Refracting Glass with Henry Gross

“Every time I get on the torch, I feel like there’s always something new I can do… It’s kind of a magical medium.”

Henry Gross is a Chicago-native glassblower who has been refining his craft of glassblowing and crafting together. Through his medium, Gross has created a unique way of representing glass in everyday items such as kitchenware, jewelry, lenses, and other custom-made chachkies. Growing up, Henry first became involved with the community of glassblowers by taking a glassblowing class. It was here that he first saw the potential of the craft, and his eyes opened up to a potential career path for himself. After attending the Detroit Institute of Arts for a semester, Henry realized that he wanted to dedicate more of his time to glassblowing and refining practical skills, as opposed to the theoretical and broad scope of art that was offered in college.

In Henry’s eyes, the way of glass is an underrepresented way of expressing oneself, and he aims to show people just how unique this medium can be. It has now been at least five years since he began his own business with custom, made-to-order glass pieces. 

Photo: Henry Gross

Q: With glassblowing techniques being relatively consistent since their inception some 3,000 years ago, how unique can someone’s style be in glassblowing?

Henry: In some ways, it can be broken down into a science based on how you texture a piece of marble or how much you sand it to enhance its physical structure, such that if you hand it to someone they won’t realize that it’s a piece of glass. The amount of things you can do with glass is endless!

Q: Is there any big project you have in the works right now that you are excited for?

Henry: I am currently working on a taller structure, almost Eiffel Tower like, that I am expecting to spend a year on. I want it to be taller than me, and I want the top to come to a point and have a meaningful object hanging down to the ground. I have a vision for how I want it to turn out, but a lot of the physical manifestation of my vision is subject to change.

Q: How has the COVID-19 pandemic influenced your work/business?

Henry: Right now it’s difficult to find anyone doing exhibitions in the Chicago area, so I am not too concerned with my lack of doing exhibitions. However, things like “pop-up shops” or street fairs used to be the main source of how I would share my work with others, and those seemingly disappeared overnight. It’s been difficult trying to sell things online because pictures don’t do my glass justice. People need to be able to hold it and feel the texture, see how light reflects off of or passes through glass, and feel the weight of it. When you try to represent glass through pictures, you strip the medium of all of these sensational features and represent this 3D object as a 2D piece.

Q: Can you walk me through the glassblowing process and what your first experiences were like?

Henry: I started when I was 14, and I was involved in this little bead-making class at a community center. When I was first starting, the techniques used with torching the glass were so interesting to me that I saw great potential. My first couple of tries with making glass pieces, I made these imperfect shapes. Admittedly, it took a while for me to stray away from “what does the glass want to do today?” to “let’s make the glass look like this today,” which is similar to many crafts. A big appeal to me with glassblowing that is different from traditional art-making processes is the atmosphere in which you are creating your works of art. It’s a very industrious setting with a lot of loud machines and proper safety guidelines that you must adhere to so that you don’t hurt yourself pretty badly. 

Q: Do you feel like glassblowing is difficult to teach because it’s such a physical medium and there are endless possibilities to what you can create?

Henry: In some ways, it can be a difficult medium to teach because when there is no right or wrong way to do something, people can feel overwhelmed by the amount of freedom they are afforded. I definitely lean into that freedom though. It has changed the way I see regular items. Sometimes I’ll pick up an item and think to myself “this is really cool… I bet I could make this out of glass,” and it has inspired some fun projects like making a glass spatula. It’s very satisfying to be able to replicate something, or anything, that you want. And seeing people’s eyes light up when I tell them that it’s 100% glass, It’s magical. Every time I get on the torch, I feel like there’s always something new I can do… It’s kind of like a magical medium. It surprises me every time. 

Q: Does glassblowing give you a new found appreciation for how things are made?

Henry: Definitely. I can now look at things under this new light of my glassblowing expertise and notice little seams which indicate whether or not something was made by hand or in a factory. When you find something that is handmade, there’s usually an immediate giveaway. One of my favorite short films, Bert Haanstra’s Glas, shows the beauty of handmade objects and the blend between the science and art form that glassblowing takes on.

Photo: Henry Gross

Q: You talked a lot about how you are comfortable in Chicago, and that you’d like to travel and put your work out for other communities to see. Is discomfort something that you are currently leaning into?

Henry: Honestly, no, but that’s why I want to. I feel as though discomfort pushes you to do things all over again.  Going to Detroit—a completely new city—for college forced me to start over again and essentially prove myself as a person again. It was super exciting. It was that stark realization that you can’t just sit around. You have to go out into the world and try to make friends, or else you won’t have friends.

Q: Has glassblowing, as a job, changed or strained the relationship you have with making art as a means of expression?

Henry: Yes, it has. I would say that, in a way, I have changed the process of what I choose to create. I have to make a conscious decision of what I think will sell and make those things instead of what I personally want to create. Another thing I struggle with is calling myself an “artist” versus a “craftsperson.” I more so identify with the craft side of things. I’m a bit torn between making things just to make it and making things just to sell. I don’t ever want to just be a powerhouse of cranking out glass just so they can sell. Although, it’s a really cool feeling knowing that people all around the world are wearing my glass.

Find him on Instagram here, and his website here.

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