Glass blowing originated in Roman-controlled Syria more than 2,000 years ago and has changed little over the centuries. Robert Gary Parkes has been blowing glass for only about 25 of those years and the craftsmen of past years, who did not have the benefits of modern technology, have his admiration and reverence.
"I hope that someday people will have more respect for the ancient guys,” he says. “The process really hasn't changed since the iron-age, but now there are fibre optics and other modern materials that help the equipment to last and, by using computers to help with the timing, I know my piece will come out right, leaving me more time to work creatively."
Fifty-nine-year-old Robert runs his own glass blowing studio on a farm in the Port Kells area of Surrey, where he creates beautiful works of glass, trains an apprentice, gives demonstrations to senior groups and school children, runs a small gallery, and operates a small farm on the side.
A radical lifestyle change for Robert, who, for the better part of 35 years, made the trek from the Fraser Valley to Vancouver and nearby for his various jobs, mostly in the Kitsilano area. He says with a laugh, "Now, my commute is 36 steps!"
Robert had thought about operating his own studio many times over the years, but he did not choose this path, until fate forced his hand. Circumstances, in the form of the global recession, meant that in 2009 Robert suddenly found himself unemployed, and in need of providing for his family, which included four daughters.
"I was forced to change my entire lifestyle from one of commuting and working with many colleagues and knowing all about the local community to what I have now,” he says. “I went through the depression, the anger, the doubt, all the normal things that people go through in such times. It was my strong relationship with my wife and the support of my family that got me through. I knew I was too young to go work as a greeter at Wal-Mart, so I had to decide what I was going to do. Glass had been my whole life, so the decision was an easy one."
When Robert was just 21, he started working with stained glass for the first time, getting a job at a shop in North Vancouver. Though he enjoyed being a stained glass artist, it was not the best paying job and, like so many other artists, Robert augmented his income by taking on many other jobs over the years. This would prove to be of great significance some years later and would lead directly to his opportunity to become an apprentice glass blower.
By 1986, 12 years after Robert went to work for one of only three stained glass studios in Vancouver, there were now 23 such studios and the competition grew fierce.
“It got so bad that you had to start putting in lowball bids just to get the contracts, so I started to think up other ideas of how to make a living with glass,” he says. “At this time, the only two people in Vancouver blowing glass were Stan Clarke, who ran the scientific glass program at UBC, and David New-Small who still has his shop on Granville Island. I tried to get on with him but he was not accepting apprentices.”
At this point, Mark Lawrence, a potter and friend of Robert’s, called him to say a glass blower was opening a shop next door. Robert rushed over in time to hear the man fire his drywaller.
“I told him that I could do that for him, so he hired me to help him set up his office and his place,” recalls Robert. “Over those two weeks, I showed him some of my work and he agreed to take me on as a federally funded apprentice through a program the government had going at the time.”
That is how Robert got to apprentice under Robert Held, a former California professor who settled on the west coast after establishing the glass blowing program at Sheridan College near Toronto. After five years, Robert had his ticket, but he remained with the studio for nearly two more decades after that, learning and honing his craft.
“Once you have your skills, it takes many years to master. Finally after I was there for 20 years, my master started calling me a glass master,” says Robert. “The frustration point is when you realize that you have to put more in than you are already putting in. The master makes it look easy, but it is not. The work can be dangerous. The glass is very hot and will do what it wants until you teach it to do what you want it to do. You have to learn to play with it, rather than have it playing with you. When you get to that point, you are ready to teach someone else.”
While working as glass blower in Vancouver, Robert got to make pieces that were given to dignitaries like Queen Elizabeth and Gordon Campbell, but it was the studio that got the credit. While working out of his small studio in Surrey, called the Loafing Shed (where cattle used to go to rest), Robert was commissioned to make pieces of art to present to former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush when they recently visited Surrey to speak at an economic conference.
Robert was told they wanted pieces representing the two countries as well as the colours of Surrey, so he went to work. “Mostly inspiration comes in a quick moment,” he says. “By the time we were finished talking, I knew what I was going to do. I brought the prototypes to the mayor’s office and put them on the coffee table. Everyone there just gasped and started bringing other people in. I knew right away I had got it right. I even got to attend the conference, rubbing elbows with all these big movers and shakers. It was very inspiring and, at the end, I got the limelight when they presented my pieces to the presidents.”
Robert credits his mother’s best friend, a neighbouring artist and later glass worker named Terry Burnette for inspiring him to choose to work with glass.
“When we were younger, I used to watch her take the furniture out and pour paint on huge canvasses, and later I would watch her working with glass. She introduced me to the world of glass artists.”
And now things have come full circle. Robert is enjoying life with his family and operating the studio with his wife, who quit her job to become The Loafing Shed’s business manager, and is training an apprentice of his own. He took some big risks, opening a brand new studio in the middle of a farming community during a recession, but it has paid off.
“I am now free to make one of a kind items and it is great for my creativity,” says Robert. “I was very lucky since I have no formal arts education. I am just an old hippie who was attracted to the arts and crafts movement and, 40 years later, I am still at it. I had a few stories in the paper and that was nice, but I am more interested in seeing what is in the annealer every time I open it. That is my best reward, along with knowing that someone is going to appreciate what I have made, and that my piece will outlive me on this planet.”
SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE APRIL 2012
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