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Like a Phoenix, glass blower James Stone has risen from the ashes

Glass artist James Stone sits amidst his works at his recently opened gallery on 2nd Avenue.

On the morning of April 1, when glass blowing artist James Stone got the phone call that his Stone & Glass studio on Simpson Way was on fire, he thought it was an April Fool’s prank.

He quickly learned that the mattress store two doors down from his studio was burning on that Saturday night. The acidity of the soot and smoke that leaked into Stone’s studio caused significant damage. Wherever it settled on electronic equipment it ruined it. Thirty percent of his equipment was lost along with half of the inventory.

However, like a phoenix Stone has risen out of the flames, arguably with a much better location with fantastic visibility.

Several weeks after the fire Stone received a phone call.

“This is Sam,” said the voice on the other end of the phone. “Sam Abed.”

“The mayor of Escondido?” asked Stone. The mayor assured him that he was that person.

“James, we want you in the downtown area,” said the mayor, and offered to help Stone find the right location, something that Stone knew would be a challenge. After all, it’s not every landlord who wants a glass blowing studio— where a furnace is kept going at 2,500 degrees 24/7—operating on his property.

Stone told the mayor he would be happy to move downtown if he (or the mayor) could find the right place. Before the city staff could get into gear locating such a place, Stone visited a friend who ran the Dive Gallery on Grand Avenue, and who said he was moving in August. The location, next door to the Hawthorne Feed Store, was perfect. Stone met the landlord, (the owner of the feed store) and, on the strength of a deal sealed with a handshake—when Dive moved out, Stone began moving in.

The move wasn’t cheap. It eventually cost $100,000 to comply with all city and state code, build out the physical infrastructure, restore and replace the equipment and complete the relocation. But with an estimated 22,000 cars driving by his studio each day, its visibility is hard to beat. To make it even more eye-catching, Stone plans to move one of his vintage archival sculptures out of storage and, after cleaning it of rust, install it in front of his gallery/studio.

The sculpture, “Neath the Sea,” celebrates the ocean and its teeming life. Stone created it for the late Esther Burnham, a philanthropist and patron of the arts, who, in her earlier years piloted a yacht around the world navigating by the stars.  The piece incorporated the constellations as well as sea life that was so important to her.

“As an artist, I love the journey,” says Stone.  “Every piece of art I have done is about the journey and the relationships created. I try to honor the creative process in bringing something to life.”

The urban tree titled “Not Seen Not Heard but Felt” is now located at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach.

Mrs. Burnham had become familiar with his work after Stone won the commission to do a civic sculpture for the San Diego Port Authority— a people’s choice contest where the public voted on dozens of proposed designs. Each of the “Urban Tree” sculptures was on display on Harbor Boulevard for a year. Mrs. Burnham had seen the sculpture and came to his studio and said she wanted to buy it. When he told her it had already been sold, she commissioned a similar one for herself.

After Mrs. Burnham died in 2012, Stone was able to gain possession of “Neath the Sea” again. Before it can be placed in front of the studio it needs to be restored. “It’s just like restoring an old car,” says Stone.

Most of Stone’s work revolves around the oceans and their inhabitants. He is a passionate advocate of conserving sea life. Often his works call attention to endangered species.

He has written, “I want to ignite a spark inside each and every viewer, helping people to understand how their everyday choices effect the environment we live in and to think about how their seafood choices and their everyday lifestyle actions and purchases have a direct effect on our shared world.”

“So much of our world is based in the ocean,” he says. His youth was spent near water, in New Jersey where he lived on a working farm inside the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. “I grew up like Tom Sawyer on the Raritan River,” he recalls. He was 10 when he started using power tools. His father was an engineer and the family didn’t have a lot of money. “But we ate well because we grew everything.” He had daily chores. “It gave me a really strong work ethic,” he recalls.

James Stone is a firm believer in synchronicity and serendipity. Over his long career, he has often been in just the right place at just the right time and was led to or discovered the right path to take. Often to places he never thought about before. “I love connections,” he says. “Serendipity happens to me all the time. I’m very connected to the energy of life.”

During his senior year at Fairleigh Dickinson College in New Jersey, while he was studying for an oceanography degree, he got on the wrong side of the department head, who told him he would never get an oceanography degree if he had anything to say about it. He talked to another department head who told him he had the skills to shift his major to theatre, particularly the aspect of theater concerned with creating sets. He spent four years on the crew for many shows at the college.

One day he was reading Variety when he saw an ad for a welder for the University of Nevada at Las Vegas—answered it and soon moved to Nevada, where he worked 30 hours a week a relatively low paying university job building props and scenery at the Judy Bayley Theatre.

James Stone (left) chats with some fellow glassblowers who are using his facility.

In another example of synchronicity, there was, across the street from where he was working, a stained-glass shop, where they threw away large of piles of scrap glass.

He found a book on Tiffany style glass and bought two sheets of glass and created a mosaic. He also made was a belt buckle for himself. Someone admired it and bought it for $20. He was delighted to discover that people would pay him for something that was so cheap and easy to make.  He started making more money on belt buckles than welding. He got commissions for other projects and the people who had the glass shop invited him to make stained glass for hotels and restaurants.

Around this same period, his day job was a prop maker in Las Vegas, working with famous talent like Jerry Lewis on his annual Muscular Dystrophy telethons and the Dean Martin Roasts. His favorite job (after glass blowing, of course) was as a “fly man” on the cabaret show “Hallelujah Hollywood” at the MGM Grand.  It was the largest show of its kind at the time. He also worked on the set of the TV Show “Vegas” which starred the late Robert Urich as the private detective Dan Tanna.

That time in Las Vegas, in the mid-1970s “was a special time when there was no division between the talent and the stage hands,” he recalls. He also worked on the Siegfried and Roy stage show on The Strip.  “I loved them, it was a great job,” he says.

One of his last projects in Las Vegas was the 14,000-square foot ceiling in the Sahara Convention Center at the Sahara Casino (which closed in 2011.)  “I made so much money on that project that I bought a Lamborghini,” he recalls.

Eventually, however, he needed to leave the city and began searching for something to devote his life to.

While living in Las Vegas, Stone met a glass blower who came from Chico, California and admired his work so much that he wanted to emulate him. “I was so enamored of making glass that I spend 12 years to find someone who could teach me how to do it,” he recalls.

In another of those serendipitous moments that moved his career forward, Stone arrived in San Diego in 1985 where he learned that Palomar College offered a course in glass blowing.

“Where is Palomar College?” he asked. He found a phone booth and called the college and asked if they had a glass blowing class. They did, and they only had one spot left, and he had called the last day and last hour that he could have signed up for it.

In that class Stone met Gary Cohen, who taught glass blowing at Palomar, and continued to teach until his retirement. He still considers Cohen his mentor, and often consults with him about his projects.

“I always ask my students what exactly is creativity and where do you find it in your body and how do you capture it and turn it into outcome?” Stone says. “Creativity is a real thing. Dr. Bruce Lipton [the stem cell biologist] proved that it lives on the outer membrane of your blood cells. It comes from the energy that we consume, all the food, the sound, the light and the heat energy that we experience every moment of our existence.” The center of creativity, says Stone, is the human heart.

Naturally, working in the close vicinity of a 2,500-degree furnace can supercharge one’s creativity in a special way. “Working in front of a 2500 degree furnace, you are blasted with energy. That energy very quickly coalesces in your heart. In your heart it has no picture. It is only a feeling. The heat pumps that energy into your blood, muscles and your brain, planting the seeds of creativity, which then begin to grow and merge with pictures and sounds and words that already exists in your brain. Creativity is in each of us and it’s always struggling to get out,” says Stone.

“To get it out you have to merge it with the most powerful force in the universe, ‘intention.’ I believe the gift I give to my students is I give them a new way to understand and use their own creativity, which, when combined with intention and action produces outcome.”

Since 2001 Stone and his wife, Carol, have operated a program out of his studio that introduces young people and adults to the art of glass blowing. They offer three and sometimes more classes per week.

The most popular entry level workshop is called “Introduction to Glass Blowing,” and actually involves students blowing glass. It could be very dangerous however, “We teach a ‘guided glass blowing experience,’” says Stone.  “We don’t let students handle the tools by themselves. When you blow glass with us we share the space, the tools and the experience and we keep you safe.”

Students as young as 9 can get an up-close look at the art of glassblowing, which in many cases sparks an interest they pursue later at programs such as Palomar College’s rightly celebrated glass blowing program. Stone’s program is the one of the only such program affiliated with the Girl Scouts of America  “We are one of the only glass-blowing facilities in Southern California authorized by the Girl Scout,” he says. After the class Girl Scouts receive a “Play with Fire” patch for taking the class.

About a third of Stone’s time is spent teaching, another third is spent creating original art, and the final third he spends on the business side. “A glass blowing facility is like having a dragon by the tail,” he says, and sometimes that tail can sting badly. In 2016 Stone had an accident, setting himself on fire, suffering a third degree burn on his leg that took weeks to heal.

But nothing has equaled the trauma of losing the studio and gallery to the fire in April. “Losing our business was like losing a close family member,” he says. “We were in shock for months.” It took over seven months to get back into operation and that is still only at 50%. Although we were insured at the time of the fire, the limits were not sufficient to cover all the damage and losses. Stone says “we have been struggling for a way to cover the shortfall.” After much thought and applying some “James Stone creativity,” Stone came up with a line of pieces to commemorate the journey and the return. He created a series called “The Phoenix Rising From the Ashes of Diversity.” New products such as drinking glasses and tee-shirts are available for purchase to help erase the deficit left from the accident and relocating of his business.

Now, in their new location, the future looks bright and promising.

Besides teaching, Stone creates commissioned work – custom glass pieces, architectural metal and glass designs, and handmade glass gifts. He designs for individual clients,

Restaurants, museums and corporate businesses; from sets of tumblers/drinking glasses to massive vases, bowls, lighting fixtures and sculptures.

He is what he calls an “Ocean Conservation Mixed Media Sculpture Artist.” He creates sea creatures and marine-themed sculptures that portray the beauty of the ocean’s diverse flora and fauna, using forged aluminum and sculpted glass.   He is known his use of color, and his unique process of casting glass hot out of the furnace; directly into the sculpted metal. His one-of-a-kind technique forges metal and hot cast glass with painted accents.

The address for the new studio is: 629 W. Grand Ave., Escondido. For more information visit www.stoneandglass.com or their Facebook event at www.facebook.com/stoneandglassSanDiego.

The new Stone and Glass gallery is open Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 11am to 6 p.m. and by appointment. All classes are by reservation. And, tours and demonstrations are by appointment. For more information, visit www.stoneandglass.com

One response to “Like a Phoenix, glass blower James Stone has risen from the ashes”

  1. Corrine Gurry says:

    Fine story. Right place, right time… despite the disastrous fire seems synchronicity and serendipity have won again. Rise, rise, rise!

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