While many of us spend considerable time perched in front of the glow of a bright screen, Elizabeth “Liz” Mears spends many hours each day perched in front of the glow of a bright flame. Staring down at the glass as it changes properties, shapes and character at the mercy of her torch, Liz’s hands are almost working autonomously. “I’ve been at it for so long now, “she recounts. “My hands just know what to do.”
Flameworking is a technique of working with hot glass. Rods or tubes of glass are held in the flame of a bench torch where the glass is softened, then shaped by sculpting and/or blowing. “Once you learn the limits of glass and how to respect its properties,” Liz says, “you can do almost anything.”
Walking around her studio, it is easy to see that Liz Mears has mastered the art of glass. A giant, shining chandelier, made of woven flameworked glass, hangs delicately from the ceiling. Large panels of glass books stand on pedestals, their translucent pages etched with poetry and beautiful black and white images that have been burned into the glass. Liz explains that this project was a collaboration with her daughter, Lindsey, who is a poet and artist.
Liz’s sculpture invokes a sense of spirit and nature, where the forms of the natural world give shape to her own memories and guide her creative process. In her studio, baskets that look like crystalline lattice structures are filled with colorful glass leaves, and the result is breathtaking. “I wanted it to look like the leaves had just been scooped up from the forest floor and carried inside.” A particularly captivating sculpture is placed above her wood stove.
This piece looks like a bundle of sticks – made of glass — in a mesh wire firewood bag. “For this piece, entitled Memories, I took hollow glass tubes and burned pine needles inside them, letting the glass fog with smoke,” she explains. “I then placed old radio antennae on the ends of the tubes to seal the ‘memories’ inside, but also transmit them to the outer world. The smoky glass represents the way our memories can become clouded with time and age. The radio antennae represent the way our memories guide our behavior.”
Liz’s long held passion for flameworking is reignited each time she teaches a beginner workshop and watches her students’ eyes light up when they create their first piece. “It never gets old,” she says, grinning wildly. As Liz works in front of her torch creating an assembly of holiday ornaments, it is easy to see why she is such a highly lauded teacher. She explains the temperament of glass with such ease, noting the importance of remembering to tilt your arm so as not to let gravity take over the piece. It is impossible not to admire her strong arms as they hold and shape the glass tubes.
“You have to be in good physical shape to do this,” she says. “Luckily, I was an active slalom water skier and windsurfer for many years, so I have the muscle memory in place.” These days, she spends a lot of time gardening, which can be very demanding on the upper body. But it has certainly paid off, not just with her flameworking, but with her beautiful estate as well.
Her home in Floyd, affectionately known as River Farms, is a work of art itself. Touches of whimsy adorn the landscape, and everything she and her husband, Mike, a highly skilled woodworker and luthier (featured in Sept/Oct 2016), have created gives the entire place a feeling of harmony in nature. Mike’s workshop is upstairs from Liz’s, and they each breathe life into one another’s creations. “When I need advice about how to plan a sculpture and effectively ‘engineer’ my piece, I turn to Mike. When he needs artistic advice or creative inspiration, he turns to me.”
Floyd is the perfect place for this power couple. The virtual epicenter of creativity along the Blue Ridge Mountains, artists of all kinds — including potters, wood artists, painters, writers and musicians have settled in Floyd and created an international buzz. Currently, Liz is working on a large installation based on her highly celebrated glass leaves series. She is creating a large tree structure and suspending glass leaves from its branches to make it look like they are swaying in the breeze. She is also busy teaching and hosting workshops whenever she gets the chance. “I teach at The Jacksonville Center for the Arts, and folks can check the schedule to see when I or other artists are teaching in the flameworking studio.”
Teaching is her way of giving back to the community that has given her so
much. Working with glass provides Liz a deeper connection to a vast community of artists and to her own creativity.
“It is through my connection with glass that I have met amazing and interesting people, traveled, become more aware of the larger world of art, and can express my ideas in whichever direction they lead.”
*Writer’s Note: The title is a Jungle Book reference. Man’s Red Flower means fire. The monkeys are jealous of Mowgli (man) and want him to teach them about things like language, walking upright and of course FIRE!
Text by Emily Kathleen Alberts
Photos by Kristie Lea Photography
Emily Kathleen Alberts is a science and technology writer and frequent contributor to NRV magazine who is fascinated with almost everything under the sun, including glass, fire and flamework.