Like many artists who begin in a garage, glass master Ed Fennell went from his first furnace in 1982 to a distinguished career as co-founder of Hot Shops Art Center. Some 40 years ago, determined to pay forward all that he had learned, Fennell created his iconic Crystal Forge, earning himself over time the title, Omaha’s “Godfather of Glass.” Despite the larger- than-life recognition, the “Godfather” has never lost sight of his mission and his roots.
“I am all about encouraging others and teaching,” Fennell says in his artist statement. “There are so many teaching moments in life. I’m still a student. I’m still a student of glass, and a student of life.”
Hot Shops Art Center will return the favor with a tribute exhibit, “Omaha’s Godfather of Glass: Ed Fennell,” which unites the titular artist with more than 15 fellow colleagues, co-workers and peers who benefitted from time spent in the Crystal Forge. The exhibit opens April 1 with a reception, Friday, April 8, from 6-8 p.m.
In the exhibit, Fennell, who is retiring from full-time management of the glass studio, will share the spotlight with Tyler Barry, Jon Bleicher, Frank Daharsh, Paul Dinges, Jake Fennell, Chris Fennell, Tom Friedman, Dan Grzeskowiak, Rebecca Grzeskowiak, Vickie Hughes, Chris Kemp, Heather Kremen, Valerie Leighton, Whitney Maxwell, Matthew Shrader, Therman Statom and Cole Witthauer.
Like the other remaining keystone founding members of Hot Shops, Les Bruning and Tim Barry, Fennel helped godfather a movement, a baptism of fire that in 1999 jumpstarted the careers of fine artists and artisans alike. Omaha’s influential arts co-op extraordinaire of instruction, creation and exhibition, all under one rambling roof, Hot Shops was the first of its kind in the area and is now home to over 80 artist members in 50 studios.
Situated on three floors, plus lower annex, Hot Shops is a mix of fine and commercial emerging and established artists and craftsmen of virtually all media and genres, anchored by four studios of molten heat: Crystal Forge, Metal Foundry, Ceramics Studio and Iron Forge. In Crystal Forge one can find items ranging from vibrant glasses and vases to glowing bowls and decorative plates, as well as one-of-a-kind “art glass” and intricate glass jewelry.
This includes Fennell’s signature rondels, vessels and other works of art. It’s here that he has held hands-on, three-day workshops teaching students the basics of glass blowing and shaping skills. Fennell has taught hundreds of individuals over the course of his career including a few in this exhibit who still work for/or in the Crystal Forge, including current Manager Shrader, Iron Forge Manager Kemp, Daharsh and Leighton who has a studio of her own at Hot Shops.
A master at forging glass, Fennel first became intrigued by glass blowing his senior year of college, but he says he had “no chance to stay and do anything with it. I just promised myself I would try it if I ever got the opportunity. I gravitated toward glass because it didn’t look easy. I was interested in pottery, but glass looked harder, and my curiosity started with the equipment.”
Ever the opportunist, this DIY student of glass got involved with the Nebraska Crafts Council, where he met renowned sculptor and glass blower Ray Schultze and made the first of many pivotal connections including Tony Curiel of the Curiel Reynolds School of Visual Arts in Iowa.
“When I saw Ray’s Schulz’s set-up–he built his own equipment, and I realized I could do that or at least try to do it–and then I got hooked,” Fennell said. “I experimented for 20 years in my garage with limited success. I have found all the unsuccessful ways, and then finally found the things that worked.” Perhaps the biggest surprise over the years for the unassuming artist and tutor was the number of people “who came out of the woodwork to blow glass in front of me.”
Leighton, Darhash and Corey Broman, three artists who “came out of the woodwork,” all benefited from their time in the Crystal Forge. Though unique in their vision of and experience with glass art, they all agree on the role Fennell has played in their various careers.
“I absolutely see Ed as a mentor. He was the catalyst that began my career in glass,” Broman said. “I remember fondly the first class I took with Ed in 1998. It was in his space prior to being in the Hot Shops (Lambrecht Glass Studio). I remember thinking I might not be able to tolerate the heat from the furnace door, but Ed reassured me I’d get used to it.
“It was a profound moment that was very exciting because I knew I had found something I was looking for. I believe I took a couple weekend classes with Ed before I started coming down to the shop unannounced just to watch the better glass blowers at work. I was hooked.”
So was Leighton who also considers Fennel a mentor, but her first experience in the Forge had a different effect and outcome on her career.
“In the early 90’s when I was starting out in stained glass, I took a glass blowing class from Ed. I quickly realized that flowing, hot, constantly moving glass was not for me,” she said. “It did give me a great respect for much of the glass that I use in my stained-glass windows though, including rondels and mouth-blown sheet glass.”
Daharsh, who attended Kansas City Art Institute, also took his first glass blowing class from Fennell in the Old Market 22 years ago.
“With one class I was hooked the minute I got my hands on the 2000 degree molten glass,” he said. ”After a brief hiatus I took additional classes after that and soon was a regular, renting studio time from him.
“Ed’s glass blowing has always been wide-ranged and varied but with practicality thrown-in. He is always willing to take time to show you different techniques and methods. I could never have achieved my potential as a glass blower without Ed as a teacher, a mentor and a friend.”
While Daharsh’s own striking glass art varies from the whimsical and figurative to the conceptual, including the two pieces in this show seen here, Leighton and Broman have followed other muses or motivations with their work.
“Somehow, I made the connection that the flat round colorful disks (rondels) Ed made could be used in my stained glass windows,” Leighton said of past collaborations. “I’ve created some really cool residential installations using his custom mouthblown rondels. In the show will be a photo of a series of transom windows that feature his rondels and a window custom made with one of his rondels. “
Though Broman too was “completely satisfied” with making vessels and more in the beginning, like Daharsh and Leighton, he found Fennel to be more than just an instructor of basic glass-making skills.
“The longer I worked with glass I found a need to expand on certain objectives and aesthetics for my work that I had to learn mostly on my own,” he said of his evolving elegant and sculptural work seen above. “Ed has always been there for me with any technical questions that I had and has always been a fantastic resource for me since I decided to run my own studio.”
Given the diversity of these three interpretations of glass art as well as the ingenuity displayed, it must please Fennell as their mentor who takes little credit for their success.
“Young people often think if they take a class, they’ll know it. My teaching method is to indicate to students to let the glass be their instructor,” he said. “I’m just a guide. If you pay attention, the glass teaches you. It’s about experimenting, try, fail, try again. You’ll figure it out.”
It’s a life-lesson the Godfather learned as a student the hard way said Ceramics Studio Manager and colleague Tim Barry. He practiced what he preached, something his many followers truly appreciated.
“Ed’s life is his work,” Barry said. “He’s a wide-open book with 40 years of pages that document his curiosities, passions, experiences, triumphs, tragedies & dreams. Encyclopedia Ed! What he didn’t know he found out and improved it.
“What he couldn’t find out he created. Every technique, process—flat glass production for stainless windows, fused glass, torch work, cast glass and ever the glass blower—he’s done it all.”
And taught it all according to Leighton who said what she loves most about Fennel is that “no project is too small or too obscure for him to take on. It really is this grounding and unassuming behavior that has made him an amazing influential mentor.”
Basic skills, a strong work ethic, new techniques. All that and a few intangibles that keep former students and peers coming back to the source of their own initiation in the Crystal Forge.
“Ed gave them the opportunity and permission to explore and be creative,” Barry said. “He teaches them to put their hearts into their work. He’s always, always had time for anyone who wanted to learn.”
Now it’s Ed’s time. It’s his turn to take a bow, as the very place he helped create along with several of the artists he mentored combine to pay tribute to the Godfather, a title he approaches with characteristic humility and humor.
“I have a horse’s head in the shop,” Fennell joked. “So yeah, if you aren’t careful, you might find that in your bed. I feel so honored that so many are coming back to do this show. I’m excited to see them.”