Passion on display: a conversation with a glass blower, a knifesmith, and a maker of custom ties

by Brian Bahouth

The bottom of a handmade drinking glass - image - Brian Bahouth

Reno – The peaks of white, ten by ten pop-up tents were arrayed in rows on both sides of Arlington Avenue in Wingfield Park in downtown Reno this weekend. Brighton Denison is the promoter of the Great American Craft Fair. He and his grandmother Carol Pierce sat under a tent behind the event information table, backs to the Truckee River. Denison said this was his third year organizing the annual fair and the first time it’s been held in Wingfield Park, an island in the Truckee River. Denison represents the third generation of his family to promote art shows in northern Nevada, southern Nevada and northern California, and the far-ranging and high-quality mix of fine art to crafts displayed at the event reflected thoughtful, mature curation.

“I try to provide a big variety of not only art but crafts as well, so you can have your fine art, your crafts. That way you have every price point. You can find things for $2 to $3 up to $1,000 at the show,” Denison said. “Everything is unique. So you’re not going to go to the mall and get the same thing somebody else has. Everything you purchase here has a story by the person that made it. Yeah, that’s what makes us unique here.”

Artist Carol Pierce and Brighton Denison, promoter of the Great American Craft Fair in Reno – image – Nevada Capital News

Glass Artist Tate Bezdek

For Tate Bezdek, blowing glass was love at first sight.

“I took a glass blowing class when I was 17 years old and I fell in love instantaneously and decided that’s what I was going to do for the rest of my life. The rest was history,” Bezdek said smiling among hundreds of glass objects he an his brother Aaron created in their shop in Orangevale, California.

Glass art from Tate Bezdek displayed at the Great American Craft Fair in Reno June 22 and 23 – image – Brian Bahouth

Several large plates of glass hung in Bezdek’s stand. The pieces are striking in and of themselves but are much more impressive if the beholder understands that it takes years to gain the facility needed to successfully create such a piece. Blezdek said the process of making big plates is highly orchestrated.

Hear an audio interview with Tate Bezdek.

“There’s a lot of planning that goes into glass blowing as a whole. Everyone thinks when you’re watching it, it’s just like a crazy show happening, but really it’s all choreographed. All the steps are lined up so we know exactly what’s going to happen after each step. With the plates it all comes down to the final moment where you spin really fast and you open it up with some centrifugal force. Then you flop it out and let gravity do its thing. So you don’t really have a whole lot of control. The whole moment of the piece hinges on like 30 seconds, so you gotta nail that part perfectly.”

Glass art by Tate Bezdek – image – Nevada Capital News

In order to merely manage molten glass requires a practiced, confident and fine manual dexterity that only practice will yield. Blezdek enjoys the work for the focus needed to meet a merciless timeline.

“That’s part of the reason that I really love blowing glass is because it’s really physical, not only with hand eye coordination with all of your fingers and your eyes, but it’s also physical in that you have to lift everything. If you’re making a big plate, it’s heavy and it’s on the end of a six foot rod so it’s even heavier and it’s a moving, so it’s even heavier. It’s a lot of up and down, back and forth. You’re sweating. It’s hot. It’s really fun. That’s what really drew me to the process. I don’t have much patience, so it’s something that keeps me engaged, because you have to be focused the entire time.”

The evolution of a glass artist can have many junctures over time. At what point does the artist master the rudiments well enough to be able to express creative intent through the medium?

“I’m kind of at that point now where you can make the things that you want to make. I still have a lot of drawings in my book and I’ve made some of them now but I’ve spent the last eight years developing my skills to get to this skill level to make the things that I want to make. It’s really just all about repetition. You have to make all the mistakes to get to the point of view where you know what to do in what situation for the piece to come out how you want it to.”

Blowing glass requires specialized and expensive gear, to say nothing of the energy costs needed to keep glass molten. Blezdek said he and his brother started with a metal building and built the needed equipment themselves after studying top designs.

“Me and my brother built our whole shop completely by hand over the course of three years. We are lucky enough to have a 100 square foot metal building in the back of our property, which is where our shop is, so it’s nice and convenient. We’ve traveled all over the world and learned how to build the equipment from some top manufacturers.”

Glass pumpkins by Tate Bezdek – image – Nevada Capital News

Methods of shaping glass are as diverse as the people who do it. Blezdek specializes in imprinting patterns in the glass.

“We specialize in making things that are functional and things that have texture. Almost everything that we make has texture, like the pumpkin have textures, our bottles have textures; our cups have textures. So we’re really drawn to the idea of having glass that has depth and feeling to it and not just perfectly smooth.”

If money were the exclusive object, there are many other more redily profitable activities than blowing glass, but for Blezdek, making ends meet is only part of the motivation.

“It’s really fun and incredibly challenging, and that’s what keeps me coming back every day is that I still consider myself, I have a lot, a lot, a lot to learn. And that’s, that’s what keeps me going and it is fun.”

Bladesmith Jay Gordin

Artist Jay Gordin has also been an antique dealer for four decades and specializes in what he calls, “Boys Toys,” which include old guns, tools, fishing gear, “military stuff,” and of course, old knives. Gordin hand forges blades out of high carbon steel.

A handmade knife by Jay Gordin – image – Nevada Capital News

The knife makers of San Francisco and across the old west continue to inspire Gordin’s art. A French term aptly describes the character of his knives, Brute de Forge, a phrase that means rough and unfinished. Gordin will intentionally leave some of the rough forging marks on the top part of the blade to add character.

Of the many styles of knives on display at Gordin’s stand, the markings on the Damascus blades draw the eye. In a method close to the ancient tradition, Gordin welds together metals of dissimilar composition and repeatedly heats and hammers the pieces together folding the ever thinner layers on top of one another until as many as 3,000 layers comprise the billet. Damascus blades are historically known not only for their distinctive appearance but for their hardness and ability to hold an edge. The Damascus blade looks featureless until Gordin dips the metal in acid for roughly 20 minutes, so the outcome is always a surprise.

Jay Gordin displays one of his Damascus style knives – image – Nevada Capital News

Gordin is a thoughtful scavenger when it comes to material for his knife handles. He has worked with substances ranging from micarta (used on WWII electronics boards) to elk, deer and moose horn, fossil ivory, leather, exotic woods, brass, copper and silver. He said he especially loves exotic woods like desert ironwood, lignum vitae and rosewood to name a few.

“I can always remember being interested in knives. I’ve always been an artist,” Gordin smiled. “I started out with sculpture, big sculptures, metal, wood, rock. I kind of wanted to start making something smaller. I messed with jewelry for a while, and then knife making came to my attention. I started doing it and I found that’s my niche. That’s what I really love doing.”

Gordin thinks of each knife as a sculpture.

“Design … flow … a knife has to just talk to you, the curves. There’s no straight lines in nature; there’s no straight lines in my knives. Ergonomics is a big thing. It’s got to fit your hand good. It’s got to be a useful tool that I hope is beautiful.”

Gordin is edified when he sells a knife knowing it will outlive him.

“It’s nice to know they’re going to be handed down through generations and be around a long, long time after I’m gone.”

Custom tie maker Pasquale Iovinella

Saturday in Wingfield Park the neck and bow ties of Pasquale Iovinella covered three tables, colorful and utterly unique in material and design. Iovinella was born in a small town in southern Italy where he grew up with an eye for fashion. His mom was a seamstress and showed him how to sew.

“It’s my passion since I was young, you know, I have a great interest in fashion. My mom was a seamstress, a traditional seamstress. She taught me the first things about the fabric, the thread, the needle, and it’s my passion. I love fashion and love neckties, bow ties. And now it’s my passion and my job. I have an online store,” Iovinella said with an Italian accent and broad smile.

Custom tie maker Pascuale Iovinella – image – Nevada Capital News

Iovinella’s dad is now 82 and lives in Italy and still wears a suit coat and tie every day, a lifelong tradition that inspires Pasquale’s sense of fashion.

“I love it. I love fashion. You know, in Italy we used to wear a necktie every day, even if we go to the supermarket. My dad is 82 years old and when he gets up in the morning, the first thing is to put on a neck tie, so we love fashion.”

A handmade Pascuale Iovinella bow tie – image – Nevada Capital News

Material for Iovinella’s ties are not left to chance. He travels to Italy every year to buy 100 percent silk fabric in the city of Como. He typically makes around 3 ties from any single fabric, so each design is a limited edition. Iovinella also does custom work for weddings and other formal events and said he enjoys catering to specific needs.

“I use only silk, 100 percent silk coming from Como, Italy. Every year I go there and choose my fabric personally, the color the design. I love to create,” Iovinella said.

An original Pascuale Iovinella neck tie – image – Nevada Capital News
An original Pascuale Iovinella bow tie – image – Nevada Capital News