Ohio native Samuel Spees was introduced to glassmaking while pursuing a degree in mathematics and playing football at Centre College in Kentucky. He became so enthralled that he switched his major to art. Today he creates both functional and sculptural pieces in his studio near Penland, and refers to glassmaking as his “new favorite sport.”
Did you always have a tendency toward art?
I was always into creative doodling and sketching. In college I wanted to keep doing art as a break from the rigorous structure of school and even sports.
What was the attraction to glass?
I just waltzed into the glass shop to see what was going on and it grabbed me. A few people were making glass in this kind of choreographed dance, and it made perfect sense to me. Everyone was doing separate things simultaneously while working toward the same goal.
Glassmaking is hard to do by yourself; it’s definitely a team sport.
Did your football skills transfer over to glassmaking?
One-hundred percent! I transferred the language of football to the language of glass. I was really fortunate to have a teacher who was athletic and understood the similarities between sports and glassmaking. It’s a combination of planning, practice, repetition, and reaction when you get into a situation and have to adapt to what’s happening. In a liquid state, glass has fluidity, and you have to be fluid with the material to guide it along. You have to be aware of how to move with how the glass moves and be hyper-focused, or you’ll miss a little part that isn’t really a little part.
Because little mistakes can cause big problems?
Like my coach said, “Pay attention to details. They aren’t small. They are just details.” If you lose focus for half a second, the piece can break because the outer surface cools faster than the internal part. In the beginning you count off the seconds to know how long you have. Eventually, with practice and experience, you can feel the glass doesn’t move the same way, and that’s a sign you need to heat it back up. It’s also physically demanding. The heat is very intense. You can sweat out a couple of pounds in the studio.
Did football help you develop that physical stamina?
Definitely. You also have to have a level of pyro-crazy and be a little nuts about fire.
How has your creative style evolved?
I noticed all these shards of pretty glass on the ground — excess cut from production lines or people making their own glasswork. I started collecting them and fusing them together and hit on something I really like. Then I started making my own color trimmings. I put the shards together and roll them up and blow them out. I lay them out in a particular pattern. But then the glass does what it does. It’s reminiscent of watercolor painting in a way.
What are you working on now?
For this next show I’m experimenting with more sculpted, closed forms, indicative of geometric shapes. I frame these like paintings almost, using a clear border of glass around the colored pattern to highlight it.
Has living in rural WNC influenced your work?
Oh, yeah! I’m seeing the world through a whole different lens, because of the outdoor world I had never lived in before. The natural aspects of the mountains and sky are such a beautiful thing, and I’m trying to reflect that in my work.
Sam Spees, Spruce Pine. The artist’s solo exhibit Perception runs at the NC Glass Center (140 Roberts St., Suite C, in Asheville’s River Arts District, ncglasscenter.org) through Sunday, Nov. 29. For more information about the artist, visit samfspees.com. Also on Facebook (Sam Spees) and Instagram (@samspees).