Sara Chatfield looks at a collection of her glass earrings at her jewelry shop called Chiton on Front Street.
Sara Chatfield works on creating a seed glass bead at her Juneau studio.
Sara Chatfield works on one her signature pomegranate seed glass beads at her Juneau studio.
Story last updated at 10/2/2013 - 2:27 pm
By Mary Catharine Martin
Capital City Weekly
On a rainy Juneau morning, glass artist Sara Chatfield sat in her studio and held a thin steel stick called a mandrel in a focused blue flame. With her other hand, she picked up a white glass rod and held it over the mandrel, twirling so that the glass melted in a circle destined to become a bead. She was making earrings, so she did this twice, and then she added clear glass, and then a special color - a glass that looks a pinkish clear at room temperature, but darkens - and stays darker - once it's heated.
Once she added all the colors she needed, she shaped the glass with a graphite paddle and a metal tool, dipping each bead into the flame every so often to keep it the right temperature - not so hot it loses its shape, but not so cool it cracks - and rested the mandrel in the 960 degree kiln, which, over the course of about nine hours, brought the beads' temperature down slowly.
It took her years of work to make it look this easy.
Chatfield was born in Juneau. As a teenager, she met a glass artist in Colorado Springs, where she was attending high school. She researched glass work, had someone show her how to hook up a torch so she "didn't blow anything up," and started practicing making beads.
For about six years, she taught herself. Then she went to glass school in Oregon, where one of the staff at the school taught her how to fuse. They worked together developing fused jewelry.
"That changed the direction of my work," she said.
In her Juneau studio, Chatfield does mostly torch work and fused glass, though she blows glass, too.
That morning with the torch, she was making what is likely her most recognizable work - glass "pomegranate seed" jewelry so realistic looking that myths abound as to whether or not the beads actually contain the fruit.
Fused glass is more "production-friendly," than labor-intensive torch work, meaning it's easier to make a living.
"Torch work is a lot more time-consuming," she said. "It's really hard to sit in front of a torch for eight hours a day."
Another turning point was when she shared a gallery with a glass artist in Hoonah. That artist outsold her four to one, and in trying to figure out why, Chatfield realized that artist had better colors. Chatfield was mostly using earth tones - the colors she wore at the time.
Fellow gallery artist, gold and silversmith Michael Reed Hunter, says color sense is now what he sees as Chatfield's "great strength."
"She's got raven consciousness," he said, alluding to ravens' attraction to bright objects.
For fused glass, Chatfield starts with solid colored sheets of glass and heats them up to more than 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit. When it gets that hot, glass liquefies, creating "really cool" patterns. When it's liquefied, glass' natural shape - like all liquids - is round. Chatfield makes round fused glass earrings, as well as those with different shapes. Some of her most recent creations are intricate fused-glass knives she makes with fellow artist Brian Schuch.
"It's kind of fun to be breaking some new ground," she said. "(The knives are) like artifacts for the future."
Chatfield has lived, worked and shown all over Southeast - Hoonah, Haines, Juneau, Prince of Wales, Ketchikan - since she returned when she was 20. She also shows her work in interior Alaska and regularly travels to the Pacific Northwest and the Southwest, where she shows her work.
"Alaska is a pretty isolated place to be a glass artist," she said.
This comes with advantages and disadvantages: there's less competition, and glass art is "a lot more mysterious" when fewer people do it. She also ends up with more unique work. People tell her all the time that they've "never seen anything like this," which she loves to hear.
One of the disadvantages of working and living in a place with fewer glass artists is that she's late learning about new techniques, or new colors of glass. Chatfield has a long list of techniques she'd like to try and a lot of projects she'd like to finish.
She's fascinated by casting, in which artists put crushed glass or glass powder into a mold. Chatfield also plans to soon branch out into other materials - felt, specifically. She began her first felting project about two weeks ago.
Her gallery, Chiton Jewelry Gallery on Front Street, is composed of all local artists - Michael Reed Hunter, Jim Hopkins, who works with fossilized ivory and stones, Rachel Yuselery, and Brian Schuch.
Chatfield won't be participating in the Public Market this year, but she will be participating in the Oct. 4 First Friday.
Do you know someone who should be profiled in our weekly "Day in the Life of" series? Send an email to email@example.com. Mary Catharine Martin is the staff writer for Capital City Weekly.