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Progress: Reigniting a love for art

Gail Dahlberg, glassblower-in-residence at the Anderson Center at Tower View, looks over some of the pieces that adorn his studio. After dedicating himself to the art form in the 1960s and ’70s, Dahlberg took a break to start a family and pursue other interests. Now he’s back in the studio and looking to pass his knowledge to the next generation. (Republican Eagle photos by Michael Brun) 1 / 8
1. Dahlberg starts by gathering a blob of molten glass at the end of a metal rod. “You gather glass like one would gather honey out of a jar,” he said.2 / 8
2. To add color to the piece, the glass is rolled in grounded up glass grit before returning to the tank to reheat. The glass it easier to manipulate as it gets hot, but go too far and it’s hard to control. “You only learn those things are you lose a few projects,” Dahlberg said.3 / 8
Using a bench and various tools, Dahlberg begins to work the glass into the desired shape. He said the trick to keep the glass balanced by continually rotating the rod. Beginners have a tendency spin it too quickly, but he said important to keep the motion controlled. His motto: “Turn it with a purpose.”4 / 8
When the shape is ready, Dahlberg blows into the rod to form a bubble inside the glass. He then lets the piece cool before adding additional layers of glass over it.5 / 8
Returning to the bench, Dahlberg continues to shape the piece, including a creating a neck where it will eventually detach from the rod.6 / 8
Dahlberg removes the piece from the punty and uses a blowtorch and spoon to seal and smooth the connection point. 7 / 8
The final step is to place the mug into an annealing oven, which runs at around 900 degrees for eight hours before gradually cooling.8 / 8

Glassblowing has been a big part of Gail Dahlberg’s life for many years, but the artist-in-residence at the Anderson Center at Tower View said he chose to let his dedication to the craft cool for a time.

“Glassblowing is the type of thing that if you’re going to be serious about it, it’s not only a full-time commitment, but you almost have to eliminate the rest of the things in your life,” Dahlberg said. “And that was what I didn’t want to do.”

But around eight years ago, after raising a family and building a successful masonry business, Dahlberg said he felt the need to return to his former passion and pass it on to future generations.

With encouragement from a daughter-in-law, he worked with Anderson Center Director Robert Hedin and wife Carolyn Hedin to design and build a glassblowing studio at the Anderson Center.

Since opening the studio in 2005, Dahlberg said he has instructed hundreds of students, a handful of whom went on to study glassblowing at universities around the country.

“I encourage it to anybody at any level,” said Dahlberg about his glassblowing classes. “Whether they want to just come and watch or participate.”

Dahlberg said he didn’t discover his love for art until after first trying his hand at math and sports like football and hockey.

“I tell everybody the reason I started doing glassblowing and jewelry making was because I failed at everything else,” he said.

Although he got into art later in life, the timing worked out to put him in the middle of the 1960s modern studio art movement that saw glassblowing go from traditional glassmaking factories to individual artists. He recalled jumping into vans with fellow glassblowing pioneers to check out what other artists were doing in places like Flagstaff, Ariz., and Seattle.

“That’s the way things operated back then. It was real exciting,” Dahlberg said.

At the time, glassblowers were building all of their equipment from scratch — something Dahlberg said came natural to him because of the mechanical skills he learned growing up on an Apple Valley, Minn., junkyard.

“They called the early glassblowers the truck drivers of the art world because we had to build everything,” he said.

His pursuits eventually brought him to the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, where, in the 1970s, he helped develop a glassblowing and jewelry studio at a high school in the nearby North Shore area. He would go on to teach at the high school for seven years before eventually moving to the Red Wing area.

That’s when the glassblowing stopped, and Dahlberg said he set it aside for a while to start a family and explore other ambitions.

With so much time spent away from the studio, Dahlberg said the transition back to glassblowing was jarring at first, especially getting used to new technology.

His first annealing oven — a device used to control the temperature of glass projects as they cool — used a makeshift system of string hooked between two thermostats. Now the ovens come with digital controllers that can be programmed to hold a certain temperature and then automatically drop.

Along with glassblowing, Dahlberg’s residency at the Anderson Center also means a return to teaching.

“I’ve tried to make the lessons adapt to people’s needs,” he said, adding that the learning curve to start working with glass can be steep.

“Some students have outright quit because it’s so frustrating,” Dahlberg said. “But I’ve tried to encourage people that they don’t have to master it to enjoy the experience.”

Beginning glassblowing classes are offered by Dahlberg year-round. For more information on Anderson Center classes, call 651-388-2009 or email

This story originally appeared in part 3 of the 2014 Red Wing Republican Eagle Progress Edition, titled Start to Finish. The three-part series features local businesses, artisans and community groups describing their step-by-step processes. 

Michael Brun

Michael Brun joined RiverTown Multimedia at the Red Wing Republican Eagle in March 2013, covering county government, health and local events.  He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls journalism program.

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