Craig Campbell is shaping the searing-hot glass, doing the last bit of work before the fiery orange shape cools into a beautiful cobalt blue vase. Suddenly it cracks off the metal pipe holding it and smashes to the floor.
Another life lesson at the hands of the master glassblower from Mahtomedi.
“It happens when I’m distracted, or move too fast, or touch the glass in the wrong place,” he said. “Regardless of experience, everyone has failures. They are your best teachers.”
At 62, Campbell makes his living blowing and molding glass, and teaching it to others. His work includes tableware, vases, communion sets, corporate awards and glass sculptures, as well as large works for churches, hospitals, offices and Xcel Energy Center.
Now he’s added a new endeavor. He is creating a class for adults that uses glass blowing, pottery and various art forms to help them enrich other aspects of their lives.
“Understanding mastery is becoming a very big passion for me,” said Campbell, who grew up on St. Paul’s East Side and “learned from my dad, a carpenter, how to be fearless in creating things with your hands.”
Adults sometimes forget that they are artistic, something he learned from children “who don’t need to be told what to do with a pile of clay.”
A class about living a creative life might be especially helpful for people in or nearing retirement, he said. It is a “time of great transition from the known to the unknown, a time ripe for exploring just who you really are.”
While blowing glass at the Foci Minnesota Center for Glass Arts in Minneapolis, Campbell talked about his art, developed more than 2,000 years ago by Phoenicians.
Why does glassblowing seem so magical? “It is like magic — applying fire to sand that’s ground up like flour, making a ball of incredibly hot liquid glass, then shaping it into something beautiful. For centuries, glass blowers protected their secrets, sharing them only with their sons. Now we’re teaching more people, including our daughters. The Twin Cities is becoming a major center for glassblowers, who sell their glass all over the country.”
How did you come to be a glassblower? “I was going to be a veterinarian until I spent three years at the U of M. I went to St. Cloud State and took a class in glassblowing just for fun. By the second time, I was hooked. When you realize you can control a mass of molten glass that wants to fall to the floor with gravity, it’s awesome.”
Does it take a special knack or can anybody do it? “Pretty much anybody can make glass art. At the Glass Art Center, our students usually make something every time they come. First they make a paperweight or something solid. Then it’s a glass or vase. Anybody can do it, but most of us will break a lot of glass those first couple of years.”
Do you get burned? “It is dangerous. Molten glass is about 2,100 degrees. Even professionals get burned, mostly when we’re not paying close enough attention. I tell people they’re right to be afraid, but that shouldn’t stop you.”
What’s the difference between a master and a good glassblower? “Experience, pure and simple. That’s how you learn what the glass will and won’t do, and how to create a vision of what you want to make. The master has broken a lot more glass by trying too hard to achieve perfection, then learned to pull back and accept anomalies, the mistakes, the strange and sometimes wonderful surprises you get as gifts from the glass.”
Will you retire from glassblowing? “I can’t imagine that. I still have a lot to learn, and I’ve found that I love to teach. There’s something so satisfying to my soul when I’m making glass. After more than 30 years, sometimes it still can take my breath away.”