started and blow until lunchtime… back from lunch, keep blowing.

Miller: Can you show me the furnace?

Burnette: Sure. Yeah, let’s walk over there. It is an electric furnace, heats the glass up to about 2,100…

Miller: You just opened the door and I don’t know, I’m about four feet away. It’s a blast of radiant heat that is hitting my entire body right now.

Burnette: You can feel that about 25 feet away.

Miller: I believe it.

Burnette: Yeah.

Miller: This is over 2,100 degrees?

Burnette: Yeah. For perspective, that’s actually hotter than lava. That holds 200 pounds of glass in a big bowl called a crucible. If we want to get the glass out of there, we have these big, four foot, stainless steel rods, blowpipes, and we sort of just stick them in there and start twisting like it’s honey. It just sort of wraps itself around the end of the blowpipe. We bring it out slowly, try not to drip all over the furnace, all over the floor. And we got glass on the end.

Miller: Glass on the end of that super hot metal rod.

Burnette: Mm-hmm.

Miller: And then what happens?

Burnette: Well, we begin the tool working. The thing is, once the glass is out of the furnace, it’s cooling down. If it’s in the ambient air, it’s losing heat. Now, what glassblowing is about for the most part is heat placement. Wherever it’s hottest, that’s where the glass wants to move the most. Wherever it’s not as hot, just the opposite. So, if we want a part to expand and it’s getting cold, we need to add the heat back in. The way we do that is we stick it in this heating chamber over here. That’s called the glory hole. Ours came first, not theirs. But that’s about 2,200 degrees right now.

Miller: So a smaller, super-hot area to reheat the glass as needed when it starts to cool down, to keep working it.

Burnette: Exactly. And if we wanted to do the opposite, if we wanted to make a certain part colder, what we would do is we would roll the hot glass on a metal table such as this right here. This is called a marver. It’s just a heat sink, basically. It’s a one-inch thick piece of mild steel. You touch the hot glass to it, it’s a better conductor of the heat… sucks the heat right out.

Miller: Let’s go back to when you started. What was your very first introduction to glass work?

Burnette: I was very lucky that in high school, back in Illinois, they offered a glass bead-making class. I got into the glass bead making, and one day we went on a field trip to go see a mobile glassblowing unit. I went and saw the work out there. For some reason, at however old I was in junior year, either 16 or 17, it’s like, ‘Yeah, that’s what I want to do.’

Miller: So it seems like you can’t fully put your finger on what was it… that as a junior in high school, you saw glass being made, a glassblower in action, and you said I want to do that for the rest of my life.

Burnette: Well, it’s magical, is what it is. It’s the closest thing to real alchemy that you could imagine. You’re taking sand and, through a process that is basically a mystery to almost everyone that hasn’t seen it before or doesn’t know about it, turns it into this beautiful vase with huge bright colors. And I mean, that is magic. That is alchemy, and that’s what brought me to it. It’s the fact that it was something that was so mysterious. If you don’t know how to do it you’d never guess.

Miller: So you were bitten by this bug, as a junior in high school, and then you pursued it. And you’ve stuck with it. What has kept you excited to make glass, to make both design vases and bowls and also your own art?

Burnette: Well, I’ve been very lucky. As a child I was always heavily involved with the arts. My father was a professional photographer, my mother heavily involved in community theater, and I couldn’t really see myself doing anything outside of art. It’s just not in me. I possibly could have been a graphic artist, maybe a painter or something like that, but it always was gonna be something in a creative field.

Miller: I mentioned just briefly that, from the way I understand it, there’s kind of two tracks of work that you do here: There’s the more multiples world of making bowls and vases or jewelry or Christmas ornaments or whatever. And then there are your own projects, your own personal fine artwork. What’s the balance between those two tracks?

Burnette: When I figure it out, I’ll let you know. It’s basically the craft and design side of production that pays the bills. That’s what keeps the studio running every month. The fine art is what keeps me running. I feel like I need to make that stuff. If I don’t make it, who’s gonna make it? That’s what gives me life basically. I do everything else so I can make my own personal work.

Miller: There are two lines on your biography that I read that I am sure are not on any other artist’s biography. This is it: ‘During his second year in his MFA program, Evan had a breakthrough after gluing a cast of a human nose to a slice of leftover pizza he had planned to eat for lunch. This was when his fine art career began.’ Can you, first of all, just describe that first piece?

Burnette: Well, sure. It’s a sculpture called ‘Gaudium.’ It’s a gold-plated pizza, with a nose. It’s on a pedestal and it says ‘Gaudium’ carved in the bottom. Gaudium is Latin for… It sort of means joy, which sort of describes how I felt when I made this piece. For me, it was an epiphany, it was a breakthrough. The thing was I had made work like this for myself throughout my youth. This is stuff I decorated my home with, but I never looked at it as something that could have a larger impact or mean something to someone other than me. A lot of this influence I think… I really traced it back… It all came from when I was very young watching Saturday cartoons basically. I think one of my biggest influences in my aesthetic came from ‘Pee-wee’s Playhouse.’

Miller: I bet there are a lot of people who aren’t familiar with what you mean when you say ‘Pee-wee’s Playhouse.’ Can you describe the zany visual world that he created?

Burnette: It’s psychedelic. It’s absurdist. It’s definitely got a mid-century modern look to it as well. So there’s a lot of, sort of ‘50s, ‘60s looking line and design in there. It sort of has an eclecticism with it as well, very bright colors, a little overdone, which I sort of try to imitate in my work as best I can.

Miller: I gotta say this is the most that you have smiled. Even just talking about the Pee-wee Herman aesthetic, you’re smiling the way you haven’t been when we were talking about everything else. It seems like there’s a joy that comes from even thinking about it.

Burnette: Well, if anything, whether you like my work or not, you can’t say it isn’t authentic. I think at least that’s what I’m striving for. It’s authentic to me. There’s not very many concessions with it.

Miller: What do you mean by concessions?

Burnette: Well, I think a lot of times we want to… Well, we want to make something that sells, so we look at everything as what kind of a wide appeal…

Miller: What’s the market for this? Is there a market for this?

Burnette: Exactly. Yeah. And I never think about the market when I make my stuff, unfortunately. I probably should. But when I’m on the design side, yes, I do think about that stuff heavily. But the fine art, it’s just what’s right for me and as long as it stays true to the influences.

Miller: Where is the place for humor in the fine art world?

Burnette: Well, that’s a loaded question for sure. There’s been issues with humorous art getting respect from the very beginning. It’s never gotten the same weight put behind it as drama. People look at comedy as being light, drama as being heavy. If you’re competing with somebody that’s doing a piece about, let’s say, Rwandan genocide and yours is about pizza noses, chances are the first place award is going to go to the more dramatic piece. So we’re always sort of working at a disadvantage. I mean, look at motion pictures. How many comedies have actually won ‘Best Picture’ at the Oscars? People like comedy. People love comedy. There’s a lot of money in it, but it’s hard to compete.

Miller: Let’s go back to the other side of your work, then – the design and whether it’s bowls or vases. You said there you do pay attention to the market, much more attention at least. How did that work during the pandemic? I mean, what were sales like when everything shut down?

Burnette: I had basically invested my life savings into putting this studio together. They’re expensive. I mean, a studio like this could easily cost $100,000 just for the equipment, depending on what you’re getting. The way people that own studios like this normally make their living is doing wholesale shows. Every year there is a handful of shows – New York, D.C., L.A. – where artists will set up a booth. It’s sort of like an art fair, but no one actually takes anything home with them there. Just a lot of buyers show up and say, ‘I’ll take 30 of these vases by August’ blah, blah, blah… And pandemic happens. Guess what? All of them canceled. I’m thinking to myself, ‘I’m screwed. What am I gonna do?’

Luckily, I was already somewhat established online on Etsy. If you’re unfamiliar with

Etsy, it’s just a place where makers and artists can sell their work or sell some supplies. Since nobody could go shopping that year in person, everybody shopped online. Luckily for us, we grew by close to 300% that year, which was a huge surprise. So it went from, ‘I think I’ve screwed up and I’ve lost everything.’ to, ‘Oh. This is starting to become sustainable.’ And, luckily since then, our sales have been staying at a steady growth rate, and things have been looking up. We’ve been expanding.

Miller: What have you been most excited to work on recently just for your own projects? Is there anything here you wanna show me – either work in progress or a finished something?

Burnette: Yeah, sure. Let’s walk over to the gallery area over here. I’ve been slowly putting together sort of a chicken-and-pickles themed show. It’s been very slow actually.

Miller: [chuckling] Chicken and pickles.

Burnette: Yeah. Right over here, this is a dichroic glitter chicken.


Miller: Dichroic lit uh…

Burnette: Glitter.

Miller: … glitter chicken.

Burnette: Yeah.

Miller: Alright. New words for me.

Burnette: Yeah.

Miller: Okay. So that’s the chicken. And then the pickles I see. There’s a flying pickle in space?

Burnette: Yeah.

Miller: There’s one that’s going towards some equations here. A lot of flying pickles.

Burnette: Yeah. It’s a series I’ve been working on, the pickle ships. I call it the ‘Space Time!’ series, with the exclamation like, space time! Then over here that looks like that might be real, but that is 100% glass. That is a plate with a hot dog, some mustard and cheese balls. If you look closer you can see that the dust from the cheese balls on there is glass as well.

Miller: Wow. It is amazingly lifelike. It’s not just a pile of mustard, but some of the mustard has gotten to the edge of the plate. Just little dabs of it.

Burnette: Yeah, the juice, when you don’t shake it hard enough, you know. Tells a little bit of a story, I suppose.

Miller: Could you show us some glassblowing in action?

Burnette: Absolutely.

Miller: [Narrating] Evan decided to make one of his studio’s vases. He started by gathering molten glass on the end of a rod and then rolling the glowing lump over bits of colored glass that he’d sprinkled onto a metal table.

[Talking to Burnette] So you rolled it almost like an ice cream cone that was going to have some sprinkles on it. And now you’re twirling it back and forth in the reheating furnace that you call the glory hole.

Burnette: That’s right.

Miller: I’m sort of reminded of a pizza maker right now. I mean, you’re taking this thing and you’re making sure it doesn’t get too hot in any one place like a pizza maker would move a pizza around.

Burnette: Exactly. In fact, most studios, one time or another we will have pizza nights and just turn the equipment down a little bit to that nice 1,000 degree pizza oven.

Miller: Wait, you would actually put a pizza in these same ovens?

Burnette: Certain ones – the ones that are safe to do it.

Miller: Okay. So, now you’ve taken this to this cooling metal table. You’re just rolling. Now it looks more like an ice cream cone in shape.

Burnette: Yeah, slightly conical. I’m just shaping it up, making sure it’s symmetrical. Symmetry is important. Then we’re gonna intentionally let it cool down so it’s a little bit more solid because we’re going to dip it back into the furnace and get more glass. It’s a lot like making a candle. You dip it in once, you get a little bit, let it cool, dip it in again, you’re building other layers. You’re always building from the inside out. So we have about four more layers we’re gonna do on this piece.

Miller: Alright. From what I’m watching, you look like just a relaxed person who has done this many, many times. I also get the feeling that I’m watching 20 years of experience at work.

Burnette: I struggled a lot when I was starting. Truthfully I don’t think I’m that good of a glassblower. Actually, I know I’m not that good of a glassblower. Some people pick it up immediately. I struggled.

Miller: Meaning that you don’t feel like you were a natural? You had to work really hard.

Burnette: Yeah.

Miller: But you said you still don’t think you’re a good glassblower?

Burnette: No. I mean, I’m proficient.

Miller: What’s the difference? I mean, what’s the difference in your mind between you, as – in your word’s – a proficient glassblower, and somebody who is really, really good?

Burnette: Well, there’s different techniques. Like glass fusing: That feels like cooking, like working in the kitchen, to me. It’s following recipes and doing stuff that’s creative to change it in new exciting ways. The actual act of glassblowing, it’s kind of like a dance. It’s very physical. It’s all about fluidity and grace. Things need to happen on exact, certain beats with certain hand gestures and movements. It’s very much like dance. And I’m not a great dancer.

Miller: [chuckles]

Burnette: Alright. So we are going to put our last bit of color on there. This is a reactive color. It has a lot of silver content in it.

Miller: I should say, this whole time, the main color that I see each time it comes out of one of the furnaces is bright, glowing orange.

Burnette: Yeah. We, over time, learn to read the colors a little differently. Like certain colors when they’re hot, when they’re 1,000 degrees, a blue will look like blue, but a yellow will look like a dark orange, a red sort of has a gray color to it. But with enough experience, you can look at a piece where the colors are all shifted because of being so hot and you can tell what they are. One of the things about glassblowing is you can’t, or you’re not supposed to, touch it with your hands. It’s very hot.

Miller: [laughs] We established that. This is over 1,200 degrees.

Burnette: And for a lot of people that’s hard. We’re just so used to being tactile and wanting to touch things. But the closest we can come is with these wooden tools or… This is about nine sheets of wet newspaper. I can use this to shape the glass, and it doesn’t burn me at all. It’s very well insulated. Scientifically what’s happening is the glass is never actually touching the paper. It is turning that moisture in the paper into a blanket of steam, and it’s sort of riding on the layer of steam rather than on the paper. That’s why these can last like months – just newspaper folded up.

Miller: Wow. And it looks sort of like an oven mitt – like you’ve taken this super hot glass, put an oven mitt on your palm, and you’re rolling the super hot glass on that oven mitt. And little sparks were coming out and a little bit of smoke flying towards me. I have to say this is challenging my notions of how to get close to an interview subject. I always want to get good sound, but my desire to not get burned is even stronger.

Alright, so now you’ve taken this whole molten ball and you’ve started to let it sort of melt and drip onto this table. It’s like having a thing of melted cheese almost at you then push back into itself to add some swirls into the ball.

Burnette: Melted cheese, indeed. And the thing that is beautiful about that part of the process is we can make the same shape over and over again, but the color pattern will never ever be re-creatable. Every one of these vases is an original.

Miller: It seems like one of the things that you’re doing is always keeping it rotating. You’re always moving. Is that to keep it even? So it doesn’t flop one side?

Burnette: Yeah, keep it symmetrical. Also, if you don’t let it move and it’s hot enough, it’ll drip like water. I mean, it’ll hit the floor eventually. It always, always needs to be in motion. That’s one of the hardest things when you’re a beginning glassblower is getting those fingers to work without thinking. Whenever I’m at home and I’m sweeping the kitchen or something, I look down and my broom’s going in circles – every time I grab something round like that.

We’re gonna put a little drop of water there, create some stress. Just like we did, we’ve broken off the blowpipe. Little vibration… [pinging sound]

Miller: I mean, it’s a tiny bit of vibration. It wants to break at that point.

Burnette: It does. And the thing is that can happen unintentionally sometimes. It’s the wrong temperature, and you lay the pipe down on the rails too hard. ‘Dink’ it hits the floor. That’s one of the things about glass that’s kind of ridiculous. I mean, we put so much time and love into making these things, and it’s one of the most breakable substances possible. I curse myself all the time. Like, why did I not make this in steel? Why am I working in glass?

Miller: But, I imagine that that’s sort of the yin and yang of this. I mean, that’s also, I imagine, partly why you do it, right? You have to be attracted to the breakability. Otherwise, why do this?

Burnette: That’s a really good question. Being attracted to the breakability, maybe not so much. But it’s one of those things you learn to live with. There’s an old Zen tale: There was a Zen master that had a teacup that he was always very proud of. He was always telling his student about it. One day, his student’s dusting the shelf off. The cup falls off the shelf, hits the floor and breaks. Master comes in, ‘What are you hiding behind your back?’ He said, ‘I have a question first. Why do we have to die?’ And the master says, ‘Well, it’s the way of all things. Nothing is permanent. Everything has its time to die.’ And the student shows him the teacup and said, ‘It was your cup’s time to die.’ And I’ve used that with me the whole entire time. Not everything has a super long lifespan. Sometimes the beautiful piece of artwork is gonna last 25 years or forever. Sometimes it’s 10 minutes. You just gotta, when stuff hits the floor, you swear a little bit, pick up the pipe and do it again.

Miller: Well, thank you very much.

Burnette: Thank you. It’s been quite a pleasure.

Miller: Evan Burnette is the owner and head designer of Local Art Glass, a glassblowing studio in North Portland. You can see some photos of him at work on our website:

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