Baseline 1,000 degrees

Todd Brower layers molten glass onto a wire, spinning it so that a design emerges in the glass. He’s demonstrating a technique known as lampworking, in which glass is worked behind a torch, generally for small-scale projects like pendants, marbles, and beads. Specifically, he is demonstrating how to make a glass bead. The bead will later be pulled off the wire—which is known as a mandrel—leaving a hole behind through which the bead can be strung.

“Handmade beads are really beautiful,” said Brower, who hosts open studios, teaches workshops, and gives lampworking demonstrations at the Breckenridge Arts District. His biggest audiences have come from the Fire Arts Festival, scheduled each year to coincide with the International Snow Sculpture Championships down the street.

This year’s Fire Arts Festival takes place January 26-29, offering a brilliant juxtaposition of fiery heat and light against the snowy mountain wonderland just as winter’s gentle flakes begin to drape Breckenridge in earnest. Held in the Breckenridge Arts District one block east of Main Street on Washington Avenue, it features an array of massive, fire-breathing sculptures; performances by fire dancers while a DJ spins tunes; make-and-take art projects; and nightly demonstrations of “hot arts,” which encompass any art form that uses heat or fire, such as silversmithing, ceramics, candle making, glasswork, and encaustics.

At last year’s festival, Brower estimates nearly 150 people passed through the Hot Shop facility each night to witness him work with molten glass. His preferred medium is borosilicate, which handles thermal shock—the differential expansion of molten glass that can lead to breakage—very well. “It’s a fun thing to work,” he said, explaining how it is durable enough that it can be put back into the flame to work further even after it solidifies, and how the resultant piece is hard to break—the perfect fit for extreme sports enthusiasts likely to abuse their jewelry.

In his personal work, Brower is drawn to decorative marbles. “There are so many designs you can do within a marble,” he said. “One of my favorites is a vortex. When you look inside the marble you get the amplification of the curvature, and that makes all the inside decoration pop.” Sometimes he heads into a project knowing what he plans to make. More often, he said, “I just let the glass tell me what I’m making.

In addition to demonstrations, the Hot Shop can now accommodate intimate lampworking classes, thanks to a donation of equipment from Jenny and Mike Lundin. Brower masterminded the upgraded lab. “I set up six hoses of propane and oxygen for each of our tables,” he explained. “That actually allows for two large torches, or two small torches and one large torch. I tried to make it generic enough to accommodate other lampworkers who might bring their own tools.”

The glass comes in rods that are about a quarter-inch in diameter. Smaller pieces are made by heating the glass and pulling it to a smaller size. For beads, metal mandrels are coated in a liquid called “bead release,” which makes it possible to pull the finished bead off the wire. “You can make it as intricate as you want, or as simple as a one-color bead where you heat the glass up, twist it onto the mandrel, and you’re done,” he said. 

Brower returns to the Fire Arts Festival to demonstrate lampworking for a third time this year, joined by other artists working in the “hot arts” including silversmith Martha Peterson-Glomb, encaustic painter Victoria Eubanks, and candle maker Bernadette Foley of Breckenridge Candle Cabin.

“We are so lucky to have these creative individuals living and working within our community,” said Jenn Cram, director of public programs and engagement for Breckenridge Creative Arts, which puts on the festival each year.

“The Fire Arts Festival is a celebration of fire and the hot arts,” she said. “The Hot Shop is the studio where several of the hot arts come to life. We will be firing it up that weekend.” Of course the wildly popular fire sculptures return, this time lighting up an expanded area in and around the Arts District campus. Artist Jamie Vaida returns to unveil his “Music Tree,” a fire sculpture hewn of musical instruments he designed for partner fire arts festivals in Breckenridge and Telluride. Keith D’Angelo returns with a kinetic, interactive piece reminiscent of a mandala, and Ryon Gesink returns with “Demon Throne.” Several new sculptors add their talents to the mix this year, including Justin Gray of Graywrx Fabrication, who will showcase two fiery robots; and Shane Shane from Albuquerque, New Mexico, who will show “Obelisk” and “Biodiversity Fire Sphere,” made from a 1950’s era, 500-gallon propane tank.

The electronics-driven fire sculptures hold particular appeal for Brower, who, as an electrical engineer, has a host of his own “crazy projects” underway in his Silverthorne studio. He is currently working on a Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connected washer and drier for laundromats, which allow users to pay, lock machines, and receive notifications when their laundry is done via app. He has programmed an avalanche beacon training park, and worked on Kindara, a fertility awareness app. “If anybody wants to add Bluetooth or Wi-Fi to anything, I’ll talk to them,” he said, chuckling.

Brower in fact found his way to the hot arts through his work; after laboring 90-hour weeks with internet startups in Austin, Texas, he realized he needed an outlet, so he took a few classes in clay. Soon, he’d put together his own studio with multiple kilns, not to mention a bronze foundry.

“Being an electrical engineer, I knew how to fix all the kilns,” he said. That skill has served the Breckenridge Arts District well, since Brower also serves as a studio tech for the Ceramics Studio. “With the pottery, I’m really attracted to what happens in the kiln as it gets fired and the chemical changes that are happening,” he said.

Like so many artists whose fascination with fire combines to pull off each year’s spectacular Fire Arts Festival, Brower concluded: “It really does seem I’m attracted to things over 1,000 degrees.”

Fire Arts Festival //

Photos: Liam Doran