LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — In 2004, Matthew Losee was a 17-year-old senior at Lincoln East High School getting ready to drop out and find a way to make ends meet.
While the rest of his class prepared to graduate, he'd completed the same amount of credits as a freshman.
But as dire as that sounded, Losee never worried about it. He'd found his passion through his then-girlfriend's father, an artist and inventor named Marc Kornbluh, who introduced him to glassblowing.
Glassblowing is the art of using extreme heat and oxygen to create art by melting and manipulating glass.
It's also the art form at the center of Lincoln Hot Glass, a studio owned by Kornbluh and Losee, now 32, that's open to the public for introductory classes and with private workspaces for rent, the Lincoln Journal Star reported.
The thousand-year-old art form captured Kornbluh's attention 20 years ago, before he moved from Vermont to Lincoln with his family. At the time, the New Jersey native had spent the majority of his career as an artist traveling around the country getting his work into juried art shows, mostly working with metal.
And though he'd run across glass work before, the possibility of creating his own glass designs always seemed just out of reach. Until then, glassblowing to him required large industrial furnaces and large, pricey studio spaces.
That changed one day in Manchester, New Hampshire, when he saw a young woman working on a piece of glass with only a torch.
"I always thought you had to have a big glass studio," Kornbluh said. "I thought all glass was produced that way and didn't realize you could set up a small glass shop with a torch.
"My goal at that point was to accent my metal work with glass."
With a new outlook on art, Kornbluh dived headfirst into torchwork glassblowing and introduced Losee to the art form.
"When I was 17, I was dating his daughter, and I joke that he figured out how to divert my attention," Losee said. "I had been interested in glassblowing already, so when I found out he was doing that I definitely jumped on the opportunity to use the equipment and experiment and play around."
And after obtaining his GED, doing odd jobs and working on his craft for several years, Losee took a job offer from Kornbluh at the Lincoln Hot Glass studio when it opened in 2014.
"He's really grown as an artist and has made a name for himself in this community," Kornbluh said.
Losee manages the daily operations of the studio and teaches classes, while Kornbluh owns the space and pays the lease. The two maintain an artistic partnership that has lasted more than 15 years.
Part of what makes the operation possible is that it's built around Kornbluh's main business, High Volume Oxygen, an oxygen systems company used by glassblowers around the world. The toughest obstacle glassblowing studio owners run into is the cost of paying for gas and oxygen. It's the brunt of their expense, and it's a huge barrier to entry for novices looking to try their hand. It also limits the size and scope of a studio.
"A lot of places I've been to are grungy working studios, where they're not open to the public with the exception of universities," Kornbluh said. "The fact that we're open to the public and that we have stations available for rent isn't typical."
But having its own efficient oxygen system means Lincoln Hot Glass is able to significantly cut costs and create a makerspace for newcomers and journeyman artists to experiment.
"Gas trucks can cost you hundreds a day. The fact we've been able to create a studio with really low costs means that we can provide benches and torch space cheaper than they can build themselves," Kornbluh said. "An incubator space should have some business development features, and the hardest part of young people getting into business is the cost of entry. For us to be able to lower that just amazes me."
And young artists having a place to work and hone their craft is important to Kornbluh and Losee. The studio has eight artists renting permanent stations, each with a key to the front door, giving them 24-hour access.
Kornbluh described the space as the center of a community of artists each working toward creating art for both enjoyment and for profit. Many of the artists renting space make artwork to sell, including glass jewelry, parts for larger pieces and tobacco pipes.
"I like the fact that we have a certain amount of synergy," Kornbluh said. "It makes me happy to see them developing as artists and getting some sense of entrepreneurship. I do think there's a market for functional glass that enables them to survive."
And Kornbluh believes their success will continue. He said glassblowing remains the fastest-growing art form in the world, especially for artists looking to make a career in small business.
"It's a cottage industry and it's enormous," he said. "Mirano in Venice has hundreds of small studios and they're making glass gondolas and stuff. You go to Lauscha, Germany, and that entire town is built around Christmas ornaments. Almost every family has little glass shops to create Christmas ornaments for the world market.
"If there is a vast history of torchwork glass, it's all about this ability to run these little independent maker businesses."
Losee said glass is an alluring and attractive material for people, drawing them into art shows and displays.
"Assuming that nothing breaks it by force, the things that we make here will look exactly the same a million years from now as they do today," he said. "The colors won't fade, they're permanent. While things made of bone or ivory or wood or even stone are relatively impermanent, glass is chemically stable."
That said, sometimes there's nothing more satisfying than working with a material that shatters easily when things aren't going your way.
"You'll throw it in a bucket of water and it's like a volcano explodes," Losee said. "There's steam and glass cracking and it's a satisfying good riddance."
Despite its attractiveness, glassblowing is a difficult form to get a handle on and even harder to master. Losee said that of the more than 900 students he's taught, about 90% do not sign up for a second class.
"I've spent some time learning languages and learning different instruments and I would say that it's as difficult as both of those things. And I think comparable in a lot of ways in terms of the learning curve," he said. "If you're learning Spanish or something, you can learn a lot in the first couple weeks and then it starts to get a little slower."
But of those who stuck around, all of them came through the classroom first. Kornbluh said some of the renters come from Omaha and one commuted from Kansas to use the studio when he had the opportunity. He said it all had to do with the obsession with glass that many artists develop during production. It's also what makes the endeavor all worth it for both him and Losee.
"I love glass," he said. "It brings me joy."
Information from: Lincoln Journal Star, http://www.journalstar.com