Did you know “the world record price for a paperweight was set at just over a quarter-million dollars in a 1990 Sotheby’s auction?”
Glass paperweights are not what you think. I had the rare pleasure of interviewing Melissa Ayotte who has worked as a glass artist for many years. As she explained her artistry, I discovered not all glass making is the same and hers is, in fact, a pretty specialized field.
On its most basic level, glass is really a supercooled liquid that must be taken back to its original state for it to be shaped. This requires a heating process that provides the artist with the opportunity to sculpt – making the craftsmanship one part science and another part art.
Historically, the old glass-making tradition of paperweights dates back to the 1800s and was first practiced in old glass houses in Europe – primarily in France and England.
Millefiori patterns are the primary pattern used in paperweights, which involves the use of colorful glass canes that are shaped into flower patterns. After they are shaped, they are encased in crystal.
Originally, glass makers followed a practice of blowing through glass and forming a what we usually think of glass making: forming vases and drinking glasses. Out of this practice, a small branch of artistry evolved and paperweight-making became a very popular art. The biggest studio houses making paperweight glass were Baccarat and Clichy.
When Melissa decided to enter the paperweight business, it came naturally given her experience watching her father who has been a paperweight maker for fifty years. He started his career as a scientific glass blower and was constantly working with glass in the basement.
As a result, Melissa didn’t think much about the artistry of glass and pursued a master’s degree in psychology, spending her time interning an average 20 hours a week while her father worked at his craft. Only when she sat down one day to use a torch did she realize this was what she was meant to do.
This was magical for Melissa – shaping and forming glass under a flame.
Melissa is happiest when she is forming her work under this flame. It is the place where she works with intention to create value and meaning. The intention is what the viewer sees: color, shape, texture and an awareness of the beauty in her work.
Melissa’s pieces are so intricate, it’s hard to imagine how she creates this incredible work. Design is where it starts and this means picking the colors and the type of color rod needed. There is a science to knowing how to choose and work the different kinds of color rods – some of which are made from German, Czech and other sources of glass.
Creating is like painting and sculpture all together. When sculpting the glass under the flame, the most delicate work involves the use of tweezers, mashers and carbon pallets to shape leaves, stamens, petals, and tentacles; all of which are carefully and individually formed.
The science is knowing the types of glass that fit together and it’s not uncommon for Melissa to spend a week assembling and building up the interior of a piece. All of the parts need to work together and the glass has to be kept warm for the design to stay together.
What’s more, there’s no going back once the pieces are forged together. They are extremely delicate and the entire work can fall apart if it’s not done with clear intention. There’s no room to rush or to be distracted. This never works out with glass and something will inevitably go wrong.
When the design is complete, the sculpture is place into a kiln and molten glass is poured over the design to encase it. This is yet another potential place where the whole thing might fall apart. There might be air bubbles, something sliding over, or even something breaking off.
On average, it takes about a week to make one piece; even the smaller items.
After the artwork comes out of the kiln two day later, it needs to be cold worked. This is the last phase in the process. Everything has its own timing even though people constantly ask Melissa how long it takes to make a piece.
It’s not like painting where you can scrap a canvas and start fresh. Oxygen, propane for torches, electricity, etc. – there are a lot of supplies needed and the loss can kill you if you mess up. There are so many material costs unlike glass blowing that relies on Pyrex glass or silicate. It is much cheaper compared to Melissa’s temperamental, soft glass that can crack or break.
When you see Melissa’s work in person it is small-scale sculpture with a powerful impact. She’s worked hard to present them in creative ways, even using aluminum or a stone panel to provide a very modern and visible way of collecting and displaying her unique pieces. These “hives” as Melissa calls them, can be added to wall panels to create a more modern way of admiring their beauty.
I want people to say, “What’s going on in there” when they admire my work. It’s an important question in the world.
Chicago is a big market with primary galleries, and there are smaller galleries in the U.S., Europe and one in Hong Kong. Melissa uses social media to promote her work and there is a world-wide collector base too. They run different events and people who collect gather and meet around the art form.
Melissa has collaborated with other artists and works out of a pretty cool space. Living in New Boston, New Hampshire provides Melissa with the perfect pastoral setting and room for a studio space where she can work with her father surrounded by nature.
Without fail, Melissa takes pictures every day at sunrise before heading to her studio, an interesting creative space repurposed after serving as a helicopter hanger. In the summer, an entire wall opens like a folding door revealing very open and spacious 15 foot ceilings.
The setting brings Melissa much happiness and despite the large space, she says mass production will never be an option. She has no regrets about the limits for production because inspiration is everywhere. At this point in her life, Melissa is focused on raising her children and is happy knowing they can see the power of passion.
For her, passion translates in any world especially “if you can find yourself engaged in something that drives the happiness meter. It doesn’t matter what it is. You will do your passion at your highest level.”
Admittedly, Melissa would like to try other mediums of artistry at some point. Until then, she has found her joyful place and incorporates poetry into her creative process. Inspired by nature, she often writes poems that spark her design ideas. They also influence her personal growth and strengthen relationships that are also important contributors to her art.
“As I develop as a human being and am more engaged in relationships, my art changes. It’s not like I separate my art from my living. I am a full on human who is affected by my medium.”
You can learn more about Melissa and her work at: