Helios Fused Glass Studio is one of the few studios in the world that focuses entirely on fused glass. Since 2007, Helios has offered classes and retail to the Austin community. I was fortunate enough to take the Absolute Beginners class from founder Paul Tarlow to jumpstart my discovery of this versatile medium and unique studio.
Paul’s interest in glass inspired him and his wife Karen to start the business. In January 2015, they moved to their new, more spacious location off of Highway 183. I found my class to be incredibly organized, accessible and not at all intimidating to a beginner.
Though many experts don’t enjoy teaching basic classes, Paul genuinely loves to teach all levels and especially enjoys the moment students become enthralled with the medium. His sense of experimentation is unlimited. This has contributed to Helios’ huge list of unique classes, along with open studio hours when students can come in and work on their projects with access to tools and guidance.
Learning the Basics About Glass
The Absolute Beginners class includes eight hours of instruction over several weeks, and students must take this class to start diving into more specialized courses.
Leftover from Paul’s days of working at Dell is his love of Powerpoint. We started the class with a slideshow that immediately began answering all the questions lingering in my head.
We began with the most basic inquiry: What is the difference between categories of glass art? Types of glass art include stained glass, lamp working (using a torch) and blown glass (an industrial process which Paul calls “a ballet with fire”). Helios specifically teaches kiln formed or fused glass. This art form has a higher level of accessibility since it can be set up in a home. Those seriously interested can even install a kiln in their garage. Also, pieces can be worked on as the artist has time, as opposed to flameworking where the piece needs to be completed while the object is hot.
I was surprised to see the possibilities of kiln formed glass. Jewelry, functional and decorative dishes and bowls, cast sculptures and even painterly work can be created from processes Helios teaches. The main processes are fusing (putting pieces in a kiln to mold together), slumping/draping (a flat piece of glass is fired over a mold until the glass sags), and casting (similar to bronze sculptures).
Colorful Sights Inside Helios
When it comes to color, Helios knows how to make an artist feel like a kid in a candy store. They have three long shelves with every color of frit a glass artist could dream of. Frit is ground up sheet glass, offered in coarse, medium and fine textures. Next to the wall of frit are stringers, spaghetti like pieces of glass, along with rods, which are thicker sticks. Of course, sheets of glass are available as well, all of which are tempting to purchase to begin a new project.
Glass can be opaque or transparent and can fire to a different color once it’s put in the kiln. This is called striking. Helios has a wall of samples, so customers can easily match up their desired color with the number and name on the wall.
Helios strictly offers Bullseye Glass because compatibility in glass is very important. Each color contains metal oxides which can have different expansion rates. Since metal expands more than glass when it is heated, it can break the glass attached to it when it shrinks back. Bullseye provides a single family of glass so all the colors can work together.
Glass Studio Sounds
Besides the contemporary and oldies soundtrack mixes, the working sounds of the studio reflect the glass fusing process.
During our first class, we learned how to cut pieces of glass. The clinking and snapping of glass sounds more whimsical than dangerous. Working with fused glass is very safe, though Band-Aids are available to anyone who isn’t careful with sharp edges. Protective eyewear is always a good idea, too.
In the second class, we learned more about kiln firing schedules and discussed the differences resulting from firing methods. For example, a soft fuse leaves a textural/dimensional look to a piece. This method will reach a target temperature of 1415 degrees. Most firing schedules are in the 10-14 hour range, and the clicking of kilns can be an exciting sound for those who are waiting for a piece finish firing.
The back room of Helios holds machines for coldworking, which allows for shaping of cool glass by grinding, cutting and sandblasting. The whirrs and industrial sounds might be daunting at first, but I found myself really enjoying grinding down my failed attempt at a circular shape pendant.
Austin’s Place in the Sun for Kiln Formed Glass
It proved difficult for Paul and Karen to come up with a name for the studio until their daughter suggested branding it after the Greek god of the sun. I couldn’t help but notice that Paul’s arm tattoo resembles the Helios logo. When I asked him when he got it, he said it wasn’t deliberately supposed to resemble the logo. In fact, suns have been a theme in Paul and Karen’s lives for a while, so they decided to get sun tattoos together. Paul presented the tattoo artist with a design, but she said she would have to rework it to make a good tattoo, which ended up looking very similar to the logo.
Serendipitous happenings like this are common in the glass world – you can’t always predict exactly what’s going to happen with your piece. Colors may react in such a way that an unexpected shade pops up, or you may end up with a vague roundish shape instead of a circle, but you’ll never be bored.
Along with the beauty and mystery of glass comes an interesting following. “The community is the heart of the business. There are a lot of friendships that were formed here,” Paul shared with me. The warmth of Helios is pulling me in, too.
Helios Fused Glass Studio offers an amazing array of classes and products at their location in northwest Austin (13581 Pond Springs Road). Check out their website to see the list of classes and work made by students. They even have eBooks for those who are stuck creatively, experiencing kiln issues or who just want to learn more about a technique.
@MadameKLM wants to know:
What creative classes have you experienced in Austin?
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