Dave Lee of Valparaiso had always been interested in the end result of glassblowing as a consumer, but his shift from customer to creator came 11 years ago when his wife learned of a glassblowing class in Benton Harbor, Michigan.
“At the time my youngest son Bryan was 16, and being that he’s very artistic, I asked if he’d take the class with me,” Lee said. “We fell in love with it and blew glass as hobbyists for three years before it occurred to me that Valpo would be perfect for a studio.”
That’s when Lee and his son opened Hot Shop Valpo Glass Blowing Studio, bringing the mesmerizing art of glass blowing to his own community.
“We’ve lived here since 2000 and have seen such great things go on here in the Valpo community,” Lee continued. “Lot’s of sensible growth with infrastructure, parks, bars, and restaurants, and at that point I thought Valpo was poised for growth in the arts sector. We fell headlong into that and here we are six years later!”
For Lee, one of the most appealing aspects of glassblowing is its dynamic make up, and the way it brings aspects from multiple art forms together.
“You can paint with glass, you can sculpt with glass, there are even similarities to pottery and interpretive dance,” Lee said. “When we’re moving around one another in the studio with no real communication it almost takes on a dance-like form.”
Lee fell in love with glassblowing not just because of its breathtaking results, but also because of the unique creative process that gives glass works life.
“I’m sort of an adrenaline junkie, and there’s a sense of urgency when you’re working with 2000-degree molten glass because once you start a project, you have to finish it. You can’t come back later and pick up where you left off. You have to see it through from start to finish,” Lee said. “There’s a lot of tension as well, dealing with a very volatile and dangerous subject matter, and that gives you a feel of adrenaline you might not get otherwise.”
Though the process of glassblowing itself might not qualify as a peaceful sort of work, Lee finds a sense of calm focus when working in his studio that puts the stresses of everyday life on the backburner.
“When working with glass you have to be so laser focused. In that moment nothing else matters,” Lee said. “If you’ve got troubles or bothers in your head, you can’t think about that when you’re blowing glass, so it gives you a focus and puts everything else in the background.”
When he’s not in the studio, Lee enjoys traveling with his family and experiencing different cultures, which isa passion that stems from his 22 years in the Marine Corps.
“My years in the Corps took me all over the globe, from the far east to the middle east to 300 miles north of the arctic circle,” Lee said.
The places Lee visits stay with him long after he leaves and continue to influence the art he creates.
“Bryan and I take inspiration from all of the places and people we see and work in conjunction with each other to draw on that,” Lee said. “We incorporate things like outdoor scenes we’ve come across; the salt columns in Iceland, the northern lights, very organic type things from all over the place. We are equal in our inspiration and the way we work. You can’t blow glass by yourself.”
Lee’s time in the Marine Corps led to experiences that shape the way he approaches his art and also the way he approaches life in general.
“A lot of my outlook on life comes from those years in the Corps, which is wrapped around leadership, integrity, honor, and courage,” Lee said. “I like to live my life being completely honest with myself and my art. Things like comradery, brotherhood, and sisterhood have been infused into my DNA from an early age, and I try to live my life within those mantras of what the Marine Corps has instilled in me.”
Travel has been an integral part of Lee’s life, broadening his understanding of what life is like across the globe.
“If you stay in one place your entire life, your scope of influences is very much limited,” Lee said. “I like to absorb everything I can from people and cultures that are different. I think it makes for a well-rounded individual, and that’s something extremely important, especially in the times we’re in now. I think it’s important for people to have understanding and empathy for all people, not just people like themselves, and especially for people unlike them.”
Lee and his son also draw inspiration from the work of Dale Chihuly, the most prolific American glass blower, as well as Jerry Catania, an influential creative presence in the Southwest Michigan glass art scene.
“The way Chihuly has been able to grow the studio glass movement since the late 1960s definitely inspired us to get into it,” Lee said. “Catania actually just passed away after a long battle with a rare blood cancer, but his influence on us can’t be overstated.”
Bryan and Lee have gained inspiration from countless places and people, and now try to pass that inspiration on to everyone who enters their studio. Hot Shot Valpo offers various classes all year round, fit for beginners with no prior experience as well as those with some glassblowing background.
“One of the things we love most about creating art is potentially inspiring others with our creations and also bringing interest, life, color, and happiness into their homes when they take one of our pieces home,” Lee said. “We love to share what we do with young people as well. Bryan is a great instructor and conversationalist with young people we have in the studio from kindergarten on up.”
“We like to plant the seed in young folks,” Lee continued. “Few people become artists, but that’s not the point. Just being able to appreciate art makes you a well-rounded person, and we love to be able to share that with younger generations.”