Everything is hot. The space is hot. The furnaces are hot. All of the stuff I am trying not to bump into is hot. But James McLeod is cool. Methodically moving from gathering molten glass at the furnace, to rolling it on the marver, to making a quick puff into the pipe to produce the small slow bubble inside, then to the bench to shape this evolving wonder, and back to the furnace again. He is in constant motion. This mesmerizing flow, moving from place to place all the while turning a work of art on a pipe, is beautiful.
James McLeod is a glass artist. A quietly and enormously talented one. His mobile number still carries his area code from the East Bay, Oakland California, where James grew up and first discovered his love of glass while studying at the California College of Arts and Crafts. His career has taken him through many studios and teaching positions from the Dale Chihuly-famed Pilchuck Glass Studio in Tacoma, Washington to New York University to study sculpture and eventually develop a program teaching glass blowing to students. All the while cultivating his own art and style. Eventually his path led to the Massachusetts College of Art where he took a professorial position in 2006. This post gave James the chance to share not only his technical expertise, but also his theoretical approach to glass work. However, sometime in 2013 or so, James began to think about having a go at full-time studio work. With a business model in mind that allowed for not only a working glass studio, but also a teaching facility and community space, James and his wife and business partner Libby began looking for a home with a detached barn to house a studio. They found what they were looking for in Essex, on Choate Street.
On my first visit to The Bubble Factory I was a few minutes early. Parking my car and searching for the entrance, I happened upon a scene with three huge fans blowing loudly and three very busy and very groovy young women pulling molten glass from furnaces and crafting it into gorgeous bowls, all to some kind of quasi-punk marching band music. It was awesome. In time other young artists would pass by, working on this or that. I was joined by James and his thick and friendly dog, Boon. James is warm, welcoming and not in a hurry. He feels at ease. Boon, on the other hand, was enthusiastically licking a small spot on my jeans.
James explained that after purchasing the barn in 2016 he and his students set to work transforming it into the working glass studio it is today. This is where it gets interesting. James gathered together former students whom he had taught to skillfully blow glass and taught them how to frame a room, lay floors, put up drywall, hang windows — you name it. Collectively they built the studio. They built the studio. And as if this were not amazing enough, this includes machining all of the equipment. Yes. Three furnaces, one that holds 500 pounds of glass, and two glory holes (smaller furnaces for reheating glass). After sweating through the transformation of this old hay and horse barn into a hot shop, cold shop, and hand torching studio, they began work on the fabrication lab. You can feel it when you are there. The collectiveness of it all. They are a team. They created this space. And while James was the instigator, together they have all taken a shared leap into the bigger space of independence.
This collectiveness extends to the goings on at The Bubble Factory. On any given day a team of young glass blowers can be found mass producing a product line for a client, or an independent glass blower may rent the space for his or her own work, a class or workshop might be taking place in the flameworking studio upstairs, a corporate retreat may be at work blowing glass, or there may even be an evening demonstration complete with local beer tastings. The list goes on. During one of my visits a small school group came through in one space, and in another Eva Collins, glass blower and operations manager, and Sasha de Lotbiniere, a full-time glass blower, were assembling a modern, multi-part metal mold to test out a new idea for a large glass bowl, while upstairs, places were set for flameworking class.
It took a bit of coaxing to get James to show me his work. He shared photos of edgy graphic pieces using imagery on glass, essentially a sort of silk screening, then painting over them. These unique works by James can be found all over the world. While his personal work has an intricate and dynamic feel, the designs in glass for the shop are clean and modern, while also soft and alluring. Coming into being in colors like smokey quartz, amber and aegean. Heading deeper into the upstairs space, James and I enter a large back room that has a collection of sketches pinned to a huge wooden wall. They are ideas for a large glass chandelier. A commission for a private home. Fifteen variations on an idea. They are breathtaking. It is no wonder people from all over the country seek out this studio in tiny Essex to add marvelous works of art to their living spaces.
I visited The Bubble Factory one last time to see James work. I realized as I was taking a photo of him turning glass, that the scene behind him included his wife, daughter, two dogs and a flurry of young glass blowers all orbiting around James and the glow of the furnace. There is tremendous beauty in the glass that comes to life here, make no mistake, but just as beautiful is the community of artists, visitors and other lucky folks that are The Bubble Factory. James has gathered together this world. And lucky for us, he has invited us to gather as well. Visit.
Studio open to the public: Mondays and Wednesdays 1– 4 p.m. and every second Saturday of the month 1–4 p.m. (Call ahead to make an appointment.)
Pop-up shop at Short & Main in Gloucester: December 5
Glasstravaganza Holiday Sale: December 14 10 a.m.–7 p.m.