Monday, 29 December 2008 03:16

Adventures with Jean Boutz

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Storyteller, Adventurer, and Lampworker Extraordinaire

by Martha and Ed Biggar

Photos furnished by Linda Boutz Caldwell

 

 

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The night is dark and both of the people who are packed into the little Dodge minipickup are exhausted from trading off driving for almost twenty hours—nonstop

 

except for gas and small essential breaks. We were winding through the North Carolina mountains on Highway 40 nearing our goal of attending the 1995 Glass Art Society (GAS) conference in Asheville, North Carolina. We pulled into the hotel parking lot and found a very scarce parking spot. The engine was now off and resting; we hardly had the energy to get out of the truck. My glassblowing partner and I got out and slowly walked to the hotel lobby. She was in need of the restroom, and I was following in a trance. Suddenly, I found myself inside the ladies’ room and immediately whirled around and headed out the door at a fast clip, hoping no one saw me. Outside directly across from me was a tall, thin man sitting in a chair, laughing quite profusely in my direction. I walked/staggered over to him and hastily tried to explain our circumstances, and he laughed even more. We then exchanged our credentials, and the man I had just met was none other then Jean Boutz, the glassblower of great renown.

At that point, I had never heard of him. I hadn’t been around the flameworking world that he was part of and had just recently gotten out of a four-year fine arts glass program in Southern California. My specialty at that

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time was neon and glass artwork. When my partner finally came out, I introduced her to Gene and they immediately hit it off. We talked for quite a while that late evening, and before we were done he had graciously invited us to come down to Florida for a visit with him at his studio. During the glass conference we spent a lot of time visiting with our new-found friend and had many fascinating conversations about the old days of lampworking. He told us how he had worked with the circus before World War II, and after finishing his tour of duty had returned to his old workplace to find out he no longer had his old job. He asked his boss, “What am I going to do now?” The reply was, “Can you blow glass? We have an opening for someone in that operation.” Jean replied that he could, and that was the beginning of his career as a novelty flameworker.

Later in his career he founded a glass studio in Clermont, Florida, in the newly built Citrus Tower tourist complex. He told me that he would work for hours in front of crowds of tourists and not make many sales, but the crowds would continue coming as he put on quite a show with his lively patter and flameworking skills. One day he had an idea; why not charge admission for the show he put on and make the ticket a coupon good for a discount on any purchase. Jean told me that his idea made him more money than anything else he had done in the past. Later in a visit to Florida, I noticed some wonderful glass flowers and I asked him how he made them. He replied that his wife used to make them. During the Citrus Tower days his whole family was a glassmaking team. He even had a swan-making machine (sort of a lathe contraption) in his glass storage room, and he also showed me a gasoline-powered glass fire from very long ago.

 
 
 
 
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Soon he found that he could not keep up making work for his increasing sales. He decided that the solution was to buy and sell. He then started making numerous trips to Europe to buy glass novelties in wholesale quantities. He spent a lot of time in Italy and was buying work from some of the great names

 

in the flameworking world we know today. I saw many of these pieces in his collection at his home in Florida when I spent a weeklong visit with him and his daughter Linda. Linda was a delight and often helped keep things on an even keel when Jean and I would get into a debate on who was an “artist” and what was qualified to be called “art.” As I got to know Jean, I realized he liked lively conversation and good food and had a great appreciation for female beauty.

While at his home/studio in Florida I had a chance to see Jean work on his legendary cross fire setup, which was

 

inset into his glass bench. Jean was very proud that he worked only in soft glass on a traditional air/gas flame in the old-world style. Speaking of the Old World, he once told me of how he would sneak into East Germany

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—including Lauscha and other glass centers—with an Italian friend on the train during the time of the Iron Curtain to visit glassworking friends and make connections for his business ventures.

Years later on a summer day in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, Jean showed up for a surprise visit and spent a great deal of time with us at our studio and did some amazing work on my neon (air/gas) cross fires with just the lead and soda-lime glass tubing I had on hand. As was his custom, when he concluded his visit he took us out to dinner. Before he left, he presented us with many of his ornaments, icicles, and other glass art as a parting gift. Jean was a very generous man, and he always had great stories to tell. His goblets, bells, and very artful Christmas ornaments are some of the best I’ve ever seen, and I will treasure them always.

 

At his home studio he had great amounts of new and old stock and neon tubing. One of his favorites was the Sylvania blue from which he made a lot of his work. He never wasted anything, as he showed me when he was making an ornament that was blown from a point, rolled onto colored glass powders, and finished with the best-executed hook I have ever seen in my life. I’m still working on perfecting that magic touch of his to this day. When Jean was done, he would put another perfect hook on the remaining point end and violà! A pale blue icicle was created. When I first saw him do this he commented, “You should never waste a thing!”

 
 

Over the years I kept in contact with Jean via the telephone, and during the last conversation with him I told him I was planning a visit to Florida on a business venture and asked if he was up for a visit. His response was, “You’d better hurry, I’m in my nineties now. My health is going and I won’t be around forever.” I’m sorry to say that the trip was never made, and Jean passed before I had the chance to visit with him again. This great man from the school of hard knocks and old-time glass working

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days will always be an inspiration to me in innovation, creativity, and maintaining an adventurous spirit. I’d like to imagine an angel bell choir up there playing a set of Jean’s glass bells and Jean smiling down at all of us young glass whippersnappers who have so much to learn to be able to do as he did. Thanks for all you gave me, Jean. You have been and still are an inspiration!

 

 

www.edandmarthabiggar.com

 

You can see more photos of Jean and his work and add anecdotes about your experiences with him by visiting www.jeanboutz.mytributeblog.com. Those interested in attending his remembrance ceremony should contact his daughter Linda Caldwell at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 


 
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