Day in and day out, while we dream and when we wake, a furnace in Asheville rages round-the-clock at 2,000 degrees. Even on days off, the furnace never sleeps. This is the intense art of making glass. “Glass has a way of captivating you,” says glass artist Hayden Wilson. “As soon as you take glass out of the furnace, it has to stay over 1,000 degrees and malleable, or else it will start breaking apart. You have to have your attention on it all the time . . . . I think that’s one of the things I love most about glassmaking. I never feel like I’ve mastered it; I always have to give it the utmost respect and attention,” explains Wilson.
The intensity of glassmaking was not unfamiliar to Wilson. The son of a glassblower and a potter, he grew up an hour north of Asheville surrounded by artists and craftspeople. Not interested in retracing his father’s footsteps, Wilson didn’t set out to become a glassblower—but he didn’t exactly turn his back on the artist’s life either. He majored in sculpture at UNC Asheville, focusing on metal fabrication and casting iron and bronze. While he was there, he had an idea to re-use the waste glaze from the university’s ceramics department in glassmaking, rendering it non-hazardous. The project proved pivotal: it sparked a new interest in glassmaking and led to working for renowned glass artist Alex Bernstein after graduation.
Wilson’s work, which ranges from modern barware to more conceptual fine art pieces, reflects the diversity of experiences that have shaped his journey. “Growing up as the son of two craftspeople, I had the confidence to not be afraid of failure,” he says. Much of his own growth as an artist has happened in community with other glass artists at places like the North Carolina Glass Center, where he was the studio manager for many years before transitioning to his own studio. The hands-on nature of glassblowing and high cost of powering a glass furnace 24/7 makes glass one of the more collaborative mediums, and the constant sharing of knowledge drives more creativity, according to Wilson.
As is true for artists across time, the challenges of the medium have birthed some of Wilson’s signature work. His tableware and barware emerged out of a practical need to justify the energy and expense of running the furnace year-round, but their clean, modern lines and unique use of color demonstrate Wilson’s vision. “I like the glass to speak for itself. I’m looking for an elegance and subtlety that emphasizes the glass as itself—this fluid, kind of magic material,” he says. In addition to his own work, Wilson has partnered with major brands like Room & Board and East Fork Pottery to produce custom, hand-blown barware such as tumblers, pitchers, and carafes in exclusive palettes.
“I think the relationship between maker and consumer is really interesting,” says Wilson about his glassware. He remembers that all of his childhood dishes were handmade pieces produced by various friends of the family and remembers wondering about their maker when he used them. “We rush through everything in life. Using handmade objects gives you that sense of reflection in your life, encourages you to slow down a little bit,” he finishes.
The steady nature of Wilson’s functional pieces frees him to pursue conceptual work as inspiration arrives. His sculptures often marry cast steel or iron with glass or use a unique “screen-printing” technique that fuses photo imagery to glass to explore bigger social ideas. The juxtaposition of a cast-iron, steel, and glass sculpture next to one of his modern, color-saturated pitchers for East Fork may seem jarring, but on second look, a clear interest in form and utility connect the two. Most importantly, both expressions of Wilson’s artistic vision stem from an authentic place.
Of course, transforming raw material into something useful or beautiful or meaningful is the core of all art—glassblowing just happens to do it in a very dramatic way. But high stakes don’t seem to faze Wilson: “One of the most important things in art-making is being free to experiment and not being afraid to fail.”
Photography by Paul Mehaffey