NEWPORT — While fields of pumpkins aren’t unusual in Giles County this time of year, Parker Stafford’s glittering glass pumpkin patch at his studio off U.S. 460 deserves the term “remarkable.”
Glowing orange, pink, green, iridescent blue, and other colors not found in the rainbow, these pumpkins were formed with 2,100-degree heat, imagination, and time-honed glass working skills.
Stafford has been a glass artist since 1994, when he fell in love with glass work halfway through a program in sculpture. This year he has created well over 100 glass pumpkins of various sizes for his pumpkin patch sale – today through Friday, Oct. 1. They range from silver and black Goth pumpkins to cheery ginger ones to blue patterned pumpkins that resemble fine china. He’s spread them throughout his studio and into his yard on Sinking Creek Mountain.
“Putting at least part of the display outside will make it easier to socially distance and take the pressure off shoppers,” Stafford said.
Visitors will likely be treated to live glassblowing demonstrations, as Stafford will be creating additional glass art objects while hosting the pumpkin patch. Cajoling screaming-hot, molten glass into art is an intense dance. The terse moves of this glass crafter are so carefully orchestrated, the duties so precisely configured and intuitive for a relaxed master like Stafford that you don’t realize a second’s delay will turn the glass unworkably sluggish. Too much pressure cracks the molding glass; too little produces weak stems. Heat is life for glass.
So Stafford steps lively as he works – from the gathering, winding a gob of fiery taffy on the end of his punty, to shaping with a wooden implement, and twirling the glowing glass to give it shape. Water breaks are important here next to his furnace, where temperatures can hit 100 degrees.
Stafford gives lessons on how to make a glass pumpkin paperweight when he’s not building up his inventory. This instruction always takes place in one-on-one sessions because the process of working with red-hot glass is so exacting and so potentially dangerous.
“I’d say the student does about half the work,” Stafford said. “I have to step in and do some parts of it. Most of the glassblowers I’ve talked to only let the student pick the color and blow at the very end of the process. I screen my customers carefully, and we’ve always had things turn out okay. The glass hasn’t broken.”
Stafford put together much of his studio and furnace himself, building things as he needed them, “doing it all on a dime.” The building sits on the north side of U.S. 460 as the highway descends Sinking Creek Mountain toward Newport. For the last several years, Stafford has been living 70 feet from his furnace and studio in a beat-up trailer. After a shoulder injury that halted his glass work for a few years, a downturn in the economy, and a divorce, he moved into the small mobile home. The only way to provide for his family and meet his business needs was to sell his spacious home, he said.
“Paying for the electricity and natural gas to run the glass furnace every month is like having a mortgage,” Stafford said. “You don’t just shut a 2,100-degree furnace down if you’re going to use it within a few days or even a week.”
Like craftspeople around the world, Stafford has re-invented his way of doing business during the pandemic. He doesn’t sell his work to craft shows anymore; nor does he send as much work to galleries. He’s doing more selling directly to his customers and doing it online. He uses Facebook, his website, direct email to customers, and other strategies he learned from an Internet-savvy artisan.
“I can charge less this way,” Stafford said. “There’s no markup to cover the gallery’s expenses. Our prices are some of the best for work of this caliber, handmade in the USA.”
Stafford’s online fans often contact him when they’ll be in the area. They come from Northern Virginia, Maryland, Florida, and all over. Most order online, he says.
“I’ve become an expert at packaging glass,” he said. “I pad it enough that the package could be thrown around without damaging my glass.”
Stafford’s art glass includes much more than the seasonal pumpkins. He creates stunning paperweights, Christmas decorations, vases, and vessels of various sorts. Stafford’s always coming up with new ideas – suncatchers to hold sprouting plants, stackable glass art for gardens, glass creations that play with light in unusual ways. His Andromeda Geode pieces look like geodes, or even meteorites, cut open to reveal a galaxy of light within.
“The majority of these geode pieces were bought for or by men. At least people can skip buying the tie or the grilling tools,” Stafford said.
The Glass Pumpkin Patch at Stafford Art Glass studio is open 1 to 4 p.m. Sundays and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, through Oct. 3. at 8685 Virginia Avenue (U.S. 460), Newport. For more information see Stafford Art Glass at Facebook or call (540) 605-0034.