In Lee Wassink’s line of work, there’s no going back. He can’t step out of the 100-degree room for a breath of fresh air. He can’t even rest his arms. As a glassblowing artist, he must get all his inspiration and do all his work within the span of a few hours working on one piece.
Wassink ’92 is co-owner of The Glass Forge Studio and Gallery in Grants Pass, Ore. His passion for the art form was sparked during his time at Central studying under pottery and glassblowing professor John Vruwink, now retired. “I remember being hooked right away,” says Wassink. “I really enjoyed the whole process.”
In contrast to the new state-of-the-art equipment recently installed in the glass studio, the conditions back then were pretty primitive. Vruwink made all the equipment by hand, with materials he found around campus. Even so, Central’s studio was revolutionary for the time; the college had the only glassblowing program in the state.
After class, Wassink and his glassblowing friends would sometimes sneak back into the studio to watch their professor create his own art—and they were often put to work as assistants blowing into the pipe. Wassink remembers his mentor as more than just a teacher, but a member of the family who always knew what was going on in his life.
Despite his love for an art form that was taking off all over the country, Wassink made sure to broaden his skill base in other areas while at Central. “My parents fully supported me taking classes I wanted to take, versus focusing in on a specific major in the beginning,” he says. “For me, that’s what college was about: learning a little about a lot. And finding out where I wanted to go.”
Wassink is especially grateful for the business management classes he took at Central, which prepared him to be his own boss. After graduation, Wassink worked at a glass studio for four years before branching off to run his own business with two other artists.
At The Glass Forge, Wassink takes care of the books, makes sales, markets the glass and builds and maintains the equipment—not to mention actually making the glass pieces. “It’s nice because there are so many hats to wear,” Wassink says of being an entrepreneur. “If one of the hats doesn’t fit very well, I hope it fits one of my partners better.”
Wassink is really part-artist, part-businessman. During the regular work day, his inspiration comes from whatever is on the order board. The Glass Forge runs wholesale shows where offering different shape and color options. Customers come to say how many they want of each.
But the studio always creates made-to-order items, including cremation urns, for clients. People will send photos and ask if the sculpture is possible. And lighting companies also bid projects to them. Wassink is proud that they have received several orders that would have otherwise gone to China—because they were able to deliver on both price and quality.
The high-end pieces with a more creative bent can run as high as $1500, and those prices can double or triple once the wholesalers sell to the final customer. Wassink has had pieces end up all over the country—including the Smithsonian, the Ahwahnee Lodge in Yosemite and the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas.
Wassink is always focused on keeping his customers happy. But in the moment of creation, he is as consumed with his art as he was during those first days of fits and starts back at Central.
“My favorite piece to make is always the one I’m making at the moment.”