Like a fish out of fire

Two glass artists featured in Cannon Beach’s Spring Unveiling Arts Festival combine fused and blown glass to make finned figures full of color and movement

To some, their pairing might seem a mismatch. Ann Cavanaugh works with fused glass; Andy Nichols with blown glass. Different technique, different tools, often, different glass. But when Cavanaugh needed someone to turn her flat glass into vessels, she turned to Nichols. From that bold endeavor evolved the art that will be featured in the coming Cannon Beach Spring Unveiling Arts Festival. Sounds simple enough. It wasn’t.

“It’s been a process,” said Cavanaugh, who lives in Battle Ground, Wash. “At first it looked like ‘this is going to be easy.’ Then we got to a place where there were cracks, chips, falling off the punty (the rod used to hold soft glass). I thought, ‘I don’t know if this is going to work.’ But coming out on the other side, we have 13 fish that are just amazing. I am not aware of anyone else doing this.”

Glass blower Andy Nichols turned Ann Cavanaugh's fused-glass tile into what the pair call the "graffiti fish."

The 21st Spring Unveiling Arts Festival opens Friday, April 30, and runs through May 2. There won’t be the usual reception of food and wine, and masks will be required, but organizers say, “the art will be as good ever.”  

This is fused glass tile by Ann Cavanaugh the Andy Nichols rolled and formed into the "graffiti fish."
Glass blower Andy Nichols made the “graffiti fish,” top, out of Ann Cavanaugh’s fused glass tile, above.

Nine galleries are set to participate, each featuring three or four artists, as well as the artists who show year-round. The festival takes its name from the unveiling of new art — previously shrouded until now. Last year, the unveiling was held virtually, making this year’s live event all the more anticipated.

“We have a great show,” said Eeva Lantela, owner of DragonFire Gallery, which along with Cavanaugh and Nichols, is featuring painter Michael Orwick and scratchboard artist Mark Schult. “We have so many types of mediums, everything from collage to woodworking to recycled metal, fused glass, blown glass, every kind of painting you can think of. It just goes on and on. There are 29 featured artists that could potentially be in town.”

Artists will be on hand throughout the weekend with demonstrations, talks, and videos of their work. Cavanaugh has new pieces ready for the kiln, and Nichols, who specializes in blown-glass fish, will show videos of how he works.  

It’s been just a year since the two decided to try melding their work. Cavanaugh, who makes both fused glass vessels and flat pieces, sought out Nichols in part because she knew he worked with the same coefficient of expansion (COE) glass she did. In this case, COE 90. Most glassblowers use COE 96. COE is a measurement of the rate glass expands and contracts when it is heated and cooled. To fuse glass, the pieces must be compatible; COE is one factor that determines compatibility.

“I started out doing stained glass and fusing, and had an inventory of that COE 90,” said Nichols, who has a gallery in The Dalles. When I started blowing glass, I just used what I had, and it worked for me, and still does.”

The pair agreed to move forward, regarding it as an experiment. Early efforts were largely trial and error. 

The artists went through a lot of trial and error before they discovered the best way to turn the flat tiles into cylindrical shapes.
The artists say they went through trial and error before they discovered the best way to turn the flat tiles into cylindrical shapes.

“Only one out of 17 or so hit the floor,” Nichols recalled. “But there were other complications.” Cavanaugh’s fused panels were a little heavy for how he usually makes the fish, and possibly for that reason, he had problems with the final detachment of the fish from the punty. “It would take a chunk out of the fish,” he said. “So we adjusted the weight and the success ratio got better.”

Perseverance led to rewards, sometimes surprisingly so — as was the case with the gray and black “graffiti fish.”

“The first tiles I brought up were pretty abstract,” Cavanaugh recalled. “He was like, OK, well… He wasn’t crazy about the very first one, but now both of us love this fish. It has a great mouth and face, the body shape shows lots of motion and the tile is made so when it became a fish, you can see through to the other side. He kind of learned how to work with the design I gave him and how to orient them. When you see something flat turn into something like a vessel, it’s, ‘oh my god, wow.’ As we rolled more of them, we became better at choosing the shape he would roll it into.”

Both agree it’s been a learning process: two artists, two different styles, two ways of looking at a piece of glass. Cavanaugh had to learn to figure in the size of the tile, the weight of the glass, the orientation of the design, and how it should be rolled and blown. Nichols had to change his way of making fish. Instead of starting with the glass and blowing it, he had to start with a flat tile.

“I was there when he rolled up a fish,” Cavanaugh said. “It was amazing how this fish had to go in and out of the glory hole” in the side of the furnace.

“They had to use torches,” she said, “so that when he was putting the fish in, the fins were done separately and put on to the body of the fish. He couldn’t let it cool too quickly or it would crack. There are all these things about keeping the temperature workable…. It’s quite amazing.”

About the author

Lori Tobias is a journalist of many years, and was a staff writer for The Oregonian for more than a decade, and a columnist and features writer for the Rocky Mountain News. Her memoir “Storm Beat – A Journalist Reports from the Oregon Coast” was published in 2020 by Oregon State University press. She is also the author of the novel Wander, winner of the 2017 Nancy Pearl Book Award for literary fiction and a finalist for the 2017 International Book Awards for new fiction. She lives on the Oregon Coast with her husband Chan and rescue pups Luna and Monkey.

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