Heilman makes and sells glass art
in Federal Street Studio

by Ruth Riddick

When he's not blowing glass, Chris Heilman is out fishing, playing hockey, pursuing his new interest in scuba diving or surfing his recently-acquired "Road Runner" Internet - "you've got to do something for kicks!," he jokes.

But mostly Heilman blows glass in Portland's first Hot Glass Studio since the 1860s, a studio which he opened on Federal Street, off India Street just nine months ago. "I had been working in the garage attached to my house, but just seeing only the mailman all day got too boring."

"I came to Portland to stay 17 years ago because it was too hot to blow glass in Ohio," the artist and master craftsman, who was born in Connecticut but graduated from the Ohio's Dayton Art Institute, told Mainebiz. "I got tired of going to work at 10.30 pm with temperatures still in the 80s. I'd been visiting Maine since I was a child and I knew the weather was more temperate here."

Temperature is a critical factor in Heilman's work. His studio features two furnaces which are maintained at 2150 degrees, one of which hold 150 pounds of clear crystal, his raw material. "Crystal glass is always in liquid form," explains Heilman. "Even when it's solid, it's actually a slow motion liquid."

Keeping the crystal molten while Heilman decorates it is the job of the second furnace. Pieces are finally fired in the crystal furnace, prior to cooling. The furnaces and the cooling oven for the finished product were specially designed and built by Heilman for these purposes.

"It's a highly skilled and intricate process, and the finished artifacts, or glass sculptures, which retail from $600 to $3000,reflect both Heilman's artistry and his craft. "These are museum quality pieces," he confirms. Heilman's work is already featured in the permanent collections of the Portland Museum of Art and the Jones Museum of American Glass, and he counts John Payson among the private collectors of his work.

"The pieces are collectibles," he says, noting that his work is also collected by corporate clients such as the Swarovski International Corporation in Switzerland. One of the highlights of his career was when one of his glass sculptures was presented to the late Jacques-Yves Cousteau by the Atlantic Center for the Arts in Florida.

This last achievement comes as no surprise to admirers of Heilman's sculptures which are, he says, influenced by the great Japanese artists of the 17th century, whose work can be seen in such museums as the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The decorative world contained in the glass sculptures features delicate sea creatures and corals and, in another series, irises and wisteria. There is great attention to even the tiniest detail in the paperweights, vases and sculptures.

"I seem to have a special affinity with Japan," Heilman muses. "My work sells well in Japan, and my assistant, Keiko Akizawa, comes from Tokyo." Ahizawa, who is also an artist in glass, is working with Heilman as part of an exchange program with Japan. "She's here for one year to life," says Heilman happily. Ahizawa's placement was organized by the International Internship Program, a private corporation which places Japanese students in cultural positions around the world."This process needs two people," says Heilman, who is delighted to have an assistant of Ahizawa's skill.

Heilman agrees that he is, nonetheless, something of a one-person operation. "I'm the designer and manufacturer and I wholesale," he explains. "I'm my own middle-man. I spend six days a year doing wholesale. That usually takes care of sales for the year. Marketing takes up about 25% of my resources,and I'm just building my own web site." Heilman is fascinated by the Internet. "I've just bought this computer for the net--I haven't even got a printer yet. I'm on six websites already, and I'm having photographs taken today for my own site."

Heilman is now interested in marking up more retail sales. His work is displayed in the adjoining art glass gallery, which also features a selection of glass pieces by friends. "Some galleries as much as triple my prices," he says, inviting patrons to visit the Federal Street premises where they can see the sculptures being made as well as viewing, and purchasing, the finished pieces.

"I only take commissions for what I'm doing," he adds. "If I'm not doing what people want at the time, then I'm not the right person for them." Chris Heilman is obviously the right person for enough buyers and collectors, however. "I'm always selling out," is his proud boast.

Chris Heilman, hot glass artist, is prospering in his garret.

This article originally appeared in Maine Biz®, June 1998. Reprinted with permission.

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55 Federal Street, Portland, ME 04101