Glass Bubble Project: Keeping Ohio City Weird
If Ohio City is an artisan neighborhood, then Mike Kaplan and Chris McGillicutty of the Glass Bubble Project are its original artisans.
Established in 1998, the Glass Bubble Project pre-dates most of trendy bars and restaurants that have become the lifeblood of the West 25th nightlife corridor. Built around 1920, the building formerly housed Diamond Welding, and later became a band practice space. It wasn’t a particularly welcoming location, which was just fine for a couple of artists looking to set up shop. “When we got here,” said Chris, “the place was full of old tires.”
The Project is easy to miss: there aren’t any signs on West 25th, and you won’t encounter it unless you’re headed for the parking lot behind Nano Brew and the Black Pig. Look for the brightly colored abstract mural on the side of the building. Or Morty, the rooster-in-residence, who can be seen strutting around outside in warmer weather. More accurately, this is Morty II. The original Morty went missing in June 2011, although according to Chris, he’s off living with some pigeons now.
Walking into the Glass Bubble Project is like walking out of the tidy, gentrified East Village of today and into the gritty, sweat-stained East Village of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe. Ohio City is not immune to the age-old “artist vs. yuppie” narrative: last September, the Plain Dealer reported that Mike Nowak, chef-owner of the neighboring Black Pig, complained to councilman Joe Cimperman that Kaplan and McGillicutty had not acquired proper permits to raise the Glass Bubble Project’s roof, thereby blocking the Black Pig’s view of the downtown skyline. Chris assured me that the conflict was overblown, and that everyone is on good terms again.
Visitors to the Glass Bubble Project are treated like friends. Emily and Cassidy, two of the Project’s regular artists, were happy to show me around – and encouraged me to bond with Morty II, who evidently enjoys a cuddle. Within five minutes, Chris had offered me a beer and a jar of pickled herring. “This isn’t like anything else you’ve ever tasted,” he said.
It wasn’t. And the works featured at the Glass Bubble Project aren’t typical either. The Glass Bubble Project specializes in “Clevetian” glass, a play on Venetian glass. Unlike its more uppercrust cousin, Clevetian glass is chunkier, funkier, and may or may not include elements salvaged from a scrapyard. In addition to Mike and Chris, there is a rotating group of about a dozen artists who pay for studio time, and whose work is represented in the gift shop. Glass Bubble Project works adorn hotels, restaurants, and private homes across the country.
Glass-blowing is the kind of art form that’s best experienced in person, but here’s a quick run-down of the process: first, the artist dips a long, preheated blowpipe into a crucible of molten glass, which is kept in a 2,000 degree kiln. Then he rolls the molten glass onto a steel table called the marver, allowing the exterior to cool slightly and form a pliable, semi-solid skin. At this point, he might also add color to the molten glass by rolling it in frit, small pieces of pigmented glass or ceramic the approximate consistency of kosher salt. Time is of the essence: the glass has to be hot for the frit to stick. This is where the blowing comes in: the artist blows through the pipe and voila, the glass bubble. (“It’s like bubble gum,” explains Chris. “You’ve got to heat it up so you can blow it into shape.”)
Glass-blowing classes for beginners are available. Look for Groupon deals: on the snowy February Saturday I visited, twenty people filed in to take advantage of a Groupon (not to mention warm up in front of the kiln). Patient, soft-spoken Kaplan instructed the group on making a glass heart.
Don’t miss the gift shop, located on your left as you come in. Price points run the gamut from $20 votives to elaborate, Dale Chihuly-inspired chandeliers that might grace the home of Donald Trump’s more bohemian cousin. The staff is happy to tell you about the dozen or so artists whose work is represented. Also check out the self-deprecating “Worse Than Detroit” t-shirts, which are available for $10 apiece. Gift certificates are available online.
The Glass Bubble Project is located at 2421 Bridge Avenue. Open Monday – Saturday, 10-6. Visitors are welcome to drop in for a demonstration – or just to hang out with Morty II. Call 216-696-7043 or visit www.glassbubbleproject.com for more information.