Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Artists' spaces: Down in the basement

Basement Studios, a glass business opened six years ago by married artists Tasha Walen and Lincoln Farabee, began in the corner of their cellar with only a torch and an open window. Now it's taken over the whole floor.

Since the purchase of that first torch, the artists have expanded as rapidly as their glass. They now have a larger torch with oxygen propane, a diamond-embedded wheel, a lapidary grinder, a kiln and lots of glass materials to help them create their lampwork, beads and jewelry. To adhere to safety codes they installed a ventilation system capable of sucking all the air out of the room in just seconds. In the winter, this unfortunately chills their living space above.

Although the thought of a huge heated studio downtown is appealing, they wouldn't have their space any other way. They like to travel too much. They show their work with the Juneau Artists Gallery year-round and exhibit their larger scale work once or twice annually.

Walen and Farabee met while working on their undergraduate degrees in Bellingham; both were bass players in the symphony. They eventually moved to Alaska and attended the Univeristy of Alaska Anchorage; Walen earned her master's degree in early childhood special education, and Farabee got his nursing license.

Walen now combines her degree with her passion for glass, teaching art to adults who experience disabilities at The Canvas. She also helps The Canvas design their music program.

"I teach art glass there, and glass engraving and infusing with my students. It's amazing," said Walen.

A love of travel

Basement Studios isn't incredibly profitable, but it allows the couple to travel the world learning more about the art of glass.

"We've been using it (the company) to help build on itself," said Farabee.

"For me the fun part is traveling and studying," said Walen. "The glass community is very inspirational, people are very generous, and we've met people from all over the world just blowing glass, taking classes and working with teachers."

Farabee's mother, who was hooked on glass at the same time as her son and daughter-in-law, works out of Seattle and travels with them.

"It's such a good way to get to know your mother-in-law," said Walen. "We both studied at Pilchuck Glass School, and we spent some time studying in Murano, Italy, which is sort of a mecca for glass artists."

Farabee and his mom are currently preparing to visit Germany to study glass, and to learn how to make prosthetic glass eyes.

In addition to Pilchuck, Walen studied at the Pratt Fine Art Center in Seattle, and the Corning Glass Museum in New York. She has also worked with Martin Rosol, a Czeck glass artist who taught her a laminating process called hextol, where two pieces of crystal or optical glass are joined with laminate glue.

"When you move the piece, it changes colors," she said. "It's all cold working, so the glass is shaped without any heat."

Walen and Farabee both find that glass workshops are very productive times, but there's something about the intensity of workshops and the transformations they create that taps into emotional releases.

"There is always somebody that cries at glass camp," Walen laughed.

"Everytime we take a class it kind of bumps us up and gives us so many ideas it's almost hard to manage it all, she said. "Then there are times I come down here and stare at the wall for three days and don't know where to start - especially right before a show."

Show and politics

Their current show features engraved glass with iconic figures in unconventional locations, like an Alaskan cast-glass totem pole with the Great Wall of China as a backdrop.

"I've been exploring the mass production of Alaskan images, especially in our community where they purchase stuff from China and then everybody comes to Alaska to buy them," Walen said. "I'm trying to find humor as well as make people think about things and question what is going on. Maybe people will stop and think about it a little."

Inspiration and planning

When asked about the source of their inspiration Walen said, "My design work comes usually in the form of a weird non-sleeping evening - absolutely overwhelming ideas come one after the other. I write them all down. It all kind of comes out all at once, and then I'm working on that."

Sometimes this design inspiration is shaped by practical concerns like glass compatibility and cost of materials.

"Glass moves at different rates so it can be like trying to blend oil and water."

Some glass colors cost more than others, she said, and using recycled glass can be tricky because the glass type is not usually known.

The rewards

Besides travel adventures and continuing education, Walen says the most rewarding thing for her is teaching glass fusing and cutting to people who experience disabilities.

"It's super rewarding, and some of the best artists I've ever met are in that studio," she said. Anyone can do it, you just make it work and stop putting limitations on people."

"I think teaching is the direction I'm headed," said Walen, who also wants to exhibit in museums and out of state. "There are some people who are great artists but not good at teaching - I think I'm an OK artist who's good at teaching."

Farabee says teaching isn't in his future. For him it's a creative outlet from his day job.

"I don't feel like I'm fighting myself; I have creative ideas at work and this is my outlet for them."

Though they exhibit together, their work is very different.

"We are very individual in our taste and flavors for glass," said Farabee. "(But) we work together and respect each other a whole heck of a lot, which really helps."

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