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The beauty of fused glass

Local artist finds her passion in the popular medium

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Jean Ujifusa was born with an irrepressible urge to create. "I've been designing since I was a little girl in Chicago," she said told the Deseret News. "Brenda Starr was my idol when I was young, and I would cut her out of the comics and use her as my paper doll."

Ujifusa would not only revise the intrepid comic-strip reporter's clothes, she would also design new jewelry for Starr. In later years, this child's play would develop into a major creative outlet and profitable vocation for the artist.

Over the years — and while raising two children — Ujifusa satisfied her aesthetic cravings by working in several mediums in addition to jewelry design: fibers and textiles, goldsmithing, watercolor and oil painting.

Today Ujifusa's passion is glass art, often referred to as slump glass or fused glass. The origins of fused glass date to around 2000 B.C. when it was treasured as highly as precious stones and used in personal adornment. By 1500 B.C., it had been developed into a fine art by the Egyptians.

It fell into neglect with the advent of glass blowing (ca. 500 A.D.) but was rescued from obscurity in the form of Pate de Verre (the fusing of crushed glass in a mold) during the Art Nouveau Period (1880-1920).

Since 1935, fused glass has had a slow but steady resurgence in popularity.

The fundamental concept of fused glass is still the same today: high quality art glass, generally cut by hand, is designed, layered and positioned on a kiln shelf, or slumping mold, and heated until soft and malleable. (A car's windshield is slump glass). This can require temperatures as high as 1800 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on the hardness of the glass.

"I'd always wanted to work with glass but felt I couldn't, mainly because when I thought of glass I thought of blown glass and people like Dale Chihuly," said Ujifusa. And although fascinated by blown glass, the arm strength required to do it well inhibits her. "I have bad shoulders so I know I can't do it."

When some artist friends suggested they all take a glass-fusing class at Pilchuck Glass School (Chihuly's studio near Seattle, Wash.), she balked. Not out of fear but because she always likes to try things first for herself.

"I'm somebody who, if I were going to learn to ski, I'd want to go and try it before I took any lessons, to see what I was getting into," Ujifusa said.

She began by looking for glass artists around Salt Lake City. Soon she discovered that Juergen Dziercon of Art Glass Studio had done a little glass fusing and was willing to let her use his studio on Saturdays to experiment. When Dziercon saw Ujifusa's work, he told her she was a natural.

With the glass-fusing bug firmly implanted in her system, Ujifusa got on the Internet and found master glassmaker Gill Reynolds, whose specialty was fusion. (Reynolds had studied with Chihuly.)

"So I asked him if there was a time when we — there were six of us — could come and study with him."

Reynolds agreed. After seeing one of Ujifusa's finished pieces, he told her she did indeed have a natural flair for fused glass artwork.

Each of Ujifusa's pieces requires hours of visualization and selecting and shaping of raw materials. She then carefully controls the firing temperatures and the additional hours of annealing (the slow process of cooling off the glass so it doesn't become brittle).

As pieces may be fired several times, additional glass elements are often placed on a previously worked object. But in order for this glass to maintain its dimensional integrity, it is only fired long enough to adhere firmly.

For Ujifusa, the development of a fused glass object can involve many pieces of glass. She might use clear, very thick glass, or combine various colors of hand cut glass, dichroic glass (multi-colored glass), or incorporate glass ribbons and filaments made by pouring molten glass from a crucible onto her studio floor.

She sets no limits or accepts any; her imagination and energy are boundless. "Now I'm doing things that just come into mind," Ujifusa said. "I could be laying in bed and it will be four in the morning and something comes to mind, and I'll get up and start working."

With this kind of work ethic, is it any wonder then that Ujifusa has been creating objects of great beauty for four decades?

Ujifusa's art glass has recently been on display at the Little America gift shop. She is also the vice president of the Glass Art Guild of Utah. For information on the guild, call Ujifusa at 801-355-7228 or Sharon Bailey of Creative Glass at 801-487-4088.

E-mail: gag@desnews.com