To step inside glass artist Brian Brenno’s studio — a red metal barn tucked off of Vashon Highway — is to enter a colorful, creative world, a space unlike any other on an Island teeming with artists.
Taking up nearly half the space is an almost medieval-looking structure — Brenno’s huge glass furnace and its reheating chambers. The rest of room is filled with his vibrant creations, some of which emerge from that oven.
A row of flowers made from recycled glass and mounted on metal stems, ready to be planted as garden art, lines one wall. Delicate vases, vessels and glass medallions adorn tables and shelves. In another corner, more shelves house a collection of Brenno’s trademark glass hats — whimsical yet meticulous works evocative of royal weddings, the millinery of 1940s movie stars and little old ladies headed to church.
On the walls, Brenno’s newest works glitter — two-dimensional portraits of Seattle and Vashon places, ingeniously fashioned from bright scraps of soda and beer cans. Some of the folk art-inspired pieces read like a road map to Vashon, depicting iconic Island vistas — the north-end ferry dock, Burton, the covered bridge off of Cove Road.
“I’ve always been interested in Vashon history, and I wanted to incorporate it into my art,” Brenno said, adding that a recent shoulder surgery and the high cost of running his glass furnace had also pushed him to explore other creative avenues.
Vashon’s much-celebrated Art Studio Tour takes place this weekend and next — an opportunity for participants to step into art studios across the Island and witness the creative process in person. For Brenno, it marks his 16th tour — a chance for Islanders to purchase his works and see him in action as he turns on his furnace and blows glass. Visitors can also try their own hands at Brenno’s craft: For $30, he’ll assist tour-goers in the process of blowing their own glass ornaments.
It’s a part of the studio tour that has become a holiday tradition for many Islanders.
“People come back year after year to do it,” Brenno said.
It’s no wonder that Brenno’s work has always drawn onlookers and admirers. For years, he’s been known on the Island as a practitioner of an ancient art form that is, quite literally, hot stuff — making glass works that are forged in a fiery furnace and then blown, molded and rebaked to form almost impossibly delicate objects.
It’s an alchemical process that first took hold in Brenno’s imagination in 1981, when, as a 22-year-old Islander, he signed up for a stained glass workshop at Pilchuk Glass School — the famed institution near Stanwood founded by glass superstar Dale Chihuly in the 1970s as an international center for glass art education.
“I went up there and saw glass-blowing, and that was it,” Brenno said.
Soon after that, Brenno enrolled in the California College of Arts and Crafts, setting him on a course that eventually led to a degree in glass and a job blowing glass in Chihuly’s studios. During nine heady years with Chihuly, from 1987 to 1995, Brenno lived in Seattle and met and worked with some of the world’s most famous glass artists, including Italian glass maestros Lino Tapliapietra and Pino Signoretto. He also took a summer glassblowing workshop with renowned glass artist Richard Marquis at Haystack Craft School in Maine and received the Wyman Trust Scholarship for more work at Pilchuck. Dealers took notice of his work, and his glass hats began to show up in notable exhibitions throughout the United States.
In 1996, he decided to strike out on his own — coming home to Vashon and opening his own studio in a downtown garage that had once been part of a car dealership and gas station owned by his family. (The old garage is now home to Ignition Gallery.) In 2006, he built his red barn, and moved his studio there, just steps away from his home.
“I moved to the Island, and my life became my family and the studio here,” he said.
Brenno, 54, is a fourth-generation Islander, the great-grandson of two Norwegian immigrants who landed on Vashon’s shores in 1918. He wanted to come back to Vashon to raise his own two children, Owen and Olivia, with his wife Tara, an art teacher at Chautauqua Elementary School.
Since returning, Brenno has immersed himself in Island life, teaching and exhibiting at the Blue Heron Arts Center and other venues. He currently supplements his income teaching driver’s ed and substitute teaching in the public schools. He’s also become a spokesperson for the arts community, weighing in publicly with his support of Vashon Allied Arts’ plans to build a new arts center. And in his spare time, he’s the caretaker of a lively Facebook page, Old Vashon Pictures and Stories, crammed full of remembrances and photographs of the Island’s past.
When asked which of Vashon many artists he admires most, he reeled off three names familiar to many Island long-timers: painter Michael Spakowsky, photographer Norman Edson and woodworker Marshall Sohl.
“I would kill to have one of his pieces,” Brenno said of Sohl, going on to describe “the folky funkiness” of his wood-burned and painted storyboards of Vashon lore — works that have clearly inspired Brenno’s own tin-can tributes to Vashon landmarks.
He was also quick to give credit to VAA — the organization that first taught him, as a teenager, how to make stained glass.
Many on Vashon remember seeing the early sparks of Brenno’s talent.
Sharon Munger, a painter who founded Barnworks with a group of Island artists 30 years ago, was Brenno’s high school art teacher, and she said she often leaned on him to assist her with other students.
“I remember one time, one of the students came up to me and she had some macrame stuff, and it was all tangled up,” Munger said. “I told her I didn’t have the faintest idea what to do with it, and that she should just take it over to Brian. Sure enough, he fixed it.”
For his part, Brenno also credits Munger for inspiring him to pursue art as well as his VHS metalworks teacher, Smokey Spencer.
“When I interviewed to work with Chihuly, they asked, ‘Can you weld?’ Thanks to Vashon High School, I could,” he said.
Brian Brenno’s studio will be open to the public during the Vashon Island Art Studio Tour. His studio will also be the site of two upcoming ornament-making workshops on Nov. 29 and Dec. 6. Call 463-5131 to register.