Standing in the gallery of Sam Stang’s Augusta Glass Studio with sunlight pouring in through the plate glass window feels a little bit like you’re standing inside a rainbow — the brightly colored bowls, platters, pitchers, wine glasses, ornaments and other pieces all around you.
That makes it a pretty happy place to go to work every day, Stang admits, even after 25 years. That was always the idea, he said — make a living out of doing work he was passionate about.
Back in 1992 when Stang opened his studio in an old gas station building on Locust Street in Augusta, he invested literally everything he had into the idea. And today, he’s still as excited by the work as ever.
“It seems really weird that it has been 25 years. It doesn’t feel possible,” said Stang. “It went by really quickly, and I think that’s a testament to enjoying what I do. I still enjoy coming to work; I still look forward to getting to work. If I didn’t have this, what would I be doing? I don’t know.”
Might Have Been an Anthropologist
Stang was born in Northfield, Minn., in 1959, but his family moved to the St. Louis area, and he grew up mostly in University City.
His father was a professor at Washington University, which meant Stang could attend eight semesters for free. He started out as an anthropology major, but then he discovered the glass studio on campus. He signed up for a class as an elective, which was followed by many more semesters.
“I really loved it,” Stang remarked, “and then I kept taking elective classes and ultimately . . . ”
After eight semesters of classes taken between 1980 and ’84, Stang didn’t have enough credits to finish his degree in anthropology. He had used too many of them for classes in the glass studio.
“I just got addicted to it, I guess,” he said.
Stang’s strong interest drove him to continue learning and trying new things, which translated into high quality artwork. Some people would call that talent, but he prefers the word aptitude.
“People often look at my work and say, ‘You’re so talented.’ What I always think is, ‘Well, I just work really hard.’ I think a lot of people maybe don’t develop their passion or whatever it is to that level because they don’t follow through and work as hard,” said Stang.
In addition to the classes he took in the glass studio at Washington University, Stang enrolled in an eight-week concentration class at Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina with instructor Fritz Dreisbach (1983) and a two-week class at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Maine (1991), where he studied under Lino Tagliapietra, whom he described as “a master glassblower who is really one of the most renowned glassblowers alive.”
From Ibex to Augusta
A year after Stang left Washington University, he co-founded and built the Ibex Glass Studio in midtown St. Louis with two fellow glassblowers who also were from University City and had gone to Washington University.
“We were the first commercial glass shop in the city of St. Louis,” said Stang, noting at the time there was another small glass studio in Fenton, but the work was more of a hobby for the owner, because he had another business.
In 1991, Stang decided to open his own solo glass studio. He left Ibex and purchased an old, vacant gas station/garage in Augusta that dated back to the 1920s.
“There were still gas pumps out front,” he said, recalling the day he first stepped in the building.
“I liked the light in here, just the open space in there, the big doors. When I first walked in, I could imagine where the furnaces could go and how it could be a glass shop,” said Stang.
He found the building by happenstance one day when he and a friend were taking a drive to get out of the city for the day. He had been thinking of heading west to Seattle, because a lot of glass blowers were going there at the time, including a number of his friends.
It took Stang almost a year to be able to purchase the building, scraping together everything he had to make the down payment on the loan. He put up a wall to section off part of the space for a small apartment.
“It was pretty rough,” Stang recalled, noting he also put in a shower and a small stove. “I lived here for two winters.”
Outside of Stang’s Augusta Glass Studio, there is no sign posted or painted on the door to let you know where you are. As it has been from its first day, the studio is open by appointment only — except for this time of year, when Stang opens his door to the public for a special holiday sale (see sidebar).
“If I opened up all the time, I would have to hire someone to sit in the gallery or I wouldn’t get any work done,” he commented.
Initially, Stang thought having a studio in the heart of Missouri wine country that he could establish a good business selling hand-blown wine glasses. But local customers found them to be outrageously expensive, and Stang realized he needed a much broader customer base.
He began presenting his work at wholesale shows like the American Craft Council Show in Baltimore, Md., that took orders for pieces to sell in galleries and department stores all over the country.
“The work I was making was fairly simple — pitchers, small bowls, tumblers and functional decorative ware,” said Stang, noting 25 years ago he made a living by taking orders from deparment store buyers for placed like Neiman Marcus and Macy’s.
After a while, Stang switched from wholesale shows to retail shows, where he sells directly to customers.
He does around nine to 10 shows a year in places all over the country.
Since 1992, Stang has had exhibits of his work many times in St. Louis, but also in New York, California, Florida, Georgia and Michigan. And four times (1997, 2001, 2002 and 2012) he has exhibited at the Smithsonian Craft Show in Washington, D.C.
Artists have to apply to be accepted for the show, and it’s an expensive one to participate in, said Stang.
“Unless you are selling a lot, it can be a break-even show,” he remarked. “But it’s also a great honor.”
In addition to making his glass pieces and selling them at shows, Stang has been able to share his knowledge as an instructor and visiting artist over the last 20 years. He has taught classes in Missouri, Illinois, Montana, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania, and even once in Nagoya, Japan at Aichi University (2005).
For many years, Stang has spent a day teaching a class to ceramic engineering students at Missouri University of Science & Technology in Rolla.
As one of the first working glass artists in Missouri, Stang’s style set a standard for other artists who came after him.
“Many times people outside of the state call his style ‘Missouri style,’ because so many artists were influenced by his technique,” said Kaeko Maehata, a glass artist who works with Stang at Augusta Glass Studio and also is his wife of 15 years.
Stang said his style is influenced by European glass blowing, mostly Italian and Swedish.
“I was influenced a lot by a particular factory in Murano, which is the island outside of Venice, called Venini,” said Stang.
He was introduced to the Venini style early on in his study of glassblowing through a Smithsonian traveling show that came to the Science Center.
“I was completely amazed by it and tried to find as much information as I could about Venini. When I started learning to blow glass, I was just drawn to that style, which is a lot of graphic patterns, a lot of stretching glass into rods and using the rods to make patterns,” said Stang.
Maehata’s style is noticeably different than Stang’s.
She studied in Japan, and her pieces displayed in the gallery at Augusta Glass Studio at first glance look like ceramics. But up close and held to the light, you can see that they are glass.
Annual Holiday Sale
The annual holiday sale at Augusta Glass Studio begins this weekend.
The studio will be open Friday evenings, Dec. 1 and 8, from 5 to 10 p.m. during the Augusta Candlelight Christmas Walk, and on Saturdays and Sundays, Dec. 2-3 and 9-10.
Hours will be 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays, and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sundays. Glass blowing demonstrations will be held at 2 p.m. each day.
The sale will feature items by Stang, Maehata and also Eric DePan, who works in the studio assisting Stang and Maehata.
Tables will be set up all around the studio with pieces for sale. There will be a range of prices.
The studio accepts cash, check and charge.
Augusta Glass Studio is located at 5508 Locust St., Augusta.