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Souvenir: Molten, Magical Moments

Create your own hand-blown glass ornaments in Grapevine
Written by Paula Disbrowe.

The same thing happens every year, usually the weekend after Thanksgiving: We unfurl the Christmas lights, unearth our box of ornaments from the garage, begin unwrapping decorations—and a flood of memories washes in. Each piece has a story. There are the Texas-themed ornaments we bought in Gruene several years ago—a Texaco gas pump, an armadillo in a stocking cap, and various El Día de los Muertos skeletons. A construction-paper heart lacquered with glitter that suspends a photo of our daughter, then 2, now 6. Then there’s the vintage-style pretzel ornament purchased after pancakes along San Antonio’s glittering River Walk.

Vetro Glass-blowing Studio & Art Glass Gallery in Grapevine offers opportunities to make your own ornaments starting through December.. (Photo by Will van Overbeek)

 

Few things evoke more nostalgia than Christmas ornaments. Our family accumulates more each year, whether we need them or not. And as the tree branches bend with an increasing number of decorations, ornaments mark the passing years with sweetness and sparkle. Having a soft spot for such things, I was excited to learn that we could make our own ornaments at a glass studio in Grapevine. It sounded like a holiday souvenir too good to pass up.

Glass artist David Gappa founded Vetro Glassblowing Studio & Fine Art Gallery in 1999. It’s located in Grapevine’s historic district, just off the parking lot for the Grapevine Vintage Railroad, which makes regular sightseeing runs to the Fort Worth Stockyards, some 21 miles west. Over time, David has cultivated a team of artisans who perform their craft in Vetro’s state-of-the-art working studio. When you visit the studio, the banter and energy of the young, animated staff make it immediately clear that they get a kick out of educating people about their work.

Vetro offers two “make your own ornament” packages: one for children ($30) to help create an ornament (the best part for my kids was choosing their colors) and an “extreme ornament making” option for older kids and adults ($45), which allows for more hands-on participation.

The process basically goes like this: Patrons pass through the gallery (a showcase and gift shop of Vetro’s ornaments, vases, and dishware) and into the studio. The flicker of flames visible from the oven’s small, square opening and the clank of iron tools give the space the feel of a medieval workshop—for good reason. “The art of glass has changed very little since the 15th Century,” David explains. “A glass blower from that time could come into our studio and use all of the same tools. The technology has advanced the machines, but the basic methods are exactly the same.”

To make my ornament, a Vetro artisan first heated an iron blowpipe inside a 2,400-degree furnace, and then dipped the pipe into molten glass (kind of like dipping a stick in a honey jar). Next, I rolled it in the colors (crushed metals and sand) of my choice. Then I rotated the pipe (quickly and evenly so it didn’t drip) until the material collected into an even ball. Then I let the trained gaffers blow into the vessel, creating a perfect sphere with a bubble of air inside. Finally, the bulb was clipped off, a hook was added, and then it was transferred to a 900-degree oven called an annealer, which coolsed the glass over 12 to 14 hours. This step was crucial—if we had left the bulb at room temperature, it would have gone into thermal shock and exploded.

David has been allowing customers to participate in his profession for about 10 years. “There has been such a demand from patrons who want to be part of our world, even for a brief moment,” he explains. The other reward is less tangible. “It’s incredible to see the same families returning year after year,” David says.

For my kids, the holidays are about anticipation (counting down the doors on our Advent calendar, for instance). Since we had to wait for our treasures to cool before taking them home, it was all the more exciting to unwrap our ornaments and behold the spectacular streaks of color and light. Our time at Vetro taught me that the craft of glass blowing is a medium that most people take for granted. “Working with glass is an ethereal experience,” David says. “You have a hand in manipulating heat, and guiding that molten medium into a thing of beauty. We can’t touch it, so we mold with tools and breathe life into its form.”

Now that I know how the process works, my ornament is more than a souvenir; it’s a reminder of a precious morning with my young children, and of the timeless beauty and art of glass.

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From the December 2013 issue.

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