When people enter GBS, the welcome they'll get from Ann Fowle is as sparkling, warm and alive as the delightful array of glass objects that surround her. Full of enthusiastic energy, Ann is eager to introduce studio visitors to the mysteries and wonder of glass. This is a working studio, where one sees the entire glass making process, from fiery beginning to sparkling end; and leave much the wiser and appreciative of all that goes into this ancient art.
Glass blower Grahame Fowle glances up from his work and often sees visitors peering around the door as he creates a glass object amidst sparks, whirrs and flashes of flame, and he realizes his professional life's work has come full circle. As a lad in the U.K., Grahame grew up next to a glassworks, and on his way to and from school he'd peer through the open doors into the hive of activity within. None of his family worked in the glass industry, but what he saw in those early years intrigued and fascinated him so much that at age 15 he became an apprentice with the U.K. branch of the big glassworks firm of Corning, New York. It took about five or six years for Grahame to master the skills and, in 1980, he and Ann opened their own glass blowing business.
With a rapidly growing business and a staff of 25 glassblowers and other specialists, Ann and Grahame thrived. They both enjoyed the challenges producing glassware - from practical, to artistic, to exotic - for all the major stores in Europe, including Harrods, and in producing specialty items for customers such as British Nuclear Fuels. Life was hectic and exciting, the business flourished and they loved what they were doing. Then, in 1995, they visited Canada.
"We were blown away by the place, and Vancouver Island in particular, and the friendliness of the people," says Ann.
They kept returning to Canada and always came back to Vancouver Island, where the Shawnigan/Mill Bay area especially appealed to them. Then the decision was made. "Life is too short," they said to each other, "so we closed our business in the U.K. and moved to this area, where we could set up a glass blowing studio [GBS]."
What they really wanted was to share their passion with others and to make the fascinating process of creating glass objects available to everyone. With friendly, outgoing personalities, the couple enthusiastically welcomes everyone into their studio and sweeps them up in the intrigue and mystery of glassmaking. They've created their dream in GBS Glass Blowing.
"We wanted to combine all the best elements of what we have, concentrate them on one site and let people see it being done and have a chat."
Both Ann and Grahame are fully engaged in the studio and its products. They work with each other on designs and practicalities of items. And, much research goes into what is popular and attractive to the people of the area.
"What's attractive in Europe is not necessarily seen that way here," says Ann. Music lovers really like the treble clef design lamp; the hummingbird artifact is very popular; and the practical, but attractive, indoor/outdoor oil lamps are really appreciated and useful in this area.
"We take pride in doing everything ourselves," says Grahame.
The wine glasses, with their distinctive colour beads, are based on a design Grahame particularly liked.
"I could never find a glass I really liked, so I made some," he says.
From his own personal taste, grew a line of wine glasses that are now featured in the studio, along with liqueur glasses. Grahame makes every glass and so no two are exactly alike, they are not pressed or moulded, but made freehand and individually blown.
And the Fowles love a challenge. A visitor to the studio told them about the endless search he'd been on to find, or have recreated, some old brandy pipes to match those he'd inherited, which were now broken. He asked if GBS could make them, and the reply was "Yes, when do you want them?" Two days later, after working with the man, Ann and Grahame sketched the design, fine-tuned the drawing and produced the long lost brandy pipes.
GBS oil lamps, and other items, are used at various resorts and restaurants including the Aerie Resort and Malahat Mountain Inn, the Masthead and The Grand Pacific Hotel. Not only are the items attractive, but they are safe. The wicks don't burn; they are made of fibreglass and draw the oil. The oil is 99 per cent pure paraffin, is smokeless and has no odour. Colour can be added to the oil to suit preference. Because the glass bottoms don't get hot, the lamps can be set on glass, wood or other surfaces. And if, by chance, they get knocked over, the oil extinguishes the flame. By the same token, if the oil runs out, the flame will go out.
All items made at GBS are fired or annealed to take all the stress and tension from the glass; otherwise the glass is subject to breaking itself. Often, say the Fowles, people bring broken glass items in for repair, which they have purchased while on holidays. Often, these items haven't been fired, and the glass has been stressed and broken. Sometimes Grahame can repair the items, but often he can't.
Glassware is packaged for safe travelling, and orders can be dispatched to anywhere in the world. Though many people say to the Fowles, "you're in the middle of nowhere!" it seems that "nowhere" has become a popular place, where people from all over the world visit, e-mail or connect over the Internet.
"Our little dream has come true," says Ann. "We love our studio and have been sharing our passion for glass together throughout our lives, and we're 30 years married!"
For a warm welcome, a brightly lit and sparkling studio, action, science, art and information, an introduction to the fascinating world of glass, GBS Glass Blowing awaits. Group tours, family groups, individuals, tourists and locals will be embraced by the warmth and enthusiasm that Ann and Grahame extend to everyone who calls on their studio.
GBS Glass Blowing
678 Shawnigan Lake Road, Malahat, B.C. V0R 2L0 250-743-5666 www.glassblow.ca
Studio hours: 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. daily
Groups welcome - pre-booking requested
Open Studio. Free demonstrations.
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