In a small warehouse off of Highway 99, Kris Uhlhorn sits with his newspaper. The old copy of the Eugene, Oregon Register-Guard is thickly folded, charred, and drenched in water. His ungloved hands pick up the ruined periodical and skillfully make their way toward a fiery piece of colored liquid.
Uhlhorn is a glass blower. He uses recycled chards of glass and tiny pellets of color from Germany to create works of art. After twelve years of shaping and molding this unpredictable medium, he knows exactly how to handle the burning piece of glass in front of him. It’s only three in the afternoon and he’s already made hundreds of pieces today.
“I knew I wanted to be involved in the glass blowing process three years out of high school in ’94, when I saw the potential for making money at it, from witnessing the success of my friends with small glass blowing businesses here in Eugene,” Uhlhorn says. He began to hone his craft by watching and working with a group of talented glass artists who trained in the Seattle mold of Chihuley glass blowers.
Now, years later, he is the owner of Eugene Glass Blowing company. The small warehouse on highway 99 is where he spends most of his week, starting at 7 a.m. Along with his two assistants, Tyler and Kyle, Uhlhorn shapes fiery pieces of glass all day, wearing only his regular clothing as protective gear. The first thing Tyler does is pour an enormous bucket of broken glass, which look more like a sac of icicles, into a small kiln inside the warehouse space. The kiln is set at a cool two thousand degrees.
Uhlhorn pushes a long rod, called a cane, in and out of the kiln with the precision of a surgeon. A baseball-sized ball of fire is attached to the end of the cane. It looks orange but just a few seconds earlier, Uhlhorn dipped it in a rainbow of colored pellets ranging from sky blue to sea green. Now, he swiftly moves the piece out of the kiln and places it on top of the edge of his workspace a few feet away. He rolls it along a metal edge as it begins to expand into a bigger version of itself. Kyle blows air into the other end of the cane, forcing the ball of fire to grow even faster. As the glass begins to shift in shape, the colors become more vibrant and apparent. It changes from a burnt orange to a deep bluish-green. Tyler takes a blowtorch and showers it with a flame. Fire again engulfs it.
Uhlhorn proceeds like a doctor in the operating room, yelling out instructions for Kyle and Tyler every few seconds. “Stop.” “Flatten.” “More air.” He is calm and in the zone. His voice is steady. Each movement is made with precision so the glass remains smooth and unblemished. It’s a team effort, but Uhlhorn is the leader.
Swiftly, he knocks off the top of the glass with another cane, and it breaks apart like an iceberg. After a quick stop at the kiln, he lifts a metal tong-like tool from the bench next to him and twists the still molten area at the bottom of the piece. It’s now flat with swirly edges. Tyler is preparing to place a long fiery ribbon of glass to the bottom. Once it’s secure, Uhlhorn pulls the ribbon apart with the tongs, pressing firmly. This creates the width of the piece. By the time that’s done he’s already switched to a flat tool that resembles a pancake flipper. He rests it against the top and rotates the piece back and forth. The entire piece returns to the kiln. This time it’s four times as big as it was in the beginning, but Uhlhorn’s movements are still just as precise.
As soon as it comes out and meets its first burst of cooler air, he makes sure to shape the glass. He holds the cane downward, spinning it frantically up and down. Suddenly, the flat ribbon begins to curve, and the entire piece starts to look like the petal of a flower. He sits down with it at his workspace and inspects his latest creation. With an approving nod from Uhlhorn, Tyler secures the top while Uhlhorn knocks the bottom with another metal cane. It breaks free from its bindings and is now a work of art. It has become a glossy, sleek, multicolored vase.
Uhlhorn’s years of experience shines in every aspect of his art. Each sellable piece is perfectly symmetrical and has an attractive combination of color and opacity. Tyler, while making a glass flower on his downtime, says, “I’ve been doing this since I was sixteen. I’ve never seen anyone work with glass the way Kris does.”
Uhlhorn is also dedicated to making face-to-face deliveries with his customers. “I do 95% of my deliveries in person. I load up my van with my last two weeks of product and hit the road traveling to the stores that I’ve made appointments with. I’m in Portland every two weeks, in Seattle every month, and Montana through tri cities and Spokane every two months. Only rarely do I ship UPS,” Uhlhorn says.
It’s that kind of commitment that makes Kris Uhlhorn such a pleasure to work with because he cares just as much about his clientele as his work of art. He also feels pride for each of his pieces. He has no interest in changing his technique (drenched newspaper and all) or upgrading to a newer form of technology. “I get to work with the three elements. Earth, wind, and fire,” Uhlhorn says. “The process of glass blowing hasn’t changed in hundreds of years. I love that about it.”