You could argue Conrad Williams is at home wherever he can handle molten glass—blowing it, rolling it, shaping it into pieces of art. In fact, he’s handled it across the United States, from east to west.
But even for the well-traveled Williams, Naples is home in a unique way. It’s where he was born and spent the first 13 years of his life, back in a time when “everybody knew everybody” and “Pine Ridge Road was dirt,” he recalls with a laugh. It’s where he lives with his wife, Erin (a fellow Naples native and an accomplished photographer whose work has won numerous awards), and their two children, who exert themselves mastering tennis on Sundays during the school year. And Naples is where—at the small studio behind his house—he teaches students about what he calls the “modern-day magic” of glassblowing.
On a cool Saturday morning, Conrad is demonstrating this magic, sticking his wizard’s staff—a specialized rod called a blowpipe—in a furnace that seems to burn as hot as the low-hanging Florida sun. The heat is matched only by the intensity of his focus, his hands steadily rotating the blowpipe so that the lump of molten glass at its end feels the full effect of the furnace’s 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit.
In 30 minutes, this lump will transform into an ornate purple dish. But for Conrad, the allure of glassblowing lies not in this dish or any other glasswork he has produced. “The excitement of glassblowing is frequently in the process,” he says, speaking with tempered enthusiasm. “A lot of times, for glassblowers, their finished product is a byproduct of the process of making. That’s really where the magic is.”
A Hobby Becomes a Career
Conrad fell in love with glassblowing while attending an art-focused high school in Massachusetts, where he found himself transfixed by a glassblowing demonstration during a weekend visit to Worcester. “At one point, I looked at my watch and realized that I had been there watching for six hours,” he says. “It’s hypnotizing. You can get lost in it.” That hypnosis never quite wore off, and during his senior year of high school, he successfully applied to intern with the shop where he’d watched that demonstration.
Two years later, during his sophomore year at the University of Oregon as a student of environmental science, a period during which he used his newfound skills to fashion drinking glasses and small gifts for family and friends, Conrad faced an important decision regarding his blossoming hobby as a glassblower.
“I saw that my nights and my weekends and some of my mornings were dedicated to glassblowing,” he relates. “So, I either had to quit glassblowing or focus on it.” That year, he transferred to the California College of the Arts, with the goal of turning his hobby into a career.
Meeting the Magicians
In California, Conrad’s knowledge and skills grew under the guidance of his professors, accomplished glassblowers Guido Gerlitz and Erik Eiserling. “Instead of going off and doing whatever college students do on Saturdays, I would donate my Saturdays to them,” he recounts mirthfully and with deep admiration for his professors. Those Saturday sacrifices paid off. By the time he graduated, Conrad advanced his skills enough to impress Benjamin Moore, who is famous for introducing the coveted techniques of Italian glassblowers to North America, as well as legendary glassblower Dale Chihuly. Both took on Conrad as an intern at their studios in Seattle, a city he describes as “the mecca for glassblowers in this country.”
Within these studios, Conrad was exposed to amazing talents; prominent glassblowers regularly visited and worked in each. To this day, Conrad remains humbled by the experience. “There were all of the artists I’d been watching on VHS tapes as a teenager,” he recalls. “I worked side by side with my heroes—people that I had deeply admired. It was like watching magicians.”
With such figures to guide him in mastering his craft, it is no wonder that—having completed his internships—the glassblowing classes he began teaching at his own studio back in Oregon became a local sensation. “We got to be rated the No. 1 thing to do in Eugene on Tripadvisor,” Conrad recalls, proceeding to explain how he was splitting his time between giving lessons and focusing on fine art projects when his life took an unexpected turn: Conrad and Erin learned they were expecting their first son, Logan.
Old Roots, New Seeds
Back in Naples on that bright Saturday morning, Erin asks Conrad if he’s ready. Seated at his glassblower’s bench, holding his blowpipe and the hot glass oval at its tip steady, Conrad nods and says, “Go ahead.”
He watches closely as Erin lowers her own lump of molten glass, attached to the head of her own blowpipe, until it connects his, and then he begins to roll his blowpipe along the bench. Erin’s glass spools around Conrad’s in a thick red-hot string, Conrad’s twirling motions carefully synchronized with the steady movement of his wife’s hands to produce what will become the purple spiral pattern on the dish.
“In glassblowing, you need an assistant,” Conrad explains, but his partnership with Erin transcends their respective arts, dating all the way back to their childhoods in Naples. As kids, he and Erin often played with the same groups of friends, but it was not until after they’d finished their college educations that they would meet again—for the first time in decades—at the wedding of a mutual friend in their home city. The rest, speaking romantically, is history. And, when Logan was born, the couple decided to return to their roots in Florida, where he could have a close relationship with his grandparents. They now have another son, Sawyer, too.
With their family settled and Conrad’s glassblowing classes at his home studio and at special events reaching a level of success rivaling his days in Oregon, the Williams family is in Naples to stay (though they do spend summers in the Pacific Northwest). It is teaching, after all, that Conrad loves most; it allows him not only to continue to practice the magic that he set out to master so many years ago but also to share it with people who may never have discovered it otherwise.
“The excitement you get when you first start blowing glass is like none other,” Conrad concludes, spinning the now-finished dish at the end of his blowpipe to cool it as the crisp morning gives way to a bright afternoon. “It’s contagious. And for the kids to see someone who liked something, studied it, worked really hard to get there, and now get to do it for a living … it opens their minds up to possibilities of what’s out there. Again, it’s that modern-day magic.”
It’s Not What You Can Make—It’s What You Can Fix
There is a mantra among glassblowers: “glass breaks.”
“You could be spot-on, all day long, using all of your skills … and the glass still breaks,” explains Conrad Williams. “And when that happens, you have glass that really can’t be used in any meaningful way.”
Such glass would usually find its way to a landfill or recycling plant, but for Conrad, the broken glass presented a problem to be fixed, a riddle to be solved. How could he put this broken glass to good use?
He found a solution in the form of a fellow artist, who specializes in what Conrad describes as “sculptural mosaics.” This artist needed material for her sculptures, and he needed a meaningful home for his broken glass. The two worked out a system to make something new out of what was broken. The sculptor purchases the broken glass from Conrad for her art, but instead of paying him the money, she makes the check out to Nearby Nature, an outdoor summer camp program in Oregon that gives children an opportunity to live in, learn about, and take care of the natural environment.
“Everybody wins,” Conrad says with a grin. “If I’m making a large vase that I’ve put a lot of time and energy into and it falls and breaks, we say, ‘Well, that just put a kid in camp.’ Now, it’s serving another purpose.”
And in this repurposing of broken glass for the education of children, there is an echo of another glassblower’s mantra that Conrad quotes wholeheartedly: “it’s not what you can make; it’s what you can fix.”