donna fischer | artist next door | dec. 201
Some artists need only a glimpse of a new art form before they can take off on a powerful course of discovery and dazzling accomplishment. Aimee Suzanne Kruse-Ross found herself enthralled with lampworking, the practice of forming glass around a slender mud-coated mandrel in front of a torch in order to melt and produce a bead or other artistic piece. Once she was hooked, she made it her art form and her living for many years.
Almost entirely self-taught, she learned to perfect the timing involved in coaxing glass into delicate shapes and designs. A little too much time in the flame of propane mixed with oxygen, and the glass wants to blend and run all over; not enough heat and the glass will not move either. Once formed, her beads then go directly into a kiln smaller than a microwave oven. Hours of slowly reducing the temperature produces a glass bead in a process called annealing. The end result is both durable and stunning to behold.
Kruse-Ross creates beads that stand out from anything that is mass-produced. Since the late '90s, glass beads rose in popularity among the crafting crowd, producing a flood of cheaply-made products appealing to frugal shoppers at big-box outlet stores. They were shiny and pretty but lacked craftsmanship. A demonstration of lampworking by Kruse-Ross reveals layers of sculpting in a substance not normally malleable. A natural teacher, she points out that glass is made up of sand, and sand particles are round, which leads to the fact that glass, when it's under fire, wants to become round. That's where her nimble hands take over, forcing wispy, thin strands of glass called stringers to layer in over her glass foundation to form a beautiful vine surrounding a flower. Kruse-Ross has the ability to produce robust floral scenes within the tiniest of spaces. Her beads feature lilies and other flowers with twisting petals and descending vines in shades and patterns she alone creates. The details, once examined at close range, are extraordinary.
One of only two classes she has ever taken in lampworking was with an artist by the name of Michael Barley.
“I learned some things in his class that I thought would be useful and they were. But his style is still his style and I tend to lean toward my own kind of frothy confections."
Working out of her Green Bay home, Kruse-Ross explains that she originally had other plans for her career, having graduated with a degree in literature, but creating with glass just took over.
“I didn't set out to be this great lampworker at all; I set out to study literature, and I just kind of found that this was a really viable source of income," she says.
“In '96 I just took the plunge and went full-time making beads … I was doing about 32 shows a year. I would do art fairs all over Michigan. More recently, I did a couple seasons in San Francisco, where they have a huge bead show. So I'd fly out there and I'd have thousands of dollars of beads and they'd fit in a shoe box."
Together with her husband, Andrew, she moved to Upper Michigan and began what was a highly prolific period of bead production. Under the name Monte Verdi Lampwork, she produced roughly 8,000 beads per year, all sold online, primarily through eBay. Customers from around the world collected her beads, but the high output came at a cost as she developed arthritis in both elbows. She has since cut back drastically on lampworking and reports that she is now free of the arthritis pain.
Looking back on that time in her life, Kruse-Ross notes that it was remarkable.
“We were entirely self-sufficient on the money we made lampworking. It wasn't for fun anymore and then it became where you had to live up to that standard. I think I became really disenfranchised over that. Even though my work was being purchased by people of so many different languages, I never really understood the impact of that until now.
“I'm kind of in that re-inventive phase. I really should not take this for granted because it took us a long time to get here. I was quite a bit younger when I started doing this. Sometimes you just pursue something and continue to pursue it. And I'd like to think that I've perfected it. But I think I took a lot of that for granted."
One glass artist that made the world sit up and take notice was Dale Chihuly, whose grandiose glass sculptures promote jaw-dropping stares wherever they are installed. Kruse-Ross admires his work and has even taken to crafting tiny flower-shaped pieces she affectionately calls “Hulys."
Their construction is far simpler than her more time-intensive beads. Despite this, only a small number of them are done so far, but she hopes to have enough for a larger sculpture sometime down the road.
“That's really just melting and winding glass and then pinching it with pliers. Not a whole lot of tools. I shape every single one of these myself, I don't use a press to get that shape."
And keeping tools to a minimum is one of the keys to keeping sane in the world of lampworking, according to Kruse-Ross. For those just getting into it now, she recommends a slow, steady approach.
“Part of the problem is that they jump in too quickly. If you're bitten by the bug, enjoy the process, enjoy getting there. You don't need to have all the tools. Keep going and explore, but try to have the mindset of working with what's in front of you. When you work with what's in front of you your brain starts to think on its own."
Glass is a demanding medium for an artist, but Kruse-Ross has shown that it can yield exquisite beauty when patience and hard work is applied.
Kruse-Ross makes beads on a custom-order basis. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her work is also available through her etsy shop at MonteVerdiLampwork.
Donna Fischer is an avid fan of music, film and art. When she's not writing on these subjects you'll find her gardening or snowshoeing around Green Bay.