Art

Through the Blown Glass

The sport of glassblowing

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The friendship between Tim Underwood, Mike Richardson and Justin Tarducci was forged early on by love of action sports like skateboarding, snowboarding, sailing, diving and surfing, but it took a few of life’s twists and turns - along with a shared passion for the art of hand-blown glass - before the three Rogers High School grads discovered they could work together as well as they played.

Underwood, Richardson and Tarducci founded Anchor Bend Glassworks in 2003 after years spent studying art in college, apprenticing in shops like Newport’s Thames Glass, or both. The Anchor Bend studio was originally located in the heart of Newport’s waterfront district, but the constant distraction of curious Waite’s Wharf visitors soon sparked a search for new digs, culminating in Anchor Bend’s relocation to North Kingstown’s historic Shady Lea Mill in 2006 - an artists’ community that Richardson calls “inspiring.”

The studio is simple and spacious; big doors by the forge swing open to relieve the heat, which in summertime can top 120 degrees and raises a serious risk of heat stroke for the artists. Yet out of this rough old building come works of great beauty. With a blend of skill and artistry, silica powder is heated into glass, then colored, twisted, sculpted and blown to become delicate Christmas ornaments, funeral urns in the shape of breaking waves or perhaps a custom-made baptismal font made from glass that has been broken and reforged to look like foaming ocean water.

Many of the designs reflect the nautical roots of the owners, including their signature wave, fish, octopus and sailboat sculptures, and glass trophies made for various yacht and boating groups. “We’re inspired by the ocean for sure,” says Underwood, who jokingly calls their time spent on and in the water “market research.”

With a 2,100-degree furnace running 24 hours a day for years at a stretch, production costs are not inconsiderable. Like many artisans, the Anchor Bend trio is always seeking the balance between creativity and commerce: every day, decisions are made on whether to make 200 popular $28 Christmas ornaments, for example, or spend hourscrafting a single, large piece that can sell for thousands of dollars.

Anchor Bend has a solid core of international wholesale business – including a freshly inked deal to create custom keepsakes for one of the most famous performing-arts troupes in the world – but also sells through a variety of galleries, including its own outlet on Franklin Street in Newport. Their handblown votive holders grace the tables of the Castle Hill Inn and The Mooring restaurant in Newport, while a new line of earth-tone bowls, bottles and vases is a deliberate attempt to expand the customer base beyond the two coasts.

Improbable as it sounds, Tarducci sees parallels between the owners’ passion for sports and the art of working with glass. Both, he says, require physicality and teamwork - a point reinforced as Underwood and Richardson stand six feet apart with heavy metal rods in their hands, quickly but carefully stretching a piece of superheated glass between them before it cools.

“You’re using your whole body when you make something,” says Tarducci. “You have to work with the glass and not let it control you.” As with trying out a challenging skateboarding trick on unforgiving concrete and steel rails, “You have to be quick on your feet and think fast. If you screw up, you can’t do it over.”