A! Magazine for the Arts

Robbie Gentry works on a glass Christmas tree bead at the Virginia Highlands Festival in Abingdon. (Photo Earl Neikirk/Bristol Herald Courier)

Robbie Gentry works on a glass Christmas tree bead at the Virginia Highlands Festival in Abingdon. (Photo Earl Neikirk/Bristol Herald Courier)

Artisans Bring Creations to Life at Festival

August 2, 2010

*** Published July 30, 2010 in the Bristol (Va.) Herald Courier. ***

ABINGDON, Va. – Curls of wood fly as the lathe spins, turning a blank of wood at about 1,500 revolutions per minute. Wood turner Nick Aloisio shapes the wood, and in a matter of minutes finds the bowl hidden within the hunk of a still-green tree trunk.

"It's an interesting thing not everybody gets to see," Aloisio said of his demonstration at the Virginia Highlands Festival. "It's pretty dynamic."

Art is not only sold at the Virginia Highlands Festival, it is made. Blocks of wood, empty canvases and rods of glass, in the right hands, become bowls, paintings and beads right before the eyes of festival attendees.

After being sculpted, the bowl Aloisio created Thursday will take several months to a year to dry, after which time it will be reshaped and sanded, he said.

Aloisio uses local wood to fashion his creations, which range from bowls to salt and pepper shakers.

"This is a good place to live if you do something like this," the Abingdon resident said, referencing the many hardwood trees in the area. A few bowls on sale this year are made out of the sugar maple tree that fell two years ago at the festival.

He said his demonstration, hosted by the William King Museum, sometimes inspires others to pick up the trade.

"I usually generate a few students out of the Virginia Highlands Festival," he said.

A small crowd gathered at Robbie Gentry's table, where she sat turning a piece of glass in a flame. She makes beads through a process called lampworking – using a torch to melt rods of glass into art.

"I always demonstrate," Gentry said, as she put the finishing touches on a Christmas tree bead. "I love educating people about the craft."

She makes beaded necklaces, earrings and bracelets out of her handmade beads, which she said take about four or five minutes each to complete.

Gentry, who is from Knoxville, Tenn., started making beads about 10 years ago, after she went with her stepdaughter to a bracelet party and was so taken with the beads she quit making stained glass to work with beads.

"I loved stained glass but the problem was it was a puzzle, and I don't do puzzles," she said. "I love making glass beads."

Her designs are sometimes inspired by other designers, such as Vera Bradley, or by a landscape painting – like her bead "Mountain Majesty" which she said took about three hours to create and is a miniature picture in itself, of mountains and a field of flowers.

"I cannot draw, and I do no pre-drawing," she said. "I can make it come out in the glass."

Another glassworker at the festival has been creating small glass animals for the past 40 years.

Pam Snellgrove of LaGrange, Ga., said she got into the craft when she was working at a college while her now-husband was going to school there.

An instructor at the college who was a scientific glass blower also knew how to make artistic glass, she said, and he would give her lessons during her lunch break.

"He would say, "Watch what I do," make a little animal, and then go to lunch and say, "OK, do what I just did,'" Snellgrove said. "We went through four animals like that ... he told me to keep playing with glass. I did, and I never quit playing."

Snellgrove said dragons sell well, and she started making them by chance after a fellow artist who liked dragons asked her to try. She said that at the festival, a woman has come up to her and asked her to make a llama, which she did and might continue to do.

"I use no molds, so each one is different," she said of her creations, which take between four and 12 minutes each to make. "It's been fun. I don't know what I would be doing if I hadn't gotten into this."

The festival continues through Aug. 8