Sunday, November 9, 2014

Checking In with Glass Artist Dan Neff

"Production work helps pay the bills but I won't make work just to make money." 
~Dan Neff

I first noticed Dan Neff’s glass work at the Park Point Art Fair a few years ago. His work caught my eye and immediately reminded me of the Fenton Glass Works in Williamsburg, West Virginia near my grandmother's home when I was young. His work, along with the striking works of other glass artists, can be found downtown at Lake Superior Art Glass, 202 East Superior Street, Duluth.

EN: How did you first take an interest in "glass art"?
Dan Neff: From what I remember it all started when an upper class-man in high school started creating glass beads and pendants which I started buying from him to make hemp jewelry from. Several years ago, I was reminded that my aunt would bring me to the local craft fair every summer and she would let me buy a few handmade glass beads to add onto my necklace. I vaguely remember this but didn't make the connection until she reminded me about it.

EN: Where were you trained?
DN: I apprenticed from 2003-2006 in Virginia MN where I grew up. After moving to Duluth in 2006 I taught myself for 2 years from books, the internet and DVD tutorials. In 2008 I took my first professional level course with a world-renowned artist in Eugene OR. This was a game changer. I learned more in 2 days than I had in 2 months of teaching myself. Since then, I have learned from over 15 world-renowned artists and try to attend 1-2 classes of this caliber each year to further my skill sets.

EN: What kind of work do you like to do?
DN: I enjoy several types of glass art from hollow to solid but my favorite type of work to make is contemporary marbles. Marbles are a fascinating form as I have both two-dimensional and three-dimensional palettes to work with. The inside of the marble is always the most spectacular as it has depth, magnification and dimension (properties only found simultaneously in one medium: glass) and the back of the marble (the 2-d design) is the icing on the cake. In order to limit my work and increase it's collectability, I chose one background pattern each year to put on the backs of all the marbles I make that year. I say that marbles are the modern day paperweight. They're beautiful and collectible but it's been decades since people bought paperweights to actually hold down paper. As many know, art does not need to serve a function. Contemporary marbles are the fascinating, glass collectible of our day.

EN: Where does your inspiration come from?
DN: My inspiration is primarily technique based. Turning the ideas in my mind into a reality is not as simple as choosing the right colors and melting the glass. It is much more in depth because glass is an extremely technical medium. Not only do I need to practice the physical skill sets in order to achieve specific techniques, I also must understand how every color will work in every application. For example; each brand of colored glass that I work with has a standard white color. However, I would never use "Sno White" in the same application as "Star White." So, I truly enjoy the constant learning process as well as the practicing required to create a piece for the first time.

EN: How much of what you do is intended for sale and how much is creative expression?
DN: Most of what I create is intended for sale. That being said; that doesn't mean that it sells. My goal is to be able to raise a family while creating work that I take pride in every day. When a new creative expression isn't selling or generating interest, it pushes me to refine my idea until I have created a saleable piece that I enjoy making and that is still true to my original artistic expression. It's not easy to draw the line between production artist and creative artist but I do my best to balance them. Production work helps pay the bills but I won't make work just to make money. I always take pride in doing things right. My grandfather was a stone mason and I grew up working for him. One of his favorite sayings was, "Do it right or don't do it at all." I've recently expanded this to the saying "If you don't have time to do it right, you must have time to do it over." With that in mind, I strive for perfection on every piece I make- no matter how basic the form. My grandfather was a master at what he did and from an early age I admired his sense of mastery and strive to emulate this as a glass artist.


EN: What are the biggest challenges of running a store as an artist?
DN: This question touches on a topic that I struggle with daily. Many artists are intrinsically introverts. While I wouldn't go as far to say that I'm an introvert, I will say that trying to manage a business and employees definitely cuts into my focus as an artist. This is why you will see me blowing glass late at night or working in the back studio until the wee hours of the morning. I can create much of my work while helping my staff deal with the day-to-day tasks of running the business, but when I really need to be creative, I need my own funky, jam music blaring and no interruptions.

EN: Do you have a website or somewhere we can see your work online?
DN: I have two websites: Lakesuperiorartglass.com showcases the work we feature in the gallery from over 60 artists from around the country including my own work. My personal "brand" of glass art is Näf Glass. So, Nafglass.com is a site dedicated to only my work.

EN: Have you ever been into painting, drawing or sculpture?
DN: One thing I've realized over the years about my abilities, is that my brain can't create in 2-dimensions. I've never developed the skill to draw or paint something that looks 3-D on a 2-D surface. As a freshman in college I took a semester of ceramics and photography. These were both a good fit for me as I could create in 3-D using clay while challenging myself to learn the technical side of darkroom photography. My biggest creative outlet prior to blowing glass was music. I started learning to play drums at age 8 and by the time I was 18 had added piano, saxophone, guitar, bass guitar, accordion and vocal performance to my repertoire.

EN: What would you be doing if you weren't doing glass art?
DN: If I were not going glass art, I would be using my degree in Environmental Education from UMD. I truly enjoy teaching (especially children) and find satisfaction connecting people to our natural world. Fortunately, I get to live that vicariously through my girlfriend, Caitlin Johnson, who teaches at Hartley Nature Center's Preschool as well as at Hawk Ridge.

EN: Where have you been showing your work?
DN: Besides showing my work in my gallery, this year I've shown my work at:
American Craft Council, Baltimore, MD
Marble Crazy, Bonner Springs, KS
Fine Art Festival, Sarasota, FL
American Craft Council, St. Paul, MN
Brookside Art Annual, Kansas City, KS
Land of the Loon, Virginia, MN
Park Point Art Festival, Duluth, MN
Grand Marais Art Festival, Grand Marais, MN

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This blog post originally appeared in last week's Reader here in Duluth.

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