Now Playing

Blown Away

An often overlooked art heats up in Chicago.

Stephen Rolfe Powell Zoom In installation at Ken Saunders Gallery

Contemporary glass art typically brings to mind vases, bowls and Mad Men-esque ashtrays from the 1960s, but the era of radical political, civil and social change was also a decade of evolution for the arts, as artists were experimenting in private studios to find new forms and functions for glass. This month, Chicago celebrates that history by hosting the 43rd annual Glass Art Society Conference for the first time, and the city is prepped to welcome the world’s finest glass artists March 19-22.

“Chicago is becoming an incubator for a vital movement that’s going to start like all great grassroots movements—with young artists making anything they please and attracting collectors interested in supporting living culture,” says Ken Saunders, whose eponymous gallery showcases glossy glass sculptural works of art. This, and the fact that objects made out of glass are among “the most beautifully seductive works of art,” are key components driving the developing local market for blown glass, says Saunders.

GAS draws world-famous artists like Dante Marioni, Richard Royal and Preston Singletary as well as collectors for gallery tours, workshops (highlights include keynote presenter Theaster Gates) and demonstrations at studios West Supply and Ignite Glass Studios. “There’s a lot of teaching each other. You’ll see some of the best artists in the world playing second fiddle to one another, and seeing that kind of collaboration is always interesting,” says Glen Tullman of Ignite Glass Studios, one of the largest and most sophisticated glass blowing studios in the Midwest. “People will say, ‘I didn’t realize I could do that,’” he says of Ignite’s class offerings to the public. “We’re trying to open it up as credible art for everyone.”

And engaging with artists as they work with a 2,200-degree furnace to manipulate the molten substance into delicate figurines and large-scale sculptures is mesmerizing. “The idea of mastering a medium is almost heroic, and it’s such a throwback that people really get into it,” adds Saunders. “People have lost the ability to make anything by hand, so it’s even more amazing when someone has that maker quality.” For a full list of events and activities, visit