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It’s been nearly a decade since entrepreneurs Jim McKelvey and Doug Auer took their dream of a unique center dedicated to the art of glass and turned it into a vibrant, functional reality.
On Friday, Oct. 21, Third Degree Glass Factory, 5200 Delmar Blvd. in St. Louis, will celebrate its ninth birthday with a blow-out celebration for one and all.
At Third Degree Glass Factory, glass artists can take advantage of the facilities to create their work, while the uninitiated can come by to just watch, or to take a class and do some creative glassblowing of their own.
Every third Friday of the month, Third Degree hosts a Third Friday event with live music, fire blowing, glass activities and an art opening in the factory’s exhibition space.
In the Beginning
Auer obtained a degree in industrial design from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale after a semester in graphics design at the University of Kansas (K.U.).
“One of my instructors was a glass artist,” said Auer. “He had this little tiny studio in a garage. I was just enthralled.”
When he told his mother he would be transferring from K.U. to concentrate on blowing glass, she was initially not crazy about the idea, said Auer.
“Then I’d start getting requests for wedding gifts,” he laughed. “I’d bring a big box of (glassblowing) rejects to my mom’s house to be thrown away, and they’d end up in her garden or at my aunt Mary’s!”
Like Auer, Third Degree co-founder Jim McKelvey is also a glass artist. The two met when Auer was teaching glassblowing at Washington University. Auer later went to work for McKelvey at Mira Digital Publishing before they embarked on their Third Degree endeavor.
“We both wanted a place to blow glass,” said Auer. “It’s an expensive thing to do. As soon as you turn the furnace on you’re burning money.”
McKelvey, who Auer describes as a “parallel entrepreneur,” is currently working with Twitter founder and St. Louis native Jack Dorsey on the mobile payment firm Square. He still makes time to create colorful glass faucets, which can be seen in the Third Degree bathrooms – bathrooms that won the 2009 Riverfront Times’ “Best Public Restrooms” award.
One of the first items of business for Auer and McKelvey starting out was to find a place to house this glass factory dream of theirs.
“We wanted something on Delmar between the Loop and the Central West End because there’s all this traffic – not foot traffic necessarily, but a lot of people. We then looked for places we could afford.”
What they found was the site of a former car shop known in the 1950s as Thom’s Pontiac. The bay where they used to wash cars and do maintenance was, in 2002, “literally full of trash,” said Auer. Not at all discouraged, two weeks after seeing the space they bought the building.
“Jim handed me the keys and a checkbook with a certain amount of money in it and said, ‘Let me know when you run out,’” said Auer, who continues to run the day-to-day operations at Third Degree.
“My mom likes to tell people, ‘He’s living the dream,’” said Auer. “This is my life. I have to remind myself how lucky I am.”
Every month, Third Degree Glass Factory hosts a different exhibit in its East Gallery, the space visitors first see when they walk in the doors. Next in the expansive space is the Hotshop Gallery displaying the work of Third Degree artists. At the back of the building is the hotshop itself, with melt furnaces and glory holes used to heat the molten glass.
This is the heart of the factory, where artists work their magic. Chairs are set up so visitors can settle in and watch. Third Degree also has one of the largest kilns in St. Louis for artists’ use, and a space for flameworking, typically for making jewelry.
Glass as Art
Glass artist Mike Moran is one of Third Degree’s instructors and demonstrators. Many days a week he can be found in the hotshop either teaching a class, assisting other artists or making his own works of art.
An architect by trade, Moran found a second home at Third Degree when the economic downturn of 2008 hit and architecture work screeched to a halt. Like most professionals affected by the recent recession, the slowdown in work for Moran has been both a blessing and a curse.
“It allowed me to focus on glass,” he said. “Blowing glass is not like riding a bike. Glass is a craft. You have to have repetition to build muscle memory; you have to practice every day.”
Moran is a prime example of the quality of artist associated with Third Degree Glass Factory. He recently returned from a two-week workshop at the Pilchuck Glass School near Seattle, Wash. While there, Moran worked with Italian master glassblower Lino Tagliapietra. The experience has stayed with Moran, whose functional design work includes bowls, vases, stemware and more.
“A glass artist will often talk about being seduced, captivated by the material, the allure is so strong,” he said. “It’s a very natural material connected to fire, to the earth, ash, even breath. There’s a certain reward to working with material like that.
“It’s important to make time for the work,” he said. “The material is so fantastic. If you get it hot enough it can become anything. That’s the beauty of it: it’s a tremendous and inviting challenge.”
Any artist can rent time and equipment at the facility and place their work in the Hotshop Gallery for sale. The main requirement for display is that the work be done at the shop. Third Degree takes a small percentage of sales receipts; the rest goes to the artist.
“Curiously in the Midwest there is a robust little market for decorative arts,” said Moran. “Our gallery does pretty well.”
Moran still has a foot in both the glass and architecture worlds. More about Moran’s work can be found at mtmdesignllc.com.
Third Degree Glass Factory is open to the public Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The Third Friday Blowout Birthday Bash will be held Friday, Oct. 21, 6 to 10 p.m., with music by Salt of the Earth, a “Pumpkin Death Match” and much more, including a special fire spinning performance to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”
Learn more about Third Degree Glass Factory and the classes and events available to the public at www.thirddegreeglassfactory.com.