Presiding over fire: Cornerstone Glass’ Joe O’Connell

Joe O’Connell: Dean of Flame

by REED NELSON

O'Connell playing with fire.

The glass tube stays rotating constantly, the hands twisting it playing a malevolent game of chicken with the fire. It started out as a clear tube filled with brightly colored sand, but the mundane tube begins to take shape through the leaping flame, and now the man guiding the transformation raises the red-hot tube to blow into one end, causing the opposite side to bubble out. It is a delicate dance and seemingly the ultimate infusion of violence and splendor.

“Glass is all about keeping balance, staying even,” Joe O’Connell says, 31, the 2400 °F glass swimming through his hands. “You can’t have too much tension on one side, it isn’t healthy for the glass.” Or life for that matter. But inside the Cornerstone Glass studio located at Second and VanBuren, perhaps the only thing that is consistently tense is the unfinished glass product.

Inside Cornerstone Glass.

The giant space is the first thing that you notice; then the wide array of colors explode in the cones of the eye like crack-cocaine for the optic nervous center— aqua, lavender, seafoam, yellow, boom! They hit you like hypnotically hued children’s bubbles, dancing through the store.

The colored rods at Cornerstone Glass

The missing contingent of outward crazy is tangible, if only for what it is lacking: the lack of crazy hair, the lack of the distinctly local underarm fragrance (Intoxication by Eugene), the stark lack of anything resembling a counterculture in the very front. But then you see signs, one by one. That glass pirate ship in the corner? It turns into a water pipe and took nearly three blowers and nearly two weeks to shape. The wine glasses? Those are also water pipes, just of a variety that is trained to multitask. The five-feet long swordfish suspended from the ceiling? That extravagant chordate was blown by the same crew, one that Joe O’Connell has played no small part in developing.

A piece on display at the studio. Glass blown by PB.

O’Connell, who was born in Oceanside, CA, before moving to Houston and finally to Oregon, is a clean-cut, well dressed shop owner. “I got into blowing glass when I was young, because I was surrounded by it all the time. I just wanted to get involved, and by the time I was 14, I was watching them do this all the time,” O’Connell says, owner and C.O.O. of Cornerstone Glass Campus Store, as well as being a sales director and manager-type for Cornerstone Glass. But the subject of official titles makes him a bit uncomfortable, and he seems like he doesn’t want to discount even the smallest contribution from anyone else in his trade, regardless of personal accolade.

Joe O'Connell making the glass look like rubber.

Because his original trade is not scrap booking, and it is not like other innocuous hobbies where longevity is expected. Glass begins its transformation from raw materials (mostly sand and other rock) at around 2400 °F. To put that in perspective, that is like playing with an entity slightly hotter than liquid magma. But instead of simply moving it around, O’Connell is blowing into the branding-iron hot materials AND poking and prodding the liquid glass. This is precisely why he said that he has only been blowing for 13 years.

“I was 18 before they first let me get on the torch,” he says. “But that was for my safety. I had been around most of my life, it was always something I wanted to do, and once I was of age they couldn’t keep me out of the workshop.”

Now that dream has materialized in the form of the two outlets, the studio and the new  retail outlet on East 13th Ave. and Ferry Street.

Cornerstone Glass’ studio location is a pantheon of glass blowers in Eugene, acting as a sort of bad-ass beauty salon for blowers in the idea that they individually rent their work stations, but those stations happen to be outfitted with metal hoods, piping hot kilns, oxygen, propane and other combustible yet entrancing objects. O’Connell’s station has a stark lack of sketches like other blowers, he isn’t really a pen-to-paper kind of artist, but it is kept in the kind of meticulous disorder that you would expect an artist who specializes in materials that can burn and maim. The jumping flames and exaggerated tools add an industrial, mad-scientist vibe the building.

On his station lie glass rods of all colors, hollow glass tubes, a couple pairs of Oakley glasses equipped with didymium lenses, a vice system out of Frankenstein and a tool box usually seen at a construction site.

Everything in the studio is handcrafted within third-degree burn range of 20-inch flames, so O’Connell lives seven hours a day or so hovering above these arm length blasts of fire, because that is what keeps the glass malleable. He says the glass is carefully rotated all the time. “Gravity is super huge,” O’Connell says. “If you stop spinning it’ll just fall straight down.”

So that brings the checklist of things to use and remember to: protective Didymium glasses (to prevent eye damage from the solar flare of the intense flame), pedal-operated gas-bound hoses, a cornucopia of glass rods, all different shapes, sizes, thickness and colors, and a litany of new and old products, thrown around the workplace like lost toys. But for the intense list of materials, O’Connell is just a laid-back, upbeat guy who genuinely doesn’t like drama.

The swordfish.

“We rent out studio space in our downtown spot,” O’Connell says. “But we also host events, provide blowers with distribution access and work on collaborations and solo projects. Like that…” He is pointing to the insanely ornate swordfish skeleton hanging from the ceiling in the campus store. The swordfish is suspended like the centerpiece to the royal ball of Jack Skellington, but it is an appropriate centerpiece for O’Connell’s self-proclaimed “baby.” The store is now a showcase for all the taxing time spent down blowing glass, and provides a nice local outlet for the wares that the blowers have so meticulously crafted. “I have been dreaming of this store for 10 years now,” he says. “Now I have it, which is pretty sweet.”

And there are sacrifices to be made, and O’Connell brings a slightly skewed meaning to ‘bringing the work home with him’ because he lives above the campus store, which means some long hours and a work schedule that literally stares at you while you slumber.

He says he usually arrives at the downtown location at around 8 a.m. every morning, a strict schedule for a date with fire, and begins a grueling shift until around three in the afternoon. He then heads over to his house/store/Bat Cave from three until close. So, for those of you playing the home game, O’Connell spends nearly 50 hours a week blowing glass, and then he goes to work for another 50 a week after that. And on top of all that, he says he hasn’t taken a day off since the BCS National Championship game, meaning he has been working strong for just over six months. It does help that he gets to sell his friends wares though. “I like blowing all day and then coming into the store to relax,” he said. “When I’m in here it is like my cave. It is the opposite of the studio. It’s my dream you know? It’s kind of inspiring.”

When O’Connell talks about the process of blowing glass he describes each little bit in detail, “This is called a frit. It’s just a hard piece of glass, always a color,” he says. “But when we melt it down, it turns into something totally different.” He is showing me a tempered glass bowl, about 14 inches in diameter, that is blue all the way around, sandblasted on the outside with white, dime-sized spots covering the surface. The edge has a little spout for added versatility, and the colors swirl in an enamoring cyclonic fashion.

When he talks, he speaks slowly and takes care in his choice of words. It may just be from years of the federally required cryptic sales code and narrow-minded public scorn for his chosen profession, or it could just be that he is a very thoughtful individual, but either way, he is a captivating speaker, even if his voice is slightly quiet. “I can’t wait to expand,” he said, staring off out of the giant windows that create the entire façade of the storefront. “I have the space and I think I can generate the product.” With that, he begins walking around the fluorescently lit cabinets and the lonely t-shirt racks, behind another counter and finally draws back a curtain.

“I have a whole floor waiting to go,” he said, pointing to a giant, but empty, showroom. “It’s just a matter of when. But then again, isn’t it always a matter of when?” With all of the work being done down at the studio, however, the when may actually be a tangible time frame.

Proving the flame is his pal.

Back in the studio the following day, O’Connell disappears again, this time to bring back a clear glass tube filled with tiny colored frits. He turns on his flame, throws on his Men In Black glasses, and starts operating the pedal like a skilled driver works a clutch in traffic, in and out, in and out. Timing is half the battle. The glass tube starts in the kiln at around 1,000 °F, or roughly five times the boiling point of water, just to prep it. Glass cools rapidly, so O’Connell breezes through the studio, acutely aware of all his supplies. He talks as he twists. “When I first came here in 1999, there were only three of us and no metal hoods,” he says. “We now have one of the best spots in town.”

The glass is now a glowing, molten-red worm, writhing in the leaping flame while O’Connell pokes, prods, tears and blows into it. The heat from the station is palpable, even from a safe distance, yet O’Connell moves his hands around the flames like a skilled snake handler, knowing every inch of the glass he is working on because it has become the burned into the back of his hands; the flame now a piping hot extension of the consistently baited appendage: that part is hot, that part isn’t, that part is soft enough to cut, that part isn’t. He confidently presides over his glass like the Dean of Flames, and keeps twisting the tube in his hands. Twist, twist, twist, cool, twist, twist, twist, blow, the delicate dance being performed like a ballerina dancing to AC/DC. Behind him, at another station a glass tube hits the ground and presumably shatters, but he doesn’t notice. He’s too focused, too wired in.

To see a slideshow of Joe and other Cornerstone Glass shots click here.

About Reed Nelson

I am a graduate student in the J-School at the University of Oregon. I worked as a prep sports stringer and a clerk at the Salt Lake Tribune in 2008, and from 2009-2010 worked in various sections at the Daily Utah Chronicle. I am currently in my first term in grad school and I am cursed with a gross obsession for sports. But not bicycle racing. No one can make me care about that.
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