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Nathan Macomber breathes life into molten glass

Eye On Art

December 10, 2009
We're in Macomber's studio, where projects litter a corner of the workspace, some broken, others hinting at what awaits in his gallery space a few steps away. The propane-fired pot furnace roars, banishing any chill on this December morning. Macomber not only creates spectacular art glass — he was the League of N.H. Craftmen's Craftman of the Year in 2004 — he built his studio and much of the equipment in it.

In the beginning

After first trying glassblowing at the suggestion of his sister, who has her masters degree in metal sculpture, Macomber went to Prescott College in Arizona, where he soon met glassblower Jim Antonius, who became his teacher and mentor.

"I couldn't get enough of his studio," says Macomber, who stayed the following summer to help Antonius build an addition to his studio and more equipment, an experience that gave him the skills he'd later need to build his own studio, freestanding pot furnace, reheating furnace, annealing ovens and other equipment. "When you build it yourself, you learn what works and what doesn't," he explains. He wrote up what he learned that summer as an independent study; continuing in that vein, documenting his work with Antonius and others, he earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in glassblowing.

After graduation, Macomber continued as Antonius' apprentice, an unpaid position that gave him the opportunity to learn how to run a glassblowing business. Once the studio was completed, he was able to teach, work as an assistant to glassblowers who bought time at the studio, and to work on his own glassblowing.

"I learned that being self-employed is not a 9 to 5 job; it's generally a 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. job. By the time I left, I was making more than Jim could have paid me," Macomber notes.

While he was becoming a success professionally, his family back in New England decided to sell the Conway farm where his father had grown up. When a sale fell through, Macomber realized he was ready to leave Arizona and run a studio on his own. He purchased the property and set about raising the barn to place it on a solid foundation, and adding a purpose-built studio he designed himself. It's still a work-in-progress; the gallery space is the barn, a recent addition. There, in a light-filled space with wide windows, the colors in his work glow.

"I try to make the colors bold, rich and vibrant," he says. "Most of my work now focuses around really rich color. I think everyone's attracted to rich colors. I have my favorites; I'm always looking for new combinations to see if I can punch them up to another level."

Spiders in the gallery

Many of the shapes Macomber creates are organic, reminiscent of what grows in the gardens or what lurks in old barns.

A parade of apple-sized pumpkins with curling stems marches along the window ledge in the gallery; other examples of this form appeared on the set of the Today Show in fall 2003. Translucent rondels rest in curvaceous metal stands — which Macomber uses his blacksmithing skills to forge — while multi-colored sculptural paperweights grace a nearby tabletop. But the eye is drawn again and again to the footed bowls. They are as simple and as sophisticated as any you'll ever see: pure color and shape in perfect harmony.

Spiders even arachnophobes would find charming balance on graceful forged steel legs, their bodies brilliantly-colored globules of glass. Macomber made the first spider — the one on the side of his shop — for himself. "I made it using an old hay rake I'd found. It sat on the lawn, but every time I mowed I had to move it, so finally I stuck it on the side of the shop. It was a little scary at first, with all the attention it got. Now we're becoming known as the Spider Farm."

Now the spiders, in various sizes, are a staple, but are labor-intensive, with more than 40 pieces of steel in each. Still, Macomber says, "I definitely want to do more bugs. The challenge is making them look right — and to still be able to make them. Eventually I want to make a daddy-long-legs that you can walk under."

Macomber's drinking glasses, which he says are one of the most popular items, show how this talented artisan has been able to blend the desire for each item to be unique with the need for production work.

"Every single person on the planet probably uses at least one drinking glass a day, but I have my own fun spin on it and make each one its own unique piece of art. I don't do sets. Each one is different. It would be faster if I made them all the same, but that's boring — and I don't think they'd sell as well."

When asked about the blank space on one wall, Macomber explains that a large scale piece he'd done several years ago hung there until the previous day, when a long-time client came to see the gallery.

"You need the big pieces to draw people's attention at shows. I absolutely loved it and never really intended to sell it; I really did it for myself. But he and I have built up a relationship and I just felt comfortable having him buy it."

Macomber's gallery at the Spider Farm on the Eaton Road in Conway is open by chance or by appointment, so it's best to call ahead: 603-447-1825. His work is also available at League of New Hampshire Craftmen galleries throughout the state, at select craft fairs, including Craft Boston and the annual League of New Hampshire Craftsmen's Fair (where his work has been part of the prestigious Living with Craft and Sculpture garden exhibitions). Examples of his work can be see online at www.MacomberGlass.com.

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