It was in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where Colin O’Reilly had his epiphany. He had traveled to the Southwest’s creative mecca during a summer break from Kennesaw State University where he was studying art. He was interested in sculpture and hoping to land a summer job at a bronze foundry. If it hadn’t been a Sunday, that may have happened. But the foundry was closed, and Colin eventually wandered into a ’70s era hippie glass studio. He didn’t know a thing about glass, but what he saw blew his mind—the glowing furnace, the crucible filled with clear, melted glass, the blow pipe, the fluid motion of the artist, more of a ballet than a manufacturing process. Colin didn’t know exactly what was going on, but he knew bronze was no longer on the table.
Today, if you travel the back roads of North Carolina to the tiny town of Spruce Pine, you can see firsthand what intrigued and inspired Colin many years ago. Inside a studio deep in the mountains, Colin hovers near a 2,000-degree furnace. The studio is quiet except for the sounds of ’90s rap drifting down from speakers mounted high above the workspace. It’s difficult to understand what’s happening as Colin pushes a long metal rod into the furnace only to spin and remove it seconds later. Almost magically a glowing blob at the end of the rod takes shape, and within minutes Colin stamps his company mark on the bottom of a clear, elegant rocks glass. Using a set of tongs, he places the glass in an annealing oven to cool. Then the process begins again.
“It is like a dance,” Colin says. “It’s a Zen moment and you lose track of what you are doing. But glass doesn’t hide anything. It’s unforgiving and every little mistake shows up. If you make a mistake, there is a visual history of it.”
How Colin came to be at this studio in Spruce Pine is an artist’s journey. After spending the summer sweeping floors and playing with glass in the hippie glass studio in Sante Fe, Colin went on to study a formal approach to glass at the California College of the Arts in Oakland, California. He graduated with a BFA in glass, and moved to Seattle to discover an elevated level of artistry. “Seattle is where I saw all of the possibilities because it’s really the hub of the glass world right now,” he says. “A lot of the old Italian masters have studios there. I saw what quality could be in glass. I had a job reloading glass into kilns but worked myself up to associate director so I really got to see how a studio works. I also got introduced to a lot of heroes of mine. I worked for several really skilled glass blowers just out of luck and being a nice guy.” Colin is not bragging. He is a nice guy and admits he was offered studio jobs more for personality than skill.
But despite living in the epicenter of the glass blowing movement, Colin was anxious about his future. After the birth of their first child, Colin and his wife Rachel began to question raising a family in the city. Both from the South, Colin and Rachel longed to return to their roots. In the fall of 2015, they made Spruce Pine their home, and Colin began assisting glassblower Kenny Pieper. “I moved here for this job with Kenny,” Colin says. “He wanted someone to assist him full time but he goes to shows and the studio was open during random blocks of the year, so I got a lot of blow time to develop my own work.”
The work led to a whiskey decanter and matching rocks glass set, which Colin entered into Garden & Gun’s Made in the South awards, an annual contest for Southern-crafted products. Colin quickly forgot about his entry, preoccupied with the possibility of taking a second job to supplement his income. But when the publication selected his decanter and rocks glasses as the home category’s overall winner, Colin realized his work was more than a passion.
Early next year, Colin will move into his own Spruce Pine studio, Terrane Glass Designs, with plans to expand his designs into lighting and functional housewares. But for now he’s focused on meeting the high demand for whiskey decanters and rocks glasses. When asked what brand of whiskey he pours into his glass after a long day spent in front of the furnace, he leans in and drops his voice to a whisper. “To be honest,” he says. “I don’t drink.”
Terrane Glass Designs, Spruce Pine, North Carolina; terraneglass.com