Hot furnaces, cool art

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Nate Nardi was a student at Jacksonville University in Florida when he discovered what has become his life’s work—glassblowing, the more than 2,000-year-old art and craft of shaping glass softened by extreme heat by blowing through a long tube. Nardi, who graduated with a fine arts degree in glass arts, then earned a master’s in fine arts from Kent State in Ohio, said he doesn’t define himself as an artist or a craftsman.

“There’s a lot of technical expertise involved, but there’s a lot of art, too. I don’t make a distinction as to where one stops and the other starts; I just love glassblowing,” he said.

Nardi is owner of Decatur Glassblowing, a hot shop and gallery that offers original glass pieces from small novelty items and jewelry pieces to large bowls, beverage sets, vases and art pieces. “Whether a pieces is purely art or a practical item often depends on what you do with it,” he commented. “You can put flowers in a vase or fruit in a bowl and it’s a functional item; otherwise, it can just be art.

“Every piece that comes from a glassblowing shop is unique,” Nardi said, “Some may be similar, but they are never identical. Even with a set of tumblers or wine glasses, for example, each piece will be slightly different from the others.”

In addition to the dozens of showroom items, Decatur Glassblowing produces custom art pieces, including wedding unity ceremony items, memorial cremation glass and corporate awards. “Sometimes customers want a special art piece for their home. Those are expensive and time consuming, and it’s important that I feel I can get on board with that person’s vision—we have to be on the same page. If I don’t feel good about the project, I would rather not work on it,” Nardi said.

He said he and his staff produce very few high-end pieces that sell for thousands of dollars, adding, “Most of our work is smaller pieces that the average person can afford.”

Decatur Glassblowing also offers demonstrations and classes at which students can gain skill from the beginner to the advanced level. Some come for one-time events at which groups can make a small piece just for fun. “We get corporate team building groups, wedding parties, and dating couples looking for a different experience,” Nardi said. “They make something small such as an ornament, a paperweight or a cup that becomes a souvenir of the experience.”

The shop is equipped with two furnaces that burn at approximately 2,000 degrees around the clock, “glory holes”—reheating chambers that keep glass at approximately 900 degrees—chambers for slowly cooling the finished items and a cold shop for grinding, cutting and polishing.

Temperature is essential to glassblowing, Nardi explained. “When you’re working with the glass, you can’t let it get much below 900 degrees or it will crack,” he said. Despite the high temperatures, Nardi said, the work is safe when precautions are followed. “There actually is a lot of work that’s much more dangerous than this. I have a metal shop here where we build and repair equipment. I consider it more dangerous than the hot shop.”

Decatur Glassblowing is most visible from South Columbia Drive near the intersection of East College Avenue; however, the entrance is at Freeman Street, a short street off Weekes Street just east of where South Columbia becomes Commerce Street. “The place had been a machine shop. I looked across the metro area for a place for my business, then I found this. It was perfect,” he recalled.

“Decatur is a great location,” Nardi said. “It’s a vibrant, creative community with lots going on. I tell people we’re in downtown Decatur and they say, ‘Great, I come to Decatur all the time to eat or go to festivals.’”

Festivals are where many learn about Decatur Glassblowing, which has a presence at many Decatur events. “We offer small items for sale and some festivalgoers are interested enough to come to the gallery at some later date,” Nardi said.

He explained that in the Atlanta area the glassblowing community is made up of a small, generally friendly group. Although another glassblowing shop, Hot Glass, is a short distance from Decatur Glassblowing, the relationship between the two businesses is amicable, Nardi said. “We support each other’s events and sometimes do events together,” he said.

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