The Gift of Glass
Kathi Caldwell-Hopper – November 13, 2014
There is something magical about colorful glass. It catches the light; it brightens the home, it attracts the eye with myriad colors.
Glass that can be created from a sheet of glass blown or fired in a kiln to make something new and beautiful has fascinated Michelle Riordan of Grafton Glass for years. Even as a child, she loved colored glass, although she had no idea at the time it would become her life’s passion and work. It also played into her decision to relocate from a busy city to a quiet, rural environment.
“I am originally from southern New Hampshire,” Michelle said. “As a child, my family vacationed in the Bristol-Newfound Lake region and I have always loved the area.
“When I was a kid,” she continued, “I used to go to a kiosk in the mall near where I lived. They sold glass and made glass figurines on a torch in the kiosk. I was fascinated and I would sit and watch as long as my parents would let me!”
Michelle grew up, started a career and family and put her fascination with glass on the shelf. Eventually, she got interested once again. She saw blown glass and decided to search on the Internet for torch work; and her interest once again burgeoned.
“I took a class and that was it!” she said. “I love working with glass because it is so creative. I didn’t think I had much ability as a sculptor but, when I saw that I could turn a glass rod into an animal, I was fascinated.”
With years of practice, Michelle now looks back on her initial foray into the world of blown glass as pretty basic. “I look at the first things I did back then and they just look like lumps of glass to me today! I have been doing this for about six years and my work has evolved.”
With five children now grown and out on their own, Michelle and her husband, Jim, decided it was time to move from the Salem, NH area where they worked and lived and to find a quieter location. Ideally, that new rural home would have a studio for Michelle’s glass work after she made the decision to leave her career in large, corporate finance.
The couple decided to search for a home in rural New Hampshire and Michelle put the Newfound Area on their real estate shopping list. “We were out driving around with our realtor and the house we ended up buying was not even on our list,” Michelle recalled. “It had just become available and the realtor offered to show it to us. We saw it and knew it was perfect.”
The property is located in rural Grafton, admittedly a bit remote. (Grafton is a small town not far from Bristol.) The home is modest in size, which is just fine for Michelle and Jim. It is the studio that sold them on the property.
“When we looked at the property, we loved that there was a former motorcycle repair shop as well as the house. The shop was perfect to transform into my glass studio. It had electricity, which I need for my work, and there is a pretty brook beside the building. In warm weather, I can open the window and listen to the water.”
Among the many glass objects Michelle makes in her studio, the most unusual are glass doorknobs. Many of the knobs are reminiscent of the old glass doorknobs often seen in old farmhouses and homes of the 19th and early 20th centuries. “The old-fashioned glass doorknobs in older homes were furnace glass, which is different,” she noted.
That is not to say that all of her doorknobs are old-fashioned in appearance. Michelle makes knobs for modern homes and custom-designs them to fit the décor of kitchens and other rooms.
“I insert glass onto a long, steel rod and wind the glass around the rod. I shape the knob and then cool it. Some of the glass is kiln-formed, which means I cut what I need from a sheet of glass. It’s kiln-fired and then I attach it to the metal piece of the doorknob,” she explained.
Some doorknobs look like granite and echo the granite countertops a homeowner might have in a kitchen or bathroom. “A customer brought me a chunk of granite left over from her kitchen install. She wanted glass doorknobs for her cabinets in glass to match the granite. I took tiny grains of glass and put them in a mold and then kiln-fire them. It matches the granite in a kitchen or bathroom,” Michelle said.
Making glass doorknobs started when Michelle was a vendor at a crafts show. A customer asked her if she could make glass doorknobs. Soon, Michelle realized there was quite a market for glass doorknobs.
“It is popular with people who are restoring old homes and for people who want custom glass doorknobs,” she said.
While an order of custom glass doorknobs might seem an unusual present, if you know someone who is restoring an old home, it would be a memorable and much-appreciated gift. The knobs can be custom-ordered for those who want knobs for a bureau, desk, or other piece of furniture.
Working with glass provides the craftsman a choice to create a wide variety of objects. Michelle says her favorite thing to create is a glass vase. “They are a lot of fun to make. When you open the kiln after firing, each piece is different.”
To create a glass-fired vase, Michelle chooses colored rods or sheets of glass. She cuts the glass and shapes it, then fires it. After firing, she sands the glass and fires it again over a form. The glass drapes over the form, creating a vase shape.
Once finished, the vases are beautiful works of art in a kaleidoscope of colors and a number of sizes and shapes, perfect for gift giving.
Among her most popular glass items for gift giving, Michelle says, are colorful and creative wine stoppers with glass knob tops and cheese knives. Night lights also are big sellers. Glass bottles in bright colors with canapé knives in matching glass colors are very unusual and popular gifts for holiday giving. Glass wine racks also are beautiful and unusual gifts.
Glass-blown beads are among Michelle’s most coveted and creative items. All different and beautiful, the beads are used by jewelry-makers for necklaces, rings, earrings, and bracelets.
In her rural, tranquil shop, Michelle can lose herself in her work. She jokes that her commute these days is the few minutes it takes her to walk from her house to the studio. She realizes, however, the importance of keeping up with the latest techniques in glass blowing and in networking.
“I try to take at least one in-depth class a year,” she said. “I traveled to Italy for a workshop and also to Florida. And I recently returned from a week in New Jersey where I took a class in glass work.”
Michelle also packs up her products and vends at artisan and craft shows all over the area and beyond. She sells many items for gift giving, all made in her cozy, Grafton studio. She will be at a number of markets and fairs this winter, including the Danbury Winter Market and Christmas at the Fells in the New London area on Nov. 8-9 and 15-16, among others.
For those who want to give something beautiful but different, and perhaps custom-made for the holidays, one can find unusual and artful items at Grafton Glass, all made by Michelle, an artist who fell in love with glass as a child and continues that love affair today.