Published, EAC Communiqué, September 1989
ven among blown glass artists, Stephen Kitras’ craft is unusual. His tumblers, bowls and vases are not blown into a mould, but each is original, with subtle variations in form that are the signature of a Free Glassblower. On the weekend of the Studio Tour visitors to Glassmakers at 680 Gartshore St., Fergus can watch as Stephen gathers glowing molten glass on the long blowpipe from a furnace heated night and day to 2,300 degrees. He shapes it in a second fire, the reheating chamber, then twirls and swings it, expanding the glowing ball periodically with quick, hard injections of breath. The form expands and takes shape before our eyes through a process demanding intricate coordination, speed, agility, and the three dimensional vision of a sculptor.
Stephen is drawn to glass by its qualities of transparency, clarity and lightness. While at the University of Toronto, first in Engineering, later abandoned for Philosophy and Literature, he liked to visit the glass collection at the ROM. After graduation, to support his wife, Elke, and their child, he was attracted to glassmaking as a craft but believed he would have to study in Europe, which he could not consider. One day Elke saw a glassblowing workshop being given at Harbourfront and encouraged Stephen to take it. Through his teacher he discovered the three-year course given at Sheridan College. While he was good with his hands, he had had no previous art experience before he applied, and he credits Sheridan with an openness that allowed him to explore an entirely new path, unproven.
Because of family obligations, his time at Sheridan was strongly directed towards production. Not having the money for experiments in colour, he set himself to explore every possible shape and learned to work with speed and fluidity. Watching an Italian craftsman, Stephen learned one of the greatest secrets of glassblowing: work hot! It was a revelation to Stephen to see glassblowing “so free and quick and hot and effortless”. To blow glass you have to love fire and heat. Stephen says: “Since I was a kid I’ve always loved watching and being near fire, and I hate the cold!”
Because of the fast cooling time of glass, there are many designs difficult to execute without a team. “Working alone, there are some things that demand incredible timing to achieve so they don’t blow up. I could do it, but it would take twice as long and be twice as exhausting as with a team.” Also, there is the cold work of glass finishing. The final grinding and polishing of finished pieces demands too much time away from creativity. To resolve these problems, Stephen is looking for an apprentice to whom he can teach the craft. The market for glass is excellent, and with smoother production he hopes for more freedom to design art pieces. He and Elke, now with four children, recently bought the old Fergus Firehall to convert into a new home for Glassmakers.
Stephen’s large wok-like spun bowls can be seen at “Present Dreams” in Elora. “They’re kind of quiet, they just sit there and hum.”Sets of tinted long-stemmed glasses and tumblers are recent undertakings, demanding consistency. Best sellers are his Sun Catchers, transparent balls swirled with opaque and translucent globs of colour, reminiscent of Stephen’s favourite European folk glass, once produced as a cottage craft over bunsen burners: the original Christmas tree balls. Hang one in your window to diffract the light!
Stored on the shelves of Glassworks are many heavy glass bars of intensely distilled colour. The opaque bars are bright, but the transparent ones are all mysteriously black. These days Stephen Kitras is exploring the magic of colour related to the light-loving qualities of glass. Watching him work by the glow of the furnace, one feels there is surely an element of alchemy in this ancient art, where silica and toxic oxides combine with fire and breath to make such fragile beauty.
by Beverley Cairns, September 1989
Since I was a kid I’ve always loved watching and being near fire, and I hate the cold!
UPDATE – 1997
Stephen Kitras continues to produce colourful and contemporary glass at his studio, Glassmakers, 680 Gartshore Street, Fergus. His unique pieces are exported across Canada and the U.S.A.
By 2001 the Kitras Art Glass Company had expanded to over 40 employees and a new facility was built to accommodate increased production demands. Even in the midst of these production increases, the imagination of Stephen is evident in every design. A leader in completely hand made glass, Stephen personally continues to handle new product development and oversees the training of all staff. Kitras Art Glass can be seen in shops in Elora, across Canada and the U.S., marketed through Trade Shows in Atlanta, Chicago, Toronto, New York, Alberta, California. Recently Stephen has returned to one-of-a-kind glass creations – elegant collectors’ items, the works of a master glass blower. www.kitras.com