You Can Blow, But This Place Doesn’t
Barkhamsted (Google Maps location)
Wow. Where to begin? This place is sort of like three museums in one: A Riverton history museum, a world-class art gallery and a glass blowing workshop/studio – all in an 1829 historic church that once housed the now defunct Hitchcock Chair Museum. I’ll give you a moment to absorb all of that.
All set? Good. Let’s head up to the Riverton section of Barkhamsted.
The drive to the town’s center is beautiful from any direction. I love the drive up the Farmington River west branch (on either side) through People’s State Forest I’d highly recommend you stop there for a picnic lunch along the river, a hike, and a visit to the People’s State Forest Museum before heading up the final miles to the Glass Studio.
I had contacted Peter Greenwood ahead of our visit, and sort of explained my purpose and plan. While we didn’t want the full-blown (pun intended) tour, I did want to see the glass blowing operation, at least for a few minutes. You can go and visit the gallery and history exhibit area for free and perhaps unannounced, I’m not sure. But to get a tour of the studio area, you usually have to have a group and pay a fee.
Since we’d have Damian and Damian isn’t exactly a fan of blast furnaces, there was no way we were going to opt for the full hour tour. Peter was very understanding and accommodating and I did my part by arriving right on time. (We were in luck because a woman was taking a glass blowing class during our visit, and we’d get to see Peter teach her some techniques – this was done on purpose.) Peter seemed somewhat harried at our arrival, but was unfailingly polite and left us to ourselves to peruse the first two sections of the building: The history exhibits and the gallery upstairs.
While Hoang and Damian didn’t care too much about the history of the Hitchcock factory across the street or of Riverton itself, I sure did. They mosied on upstairs while I took in as much as I could. I love Greenwood for maintaining this area of his building. With the Hitchcock company and their museum gone, this is pretty much the last bits of it in a museum setting. What a treat to find this stuff here as I wasn’t expecting it at all.
Riverton is a beautiful little hamlet and was once a prosperous center of industry. Today, there are only a couple landmarks remaining from that time. One is the Union Church I was standing in, built in 1829 and another is the Hitchcock Chair Factory from 1846. Five stage coach lines ran through town back then, each with its own tavern to take care of the travelers. Today, the Ives Tavern (1796) still stands as the Riverton Inn and the Phelps Tavern lives on as the Barkhamsted History Museum.
The display cases have several artifacts leftover from the old church’s days as the Hitchcock Museum. It’s like a museum for a museum inside a museum that has nothing in the world to do with the original museum! (Whoa.)
Again, if you want to know more about the Hitchcock Company/chairs/museum, I wrote about it here. Because now it’s time to move on to the Greenwood Glass blowing Gallery upstairs.
Man, this is an absolutely beautiful building. The church is of Gothic style and was built by local labor with hand-cut granite, chestnut and oak from the nearby hills. That original hands-on work ethic carried over to the Hitchcock Chair Company and now to the Peter Greenwood Glass Blowing Studio, Gallery and School – the full official name of the joint. As you can see from the pictures, the stained glass here is incredible. Now, I regretfully don’t know how old those windows are – did Greenwood do them? Or are they 100 years old? I have no idea, but they are stunning.
Upstairs, the gallery is filled with all sorts of Greenwood glass works. He has a definitive style, but works it into many practical and artistic items. Several striking vessels and whimsical lighting fixtures piqued our interest. But for me, the furniture Greenwood makes is the most impressive. Heck, he’s got a chair there with blown glass around the legs and and chairback.
I wasn’t about to touch the thing though, seeing as it sells for a healthy chunk of change. Once we started noticing the prices here, we held onto Damian a little bit tighter. All those easily breakable vases and plates and bowls range from about $900 all the way up to $7,500. He fortunately couldn’t reach the chandeliers which went even higher – but certainly worth it if you’re in the market.
If only I had such money to spend… I really like some of this bowls and more free form wall art. We actually perused the gallery for quite a while; I think Damian liked all the bright colors and swirly shapes.
And check this nook out:
On the left there are hand-carved rosewood and mahogany bed head and foot boards. They were incredible. And see that rope up to the ceiling? That rings the bell of the church, which has its own cool story. The 1875 relic was broken in 1911 during a July 4th celebration. In order to recast it, church parishioners and friends donated silver spoons and services. As a result of a rather large quantity of silver in the bell, the bell has a very unique mellow tone. We didn’t ring it though.
For we didn’t want to get kicked out just yet. We still had some glass blowing to watch.
But who is this Peter Greenwood fellow? Let’s have the man himself (or at least his website) tell us:
Peter Greenwood was born in Hartford in 1960. In 1979, he had a shift of consciousness; the mystique, the discipline, the spiritual exercise which defines glassblowing forever changed his life. At age 19 he took his first steps toward his career at the Rhode Island School of Design. He later studied at the Pilchuck School in Washington State, where he was exposed to the Venetian virtuosity of glassblowing. Other undergraduate studies include the Penland School in North Carolina and the Haystack School in Maine. Peter has traveled to the glass centers of Europe including Orrefors, Sweden, Venice, Italy and Czechoslovakia.
In 1980, he designed and built a glass studio in Farmington. Focusing on traditional techniques and experimenting with many different styles, Peter aims to capture the essence of harmony, balance and rhythm within each piece. His work is stylized in form and his craftsmanship is precise. Complex patterns of composed glass canes visually enhance his multi-bubble vessels, bowls and plates. The energetic lines of his wall sculptures invite the viewer to explore each piece in its depth and dimension. The optic reflections of his clear bubble glass draw in ambient light which produces a unique glow.
His career now spans the range of his imagination, resulting in numerous exhibitions of his art, and nationwide critical acclaim. Peter’s portfolio includes work as varied as an enormous dining table with twin pedestals, to a finely detailed 18-inch statuette, a replica of the 18 foot statue called the Genius of Connecticut.
Peter thinks three dimensionally with ease and is a natural builder. His works include finely crafted wood furniture, hand forged iron, stainless steel fabrication, and stone fireplaces. Peter’s insatiable desire to develop and refine new designs motivates him to continually explore the infinite possibilities of working with hot glass.
Wow. Impressive to say the least. I also dig this commission Peter has up at Bradley International Airport.
Greenwood walked us through his off limits studio space, amid a bunch of old machines and glass bits and grinders and buffers and polishers. To the back of the church where he has his furnaces and blow poles and … well, I don’t know what glass blowing tools are called, but he has them all.
The furnace was loud, but somehow Damian didn’t mind it too much from the comfort of the stairs about 20 feet away. We all watched as Peter shaped molten glass; spinning and prodding and poking it, always keeping the end open with those caliper things you always see glass blowers using.
He was very kind to show us the steps along the way, even though he was also teaching the random lady who paid the bucks to do it. (Though she was nice to us too.) We watched as they chose a color palette and sprinkled in the colored glass pieces to melt through the piece. It was all very interesting to see so intimately. The only other time I’ve seen glass blowing was on crowded tours in Corning and the like.
Greenwood Glass is not only a glass blowing studio/gallery but also a school offering a variety of workshops suitable for all levels.
If I haven’t sold you on the virtues of Greenwood Glass and glass blowing in general, I invite you to read the following, straight from the Greenwood website:
Steaming a Pipe: Never place a pipe in water without capping the end. If you forget to do this, a column of ultra-hot steam will surge up the pipe, and burn your hands or you’ll be scaled with flying boiling water.
Sharing Blowpipes: The Gaffer and assistants will take turns blowing on the pipe during the course of a piece.
Glory Hole When you accidentally drop a piece in the glory hole, use the pipe or punty…
Puffers & Steam Sticks (Not nearly as exciting as they sound.)
Wow, I had no idea glass blowing was so racy. I also enjoy the warning on the site: “Do not blow glass if you have been drinking.” I really can’t imagine doing anything stupider.
After watching the glass attain its final form, we gathered ourselves and hit the road. It was really cool for Peter to allow us to sit in on his session and to watch. His stuff is beautiful and his experience and skill is readily apparent, even to a schlub like me who doesn’t know a thing about glass art.