They are more than the Odd Couple; they are first Improbable Individuals, next the Unlikely Couple, a surprising partnership of art and business. One earned a degree in a philosophy, then went on to make a living -- an amazingly good living -- as a juggler. He is partially color blind.
The other is a "recovering actor" a man who has always drawn and painted, but who had a serious career as a personal trainer (and still has pecs that serve as a darned credible resume). The two met at a class at SFSU, a class both took for fun, rather than for credit, as you might try ceramics, or I might sign up for weaving. Both chose glass blowing.
Now fast forward. They have taken more glass classes. They have taught glass classes. They made a lot of glass. Pages fly off the calendar. They sell art glass at home boutiques, then at San Francisco and East Bay galleries.
Now freeze the action. Richard Ross and Mark Rubnitz are working in a 1600 square foot yacht warehouse in Alameda, remodeled with their own hands, equipped primarily with fixtures of their own creation ("I know how to weld now," Richard says, with uncharacteristic seriousness).
See Richard juggle a blow pipe across a marver table of his own construction. See Mark train molten glass to admirable posture behind a heat shield he built himself.
Blowing glass has become their art. Here it becomes their livelihood. They work, teach and sell here. They live out their philosophy of art as teamwork (trading space for help from fellow glass artists). They call it Atomic Glass.
Some artists keep their creative process private. Others talk about it, but employ a vocabulary that excludes the interested lay person. Not so Richard and Mark "Glass is really a spectator art!" Richard grins.
They speak of their work with enthusiasm and idealism (and as serious collectors will tell you, the very best time to invest in an artist's work is while he speaks of idealism in the present tense). And they want others to see the process and work, and love it as they do.
"Glass is both art and craft," Richard told By Hand. Poor man. He has no idea that he has pressed the By Hand hot button. We press back.
"Art is something I do for me. If people dig it Yay! Craft is something I do to build technique and to make repeatable, functional objects."
Mark disagrees. "Glass is so high craft, it's art," he tells Richard. "Ultimately, you have to ignore what everybody says and do what you know is right." Mark respects the philosophy of The Artist's Way. "Do the work," he reminds Richard. "The rest will follow."
It's clear that these two have covered this territory before, taking different trails to arrive at the same glassy clearing.
"We are doing this for ourselves. You have to, to create good work," Mark told By Hand. "This glass means something to us and connects with something in us."
Richard gestures to beautiful bowls, swirling with color, and to brightly necked, straight-sided goblets. "These are craft with good design," he insists. He lifts a more abstract piece, a bright and primitive glass face. "This Tiki Man, this is art." In between are some astonishing fish, meant to swim across tables or shelves. Their eyes defy description. Like the Tiki Man, they are tangible evidence of Richard's lively sense of humor. "Glass is the only place where I can see it in my head, and I can make it happen" Richard says.
Isn't glass hard to manage, less predictable than, say, paint? "Only if you make a mistake. The glass will remember." Like metal? Richard laughs. "Glass is more devious than metal," he says, "Glass will remind you later."
Their enthusiasm turns to action when a visitor admires an unusual vase, its marbled opaque bottom a sharp contrast to its colorfully transparent top. Mark explains that the vase's halves were formed from two matched glass "bubbles," blown, then opened and joined into single whole. "Why don't we make one?" he asks.
Whether you have witnessed glass blowing once or a hundred times, it never fails to thrill. There is something dangerous in the process, something unexpected and miraculous in the outcome. And always, always, there is the heat.
Mark and Richard open furnace doors and gather clear glass on long blow pipes. At least, they say it is clear; to the skittish visitor, it is screaming-red, fiery orange, anything-but-clear glass. They confer over dishes of frit, the intensely hued, ground glass that will color their work. They choose shades and roll their hot glass in the sandy color, then turn it, reheat it in the adjacent glory hole. That they can talk while this is happening amazes the observer.
"You have to work with a sense of urgency, of immediacy," Mark acknowledges. "And then, when you are finally done, it goes in the annealer. You have to wait 12 hours to see your work." (The annealer is a large kiln set to temperatures far lower than the hot glass, probably a "cool" 950 degrees or so. It lets the work approach atmospheric temperatures at a manageable pace, discouraging explosion as glass parts cool unevenly.)
As they work, Richard and Mark get help from Jaime Guerrero, a CCAC grad who trades his assistance for Atomic Glass studio time. "One of the best things about working at (San Francisco) State was being around other artists," says Richard. "We like the sense of community, and we want this to be a place where people come and hang out."
It's a little like a dance as the three occupy the work space simultaneously. Richard revisits the glory hole, then rolls the pipe handle in a water trough as Jaime steps neatly away from the long rod and its molten treasure. Now Richard gives one or two puffs on the blow pipe, tearing his lips away with dramatic and customary glass blowing gesture. Mark is at the marver and ]aime is beside him, offering thick wads of wet newspaper to help him shape his glass into a giant, old-fashioned Christmas tree light. Now Jaime fires up a propane torch to administer heat to a problem spot. Mark rolls the blow pipe on the metal table top.
"When you're blowing, you need an assistant," Jaime says.
"Some people blow by themselves," Richard says. "But you can do better stuff of greater scale with help. And it's way more fun."
Joining the two halves together, opaque and translucent, all three circle the vase. The joint is successful, and Mark detaches the glass from one rod with a perfect blow. The extra piece drops neatly into a pan of water, shatters and sizzles as a noisy reminder that this taffy-like substance is, after all, glass. They finish with a hot-red lip, a bold contrast to the swirling greens and purples. "I like bold colors," the partially color-blind Richard says, "Cause I can see 'em." Mark shakes his head.
Improbable Individuals, a surprising partnership of art and business. Great glass. Visit Atomic Glass to see Richard and Mark's creations - bowls, carafes and goblets, vases and figuratives, surprises of all kinds. (They welcome your purchases, of course, or just your interest. Maybe even your company.)