Artist Spotlight: Karen Ehart Art Glass Inc.
Branding and blending glass with class
Most companies know that in order to distinguish themselves from the crowd, they need to brand their products. In the case of Karen Ehart of Karen Ehart Art Glass Inc., she literally uses a brand to distinguish herself.
The symbol that appears engraved on her pieces, on her logo, in her advertising and even as a tattoo on her ankle has special meaning to her, as it evolved from a cattle brand used by her family for most of the last century in New Mexico.
“This brand stands for Ehart, pronounced with the emphasis on ‘E,'” Ehart said. “It was a natural way to identify our cattle and differentiate between brands. Because it was western in style, I altered it to give it a more calligraphic look to represent my brand of kiln-fired art glass.
“Even though many of us have become ‘citified,'” she continued, “we still hold on to our settler roots and this is a way to continue the tradition with an urban spin.”
Born to a family with diverse artistic and creative skills in the Pacific Northwest, Ehart picked up a glasscutter in 1984 and discovered a fascination with glass and it’s potential. She soon opened a stained glass studio in Alabama, designing and fabricating custom work, churches and businesses and doing glass restoration work on old homes.
“During that time I began melting glass together in a kiln and incorporating pieces into my stained glass work,” Ehart said. “I then began making kiln-fired art glass jewelry, which led to a wholesale jewelry line sold to boutiques and galleries.”
Ehart has taken several workshops over the years, but for her, there has been no substitute for working for studios and witnessing the whole process first-hand on a daily basis. While working for a large studio in Portland in the early ’90s, she also rented studio space to work on private commissions. She noticed what the studio called a “wall of shame,” the name for the area where pieces that were “not quite right for some reason” were kept.
“I began taking those pieces and finishing them and getting them out to galleries to sell, and they did sell very well,” Ehart said. “I realized I had a good eye for what could be marketable.”
A move to Hawaii in 1992 inspired many new design ideas. The intriguing petroglyph symbols found on cave walls and lava fields and the sea creatures she encountered while snorkeling the coral reefs began showing up in her art pieces.
“Having run a stained glass business I already had the bookkeeping skills and wholesale supply contacts, so I began producing glass products and marketing them in a small kiosk by a pier,” Ehart said. “I also marketed them wholesale through a sales representative. As the wholesale took off, I phased out the retail in order to get more studio time in.”
In 2002, she moved to Arizona where she developed her signature torso series and began concentrating on skulls and the kiln cast pieces. In May of 2007 she moved back to eastern Oregon and now divides her time between there and the Seattle area, where she also maintains a studio.
It’s in those studios that she creates everything from jewelry and wine stoppers to large figurative wall sculpture. Ehart feels that glass is a fantastic medium for many reasons.
“It has a flexibility in dealing with light unlike any other substance,” she explained. “Kiln work is ideal for my design style because a piece can be designed cold on a kiln shelf and then fired. There is no immediate need to finish a piece since it isn’t worked in a fragile hot liquid state, meaning I can continuously experiment with the look of a piece before firing.”
Ehart started firing scrap glass together in her kiln and learning about what was compatible to fire together. As soon as she saw how the light passed through and reflected off of glass, she just “went down a rabbit hole” and never came back.
“I have always tried to create a more sculptural, three dimensional look,” she said. “As I became exposed to metal oxides and coatings, I was drawn to the design possibilities these provided on glass.”
She begins a new piece by making an original sculpture and then creating a shell-like mold over the sculpture that she uses to shape the glass, an art form in itself that requires much trial and error. She then crafts the design elements she will use and cuts, fires, torches and smashes pieces of glass with a hammer, using a variety of techniques to create the parts that will make up a composition.
“I experiment with the glass pieces in various configurations until I find the right look for my design,” Ehart said. “I prepare the final arrangement for the first of several firings by stacking and inlaying the glass elements together on a kiln shelf. Temperatures of up to 1,500 degrees melt the layers of glass together into a single flat piece.”
Inspired by organic forms and lines found in nature, she paints gold lines on the glass for added detail. The piece then takes shape during the second firing, returning to the kiln over the mold. The glass fires at a lesser temperature this time, softening until it gently sags to the shape of the mold. Some pieces require a third firing to add additional elements.
A regimen of heating and cooling very slowly must be followed for all firings over a period of several days, a process known as annealing. The glass process cannot be rushed, and Ehart said her work is the result of many hours of patient experimentation.
That patience pays off, as both her large sculptural pieces and smaller items do well in high-end galleries, gift shops and museum stores. Her varied locations and changing environments influence the nature of her work, inspiring new designs and elements welcomed by a variety of customers.
Since her return to Oregon, Ehart has been concentrating on the study of sculpture with an emphasis on bronze work and has begun a series of cast bronze and glass pieces.
“I am really enjoying the new smaller sculpture pieces I call my mini torsos,” Ehart said. “These are only 8 inches tall and are so much more affordable than large complicated sculpture. I have four human shapes available as well as a fish and a cow skull in this series with more shapes to follow. On a larger scale, I am also working on a full body sculpture to hang on the wall.”
Ehart said artists are lucky to have specialty shops to showcase their talents, and suggests artists looking to break in get ready for a wild ride.
“Consider yourself a business person first,” she advised, “give the best possible customer service and deliver a consistent product.”
And part of that consistent product is a consistent brand, because even if you don’t literally wear your heart on your sleeve – or in Ehart’s case, her ankle – you can still distinguish yourself from the crowd.
By Abby Heugel