Nancy Brooks is fascinated with the possibilities of glass
By Leslie Grace | A! Magazine for the Arts | January 31, 2017Nancy Brooks is passionate about her art and about using art to transform her town, Tazewell, Virginia.
She was born in Burkes Garden, Virginia, but her artistic journey began in Greensboro, North Carolina, when she saw pieces of embellished glass in a store. It was beyond her financial wherewithal at the time, so she decided to see if she could make her own.
"I was familiar with blown glass, but I wasn't familiar with kiln-fired glass," she says. She convinced her husband to buy her a small kiln. "He wasn't too sure about it and wanted to know if I was really going to use it. But I just knew I was, and I turned into a bit of an obsessive monster. I run into people who think they just can't make anything. I think creativity is a part of everyone. People should give themselves a chance. Creativity is a part of the human condition. If you find the right medium, it just feels good. Even if no one else likes what you made, the process is valuable.
"I was mesmerized the first time I saw the colors and movement of kiln-formed glass. There are so many things you can do to the glass with a combination of heat and gravity. After much trial and error, I could determine what the outcome would be. You never know exactly how it's going to come out of the kiln, but sometimes the mistakes are the best things that happen," she says.
One of those mistakes happened when she was cleaning her studio. She had just taken a glass bowl out of the kiln and placed it on a table. When she removed a large box of polymer from a cabinet, she knocked the bowl on the floor and broke large chunks of glass off of it.
"I almost threw it away, but it was still a good form, so I kept it. I'd been thinking about playing with glass and polymers, so I added polymer to the bowl and recreated it," she says. She thought it was appropriate, since it was a box of polymer that knocked the bowl off, so she began a reimagining process.
Brooks studied anthropology in college and says she thinks part of that contributes to her passion for glasswork. "I was fascinated by ancient artifacts, so I think I tried to create my own. I'm constantly looking at colors and shapes in the environment, I see things that I feel inspired by, but I can't say exactly why they're so inspiring."
She has taken classes at Penland School of Crafts, Penland, North Carolina, Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts, Gatlinburg, Tennessee and Corning Museum of Glass, Corning, New York.
"It's good to go to these events, even if I don't learn the techniques. It's always inspirational, and I always find a new way to work on my art, even if it makes the instructor cringe," she says.
She sold her first piece in 1996 – a wine glass. "I've never been so excited about anything in my life. It's so flattering when someone will part with their hard earned money and buy something that another person has made. I've always felt that way about the business of making things," she says.
Her first wine glass was painted with fired-on color. Her latest glasses are dropped vessels, called that because the glass drops through a mold.
You create a mold and stack glass on top of the mold and put it in the kiln on kiln posts (these posts elevate it above the floor of the kiln). The heat melts the glass, and gravity pulls it through the mold.
"When you put the heat to it, it begins to collapse as it melts, the way an ice cube would. The stack of glass begins to look like cards, the glass starts to drip and hang between the mold and the bottom of the kiln. When you stop the heat, it looks like a drop. If you let it touch the bottom of the kiln, it will form a flat bottom. That's when you have to watch it, the moment you take heat away. If you leave it too long, you'll just have a glass disc on the bottom of the kiln.
"Glass is forgiving. If you have a disc disaster, you can cool it, put it on another mold, heat it again and try again," she says.
There is some science involved though, you have to be careful about the types of glass you mix together. "You have to pay attention to the coefficient of expansion. You can melt any glass together, but because they're made from different recipes, it'll heat up and melt together; but as it cools it will crack and break, because the different types of glass cool at different rates. So you have to make sure the glass is compatible," she says.
Her work is available at Heartwood and Holston Mountain Artisans in Abingdon, Virginia; Appalachian Arts in Wardell, Virginia; Birthplace of Country Music Museum, Bristol, Virginia and Between Friends in Tazewell, Virginia.
"I'm grateful to all of them. Since I've moved back to Tazewell, I haven't really had any idea of how to market my pieces. I used to do a big craft show in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, twice a year. But I haven't done that in eight to 10 years, and I'd rather do one-of-a-kind work rather than production pieces."
Brooks moved to Tazewell after growing up in Burkes Garden, Virginia, and living in Buffalo, New York, Greensboro, North Carolina, and Dallas, Texas. She came home after the death of her husband and settled into a 1850s house which she renovated.
She's passionate about helping her new home recover from the coal disaster. "Tazewell County is trying hard to rebuild. We're getting new restaurants, and people are coming. We're trying to develop tourism as a partial substitute to repair the economy. We've got trails, and those are wonderful. I think it's important that we don't be one dimensional. We need to demonstrate the artisan work that is made locally. Heartwood is the focus of that activity.
"I do my own artwork because it's fun, and I want to do it. We need to be a part of the team and support all these wonderful programs that "Round the Mountain is offering. This area needs to learn to benefit from those opportunities. I'm doing everything I can think of to help make sure that the arts and arts education are part of our renaissance," she says.
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Art by Nancy Brooks
Work by Nancy Brooks