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  • 22 Oct 2014

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In Character with Ian Gilula

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO; JAMIE VALDEZ - Ian Gilula, co-owner of Elements Glass, has only moments to find the shape he wants before his liquid glass turns solid. This month, about 1,000 customers have come to Elements to blow their own Christmas ornaments.Never tell Ian Gilula that his business sucks. Gilula, co-owner of Elements Glass in Northwest Portland, has been teaching glass-making for 13 years in Portland, and he knows the opposite is true. And every December his business expands with all kinds of customers when he opens the studio to more than 1,000 people who blow their own Christmas ornaments.

Portland Tribune: What’s the most unusual request you’ve had for an ornament?

Ian Gilula: A woman who had a diamond she inherited from her mom who passed away. She wanted to make it into an ornament. The best we could think of was right before the hook goes on the ornament, the opening allows us to put something inside. We put the diamond inside and sealed it.

We’ve had some ornaments where people brought in ashes from their family member who passed away and they thought it would be nice to make an ornament for each member of the family with the ashes.

We did a community service day for the Children’s Healing Art Project and had the first ornament ever blown through a tracheal tube.

Tribune: What happened?

Gilula: A 6-year-old boy came in and he had never experienced the pressure of blowing. He could not visualize what his breath was like because he had always breathed through a tube in his neck. We hooked up a neoprene tube that fit into his tracheotomy tube and he was able to blow the ornament out. His parents were with him. It was one of the best experiences of his life. It was a beautiful moment.

A funny one we had was a group of Girl Scouts in their late 80s.

Tribune: Girl Scouts? I’m not sure that’s even politically correct for women in their 80s.

Gilula: Lady Scouts. One of them was hard of hearing so when we’re blowing the ornaments the instructor told her to blow very softly. She couldn’t hear and she kept blowing and the ornament got bigger and bigger and bigger until it popped.

Tribune: Ever had a customer who just couldn’t blow glass?

Gilula: No. We’ve had a 2-year-old blow. They may be small, but they can blow breath into it.

Tribune: What happens if you inhale?

Gilula: We did one time have a child so young she did not know the difference between sucking and blowing. I was doing it with her and I’m telling her to blow, but I notice the ornament is getting smaller. We all told her blowing is like expanding a balloon and sucking is like drinking a milkshake through a straw. She learned how to blow that day.

Tribune: But isn’t inhaling molten glass dangerous?

Gilula: Think of it like a two-liter bottle. Sucking only squeezes the sides in.

Tribune: I’m looking around here, there’s glass sitting everywhere. An earthquake would kill you guys.

Gilula: We used to have earthquake insurance. It was a few thousand dollars a year. Then that Japanese tsunami happened, and it went up to $40,000 a year. They priced people out of earthquake insurance.

Tribune: What do you guys do for fun around here?

Gilula: This year we did a flaming metal table. We poured a bottle of rubbing alcohol and rolled 2,000-degree glass through it. It lights the whole thing on fire. It’s like an instant explosion of fire.

We used to do the Glass Olympics for fun. We would make teams of glass blowers and each team had to complete exercises. (One was) who could do the longest glass pull. We’d connect two rods together, one person was in the back of a hatchback, and they’d take off down the road. The glass would pull and at night you could see a line of fire down the road.

Tribune: How long can you stretch hot glass?

Gilula: About 60 or 80 feet. There’s a moment when it’s just liquid, it’s like string, and once it cools down it becomes brittle, so you have a small window. Once it breaks, that’s the end of your pull.