The Fires of Creation
Serendipitous circumstances led Leon Applebaum to find his life-long passion working with glass. Today we may see glassblowing as primarily an art form practiced by small studio artisans, but it wasn’t until 1962 that glassblowers even contemplated performing their craft outside of a factory setting.
It was “lucky timing,” Leon recalls, that sealed his fate as a glassmaker. He was studying to be an art teacher at the Toledo Museum of Art during the early days of what is now known as the American Studio Glass Movement, and was surrounded by innovators. With the support of colleagues, TMA ceramics instructor Harvey Littleton built the first working glassblowing oven in a workshop setting. Leon’s instructor, Fritz Dreisbach, is now known as the “Johnny Appleseed of Glass” for his success in constructing art glass studios across the nation. Having chosen glass making as his subject, Leon was in his element. Forty-five years later, Leon describes himself as “addicted” to the medium, striving for better and more interesting pieces every year.
As is often the case with artists in all genres, Leon’s talents matured over time. In fact, he admits that he didn’t really know how to blow glass properly before spending one year at a Swedish glassblowing school. His method in college was trial and error. In Sweden, a country with a long history of glassblowing, students as young as fifteen begin serious study of the craft. Leon was twenty-six at the time, and describes his experience there as “a kind of growing up,” spending a lot of time walking in the woods and many hours methodically creating glass pieces under the supervision of a master glass blower. He used his newly honed skills to obtain a job at the world-famous Kosta Boda glassworks in Sweden before returning to the United States to study at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
That move explains how Leon came to settle in the rural Finger Lakes region. After graduating from RIT, Leon was resident artist at the Mill School of Arts and Crafts in Naples until its closure in 1979. Having fallen in love with the area, Leon and his wife and business manager, Malinda, found an isolated property in Prattsburgh where they built their studio and raised their two children. The name, Sahaj Glass Studios, was inspired by Malinda’s spiritual name, meaning “to be in the flow of life,” which captures the essence of glass in its liquid, molten form and also the nature of the business as it leads the flow of their lives.
Pristine, transparent glass is swirled with various shades of the rainbow, sometimes interrupted by clear bubbles, in Leon’s best-known Lava series of bowls. These objects are thick-walled and substantial, often both pure art and functional bowl. Leon refers to this series when asked what his most significant accomplishment has been over his long career. It was the proceeds of Lava bowls that supported Leon and Malinda’s two children through college. Their son, Eli, and daughter, Simrit, renamed the bowls “tuition bowls.” Leon affirms, “I’m a success because I was able to do that.”
His drive to grow and improve motivated him to visit the Czech Republic, another country rich in glass making history. The International Glass Symposium is held every three years in Nový Bor, where artists from across the world are invited to share their techniques and knowledge with other glassmakers. Leon attended the meeting four times and feels fortunate to belong to the international community of glass artisans. Over the years, apprentices from the Czech Republic have traveled to work with Leon at the Prattsburgh studio.
An apprentice from closer to home, son Eli has worked in Leon’s studio from the time he was a young teen. Although he studied international business in college, Eli’s recent career path has consisted primarily of honing his glassblowing skills. He worked with his father for five years, apprenticed at Simon Pearce Glass in Vermont and at a glass factory in the Czech Republic, demonstrated glassblowing skills on cruise ships in conjunction with a Corning Museum of Glass program, and is currently a full-time apprentice at AO Glass in Burlington, Vermont.
In Leon’s most recent series, Transformation, he takes his inspiration from the cyclical nature of life. Leon describes these pieces as sculptures because the majority of his time on each piece is spent grinding, polishing, and cutting into circular forms. Working from conceptual designs and drawings, Leon blows and forms glass in the hot shop as a “means to an end.” He reveals his “secret weapons” to be a metal gear fashioned with a handle, and a meat tenderizer, objects not traditionally used in glass making but which add detail when the glass is extremely hot. The creative process continues in the cold shop. It is at this stage when Leon keeps an open mind and may let the piece take him in a different direction, cutting out bubbles he doesn’t want or emphasizing aspects that take shape during the molten phase. The Transformation pieces present textures and movement that mimic nature and, sometimes, industrial patterns. Leon’s willingness to take risks in the name of creativity is evident in pieces that seem to defy the laws of gravity, as with a c-shaped form precariously balanced on an arch of glass.
These days, Leon and Malinda escape to Cocoa Beach, Florida, during the winter months, where they have developed a faithful following of collectors and exhibit in many galleries, and where they gather rays of inspiration from the spectrum of colors that emerge with every sunrise and sunset. By the time spring returns, their stock has diminished and they make the trip north to begin again, refreshed and renewed. This season, Leon plans to focus on his sculptures, playing with the texture and color for which he has come to be known.
GlassFest attendees can see and purchase Leon's work at the Corning Museum of Glass. The Applebaums welcome prearranged visits to Sahaj Glass Studios. Call (607) 522-4334, email [email protected], or go to www.leonapplebaum.com. Local galleries carrying Leon’s work include the Arts Center of Yates County in Penn Yan and Artizanns in Naples.