Sterling artist creates colorful works with glass

Clear vision

Posted: Thursday, August 16, 2001

While most people don't see beauty in a piece of broken glass, Jana Coffey sees possibilities.

Coffey creates window decorations and decorative plates out of glass. This is what she loves to do, and she rarely takes a day off.

"You get up every morning and it's like Christmas morning, your birthday and your best-weather day all at once," she said of checking her creations in the kiln.

The processes she uses are called fusing and slumping. The two methods can be done simultaneously or separately.

Fusing involves heating pieces of glass in a kiln heated up to 2,000 degrees. The glass becomes softer and melts, or fuses, into a larger glass plate.

Slumping has more to do with shaping heated glass. By placing the glass over a heat-proof mold before being heated and cooled, Coffey is able to make concave pieces.

Some pieces are shaped into stair steps. It is even possible to make a glass sink with this method.

Coffey, who lives in Sterlig, makes her molds herself out of fiber paper. The paper is oven-proof and can be shaped. After shaping the paper, she is able to design a texture for each piece of glass.

 

Photo by JAY BARRET

Not just any glass will work. For her plates and window decorations, Coffey orders glass from an Oregon company. The glass there is heated and blown into the shape of a large ball, then cooled and shattered. The pieces are then shipped.

For the pins and beads she makes, she needs a special kind of glass, called Morretti glass, which is imported from Italy.

Coffey spent her early years in Anchorage while her father flew for Chisum Flying Service. When he became a helicopter pilot for the king of Saudi Arabia, she moved with him and attended high school in Beirut, Lebanon. She then returned to the United States to attend college.

While in college, she did a lot of work with fabric design. She later learned how to make stained glass.

In 1981, she was given a glass grinder and tools for stained glass as a gift.

"Then I just started melting leftover pieces together," she said.

Since that time, Coffey has gained experience and branched out. Besides her window decorations, pins, plates and beads, she also makes lamps and what she calls "hippie candles."

The candles are made of layers of different-colored wax. Most candle makers will pour wax into 20 or more molds and leave them to harden, she said.

 

Photo by JAY BARRET

Instead, she spends four to five hours pouring her candles one layer at a time. This results in graduated differences in shading that makes each candle unique.

The number of people making candles and doing glass artwork has grown. When she first started, there might have been five people in Alaska making beads. Now there are hundreds, she said.

She still has her favorites, though.

"I am inspired by Dale Chihuly, who started the Pilchuk Glass School," she said.

Coffey attended the school in Redmond, Wash., in the summer of 1997. Pilchuk attracts students from all around the world.

For each session, students are chosen from a lottery. Students take courses studying five different mediums and doing hands-on work.

"It's like an orchestra ... . You have five or six people working on one sculpture," she said.

"To glass people, it's like the center of glass making, next to Mirano (Island) in Italy," she said.

Despite her love of the artistic, Coffey has made it a point to keep an open mind. One winter she owned a donut shop in Girdwood. She also home schooled one of her sons, Dan, who is now a professional extreme snowboarder.

Coffey's older son, T.L., lives in Pennsylvania, where he works with computers.

Both sons have an interest in glass work. Dan works with the torch, used for making beads and shaping lengths of glass. T.L. has helped by making bases and stands for pieces.

Coffey's husband, Tom, has given his support throughout her artistic career, encouraging her during 30 years of marriage.

With her family's backing, Coffey has become a bit of an Alaska celebrity. Her glassworks and candles can be seen at various gift shops throughout the state.

She also has been able to make larger pieces through the purchase of larger kilns. Currently, the largest work she can create is 20-inches-by-20-inches.

Coffey said she is happy spending her days doing glasswork because every day she fulfills a lifelong dream.

 

Photo by JAY BARRET

"That's all I ever wanted to be, was an artist."



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