Sunspots Studios makes glassware that’s out of this world

By Joanna Morelli | Photos by Alexandra DeAngelis

     From the outside, it doesn’t seem like much: a crusty, three-story brick building angled to the corner it stands on. A peek inside, however, reveals much more, with the dusty windows seen from outside provide just the correct amount of light to hit the multitude of glass creations — confections of what seems to be nothing more than sun and technicolor; this is Sunspots Studios.

     “It’s a complicated thing,” Caroline Sheridan, co-owner of Sunspots Studios, says. “It wasn’t like we just said – ‘OK, let’s just open this really cool gallery/glassblowing studio and call it Sunspots.’”DSC_0067

     Once inside, the glass work seems to have no bounds. For this particular season, there are at least 60 glass-blown pumpkins in all varieties of oranges and whites. Each pumpkin’s small stem has perfectly curled emerald leaves that sit atop it.

     Doug Sheridan, one of the three experienced glassblowers at the studio and co-owner of Sunspots, originally only did work with metals as a single artisan. Some time after Caroline and Doug met in Charlottesville and married thereafter, Doug’s work expanded to include glass in response to consumer demand.

     The couple sold their products to about 6,000 different wholesale stores, such as gift shops and gardening stores, and did well for quite some time.

     “Eventually, the wholesale business was kind of killed by cheaply manufactured knock-offs, so we kind of lost that business,” Caroline says. “But, at the same time, we had been growing this little retail — so that’s what’s been happening for the past eight or nine years.”

     But the turn of fate appeared to favor the couple.

     People in town wanted to be able to buy some of the things that we were making,” Caroline says.

     The couple moved to its location in Staunton, Virginia, in 2000, while expanding the studio in size slightly every few years, until it reached the size that it is today in 2007. Visitors have come from as far as New York, Wisconsin, Venezuela and Chile to see the Sheridans’ studio. The name seemed to come as naturally as the creation of the studio did.

     “That [the name] came along with the suncatcher line that we had at one point,” Caroline says. “We started calling the suncatchers “sunspots” and that kind of stuck. So, because glass is hot and it looks like the sun when you look in a furnace, it seemed to fit in a lot of different ways.”

     The studio currently employs five glassblowers – three of them, including Doug, are experienced, and two are apprentices.

     “We typically have found glassblowers who have already been glassblowers for awhile,” Caroline says. “Some people have a knack for it, and some people don’t. Some people can learn it, but it just takes longer for them to understand and do it. It does take several years to really be an independent glassblower.”

     All of the experienced glassblowers can create a few of their own designs, in addition to the designs that Doug thinks up and creates for the store. For many, it would seem an exhausting and daunting to task to think up so many products to create. However, Doug, who has been doing artisan work for years, is unabashed about the matter.

     “For me, being creative is kind of a muscle,” Doug says as he stands before some of the creations of the studio that glimmer on the window pane, such as an emerald green frog as well as an icy-blue seahorse dangling in the light. “The more you exercise it [creativity], the better it works. I’m not afraid to make mistakes – that’s a big part, too … I’d rather have one victory than three failures and quit.”

     Doug describes glassblowing as a “linear process.” If you mess up in one step, you must repeat the entire process. To blow glass, the basic ingredients that make up glass are needed: silica, soda and lime are usually in typical glass.

     “We melt glass from those materials in our furnaces, then we take a hot blow pipe and gather the hot glass at the end, blow it into a shape, and put it into an oven to cool it over night,” Doug says. “Everything we make during the day we put in and hold at 900 degrees during the day, and then when we’re done it comes down slowly overnight.”

     The process involves precision and a good work ethic; burns are bound to happen, as are mistakes while making a piece. It’s this way that Doug introduces another of Sunspots Studio’s experienced glassblower — Charles Hall.

     “Where are your eyebrows, Charles Hall?” Doug asks as Hall as he fills a large water bottle with apple cider.

     Hall, who has been glassblowing for 28 years after doing metal work for a brief period, shows various other burns and scratches as proof of his labor. Hall switched from metal work to glassblowing while he was at the School for American Crafts at Rochester Institute of Technology.

    DSC_0050 “It was the first really nice day of spring and I was sitting and doing my metal stuff,” Hall says. “And, I hear this door open and I hear this music and I saw this guy wheeling a keg of beer into a door – and I had to go down there, I didn’t know what was down there – and it was a glass shop! And, literally, that was it.”

     After schooling, Hall had an apprenticeship for three-and-a-half years, after which he did his own independent studio work. Eventually, Hall ended up at Sunspots. Hall describes his progress as an artist and glassblower as always having room for improvement.

     “There’s this lovely story I heard a little while ago that’s a really good way to describe where I’m at,” Hall says. “A person is interviewing an elderly member of the philharmonic orchestra and said to him – ‘I hear you still practice. Why?’ The guy thinks for a second and looks at him and says, ‘Because I think I’m making progress.’ It’s one of those things – you’re always finding new ways to look at things.”

     Hall focuses on the artistic side of glassblowing, especially when describing his current project – a bird skull atop of a totem that he hopes to make wings for.

     “I’m not uber literate. I know a lot of people who painstakingly look up the exact anatomy of a bird,” Hall says. “It’s more about the perception of it; it doesn’t have to be exactly identical to what it is, although there is some beauty to that. It’s just more comfortable.”

     To prove his point further, Hall puts his hand on the table to point to a metal ring with a small hole in the middle.

     “See that little thing?” Hall says, pointing to the ring. “That little thing is so precious, because it could be anything.”

     And that, indeed, is true with glass.