Glass with Class

Lincoln City takes art from the studio to the beaches

By John Gottberg Anderson / For The Bulletin

LINCOLN CITY —

To watch Kelly Howard at work is to behold an artist with an innate understanding of light and color — of form, design and texture.

The co-owner of the Lincoln City Glass Center employs the ancient science of glass blowing to craft items ranging from vases, bowls and goblets to whimsical glass sculptures and hanging ornaments.

A graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago, Howard offers her finished glass for sale in the Volta Gallery, across the street from the Jennifer Sears Glass Art Studio. Yet the opportunity to watch her work truly makes her craft come to life. Anyone who can start with a formless blob of superheated glass at the end of a steel pipe and somehow shape it into a thing of great beauty must truly be a wizard.

But Howard is more than that. She is also a teacher. She and her studio colleagues love to share their passion for glass with any and all who venture into the Sears Studio, which is located directly beside U.S. Highway 101 on the south side of Lincoln City.

Students of all ages, from elementary school students to senior citizens, are invited to share in the experience. They don leather gloves and goggles, and then are guided through the creative process, which requires only curiosity and interest, a certain amount of dexterity and a willingness to briefly endure the scorching heat of the furnaces.

The cost of the glass-blowing lessons varies, depending on what you are making. Floats and paperweights start at $65, and you get to keep the final product!

Waiting to exhale

Visitors most frequently choose to make colorful sea floats. These fragile orbs mimic the traditional fishing-net floats of erstwhile Japanese fishermen.

This was the process, as I learned it from Howard:

Silica sand and other lesser ingredients, contained in a crucible, are melted together in a furnace that is heated to more than 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. I gathered molten glass from the furnace at the end of a 5-foot-long steel pipe, which I turned slowly but constantly to keep the viscous substance from dripping back into the furnace.

Still twirling the pipe, I removed the fist-sized glob from the furnace's “glory hole” and rolled it onto fractured bits of colored stone, which was quickly absorbed into the glass by reheating. After I again removed the ball from the furnace, I was handed a pair of large tweezers to twist the glass into swirl patterns.

After additional reheating to further meld the colors, I took my project to a polished steel surface known as a “marver.” I rolled the still-viscous glass upon this surface to balance its design, then placed it into a block, or mold, to define its ultimate shape.

Only now did the actual blowing begin. Much like a trumpet player, I blew into the pipe, gently at first, then with greater force. As I did so, a bubble of air inside the glass ball slowly expanded. When it reached its optimal size, my instructor clipped the neck of the ball with shears, at the edge of the pipe.

The final step was “annealing.” This is a process by which glass is slowly cooled overnight in a temperature-controlled kiln to assure its strength and durability.

I now have a brilliant glass float, streaked with marine colors of blue, green and white, in an honored position in the corner of my desk. It's about 6 inches across and weighs about a pound and a half. I was able to pick it up at the studio as I left Lincoln City the morning after my lesson. Those who are unable to do so can arrange to have their seaside souvenir mailed.

Sea floats

If you're not feeling creative, there's another way to get yourself a glass float: Take a walk on the beach.

Every year between mid-October and Memorial Day, Lincoln City places more than 2,000 hand-crafted glass floats just above the high-tide mark, where beachcombers can find them and exult in their discoveries. Finders, keepers.

Glass orbs once regularly washed up on Oregon's beaches, flotsam from Japanese fishing boats that used the hollow balls to float their nets. Shades of green and blue, the blown-glass floats were carried by currents across the Pacific. They appeared in sizes large and small, from 2 feet in diameter down to 2 inches. Collectors treasured their finds.

Today, international fishing vessels mainly use buoyant plastic in place of glass, and glass floats not in private homes are rarely seen outside of nautically oriented antique shops or museums, such as the North Lincoln County Historical Museum.

But Lincoln City, beginning in late 1999, began a tourism promotion that returned blown-glass floats to its beaches. Conceived two years earlier as a means of welcoming the new millennium, the project planted the colorful, signed and numbered floats, designed by local glass artists, on 7 1/2 miles of Pacific shore. Tourists from around the world were delighted.

Now the “Finders Keepers” promotion is a part of life in Lincoln City. By Memorial Day 2011, the city will have placed 2,011 new floats on its beaches, from Roads End to Cutler City, to tempt visitors. When a float is recovered, it may be registered by number with a phone call to the Lincoln City Visitor and Convention Bureau, which will respond by sending a certificate of authenticity and information about the designing artist.

Lodging options

More unusual art is always on display at the Historic Anchor Inn, where I parked my bags for two nights during my glass-blowing visit to Lincoln City.

Built in 1946 as the Taft Heights Motor Court, it is one of the oldest existing accommodations on the Oregon coast. But after Kip and Kandi Ward bought the motel five years ago, they converted it into a memorable travel bargain.

“When we got it, it was dilapidated,” said Kip Ward, a former restaurateur and employment-agency owner. “I don't know how it once was, but I know how I would have liked it to have been. It had good bones, but it needed a lot of work.”

To that end, the Wards — for lack of a better word — “funkified” the establishment. Abandoned boats and maritime memorabilia adorn the exterior. In the fully licensed restaurant, which opened earlier this month for pasta dinners, the walls and ceilings are covered with ship models, nautical flags and historical photos. Guest rooms, many of them two-room suites, are decorated like quirky libraries or art galleries.

Another fine choice for lodging in Lincoln City is the Inn at Spanish Head, a short distance north of the Anchor Inn. Every one of its 120 guest suites has been designed with oceanfront floor-to-ceiling windows, and the sunset views are nothing short of spectacular. The same is true of Fathoms Restaurant&Bar on the 10th (penthouse) floor of the resort hotel.

Lincoln City sprawls for miles along the central Oregon coast, from Roads End at its northern extreme to Cutler City, on Siletz Bay in the south. In fact, the town of 10,500 was five separate communities until 1965, when Oceanlake, Delake, Nelscott, Taft and Cutler City incorporated as a single community.

At its heart is the D River, touted as the world's shortest river, which flows from freshwater Devils Lake northeast of the city center. Here, beside the river-crossing bridge, a beachside recreation site is a favorite destination for kite fliers, who take advantage of brisk coastal winds and the presence of a nearby kite-specialty shop.

A couple of miles north of the river is the Chinook Winds Casino Resort, the Central Coast's entertainment center. The hotel has 227 rooms of various sizes; the gaming floor is the largest of any Oregon Coast casino; and the resort has its own 18-hole golf course and a large concert facility. On my recent visit, I was fortunate to see 85-year-old blues maestro B.B. King perform. Famed country star Loretta Lynn has two shows scheduled in August.

Where to eat

The casino's dining facilities are also excellent. Five separate restaurants serve meals around the clock.

The best of them, the Rogue River Steakhouse, features the considerable skills of executive chef Jack Strong, a native Siletz Indian who spent several years cooking at major Arizona resort restaurants — co-authoring an acclaimed cookbook, “The New Native American Cuisine” — before returning last year to his family and culinary roots.

Strong demonstrated his skills in an iron chef-style competition at the Culinary Center in Lincoln City, defeating three other outstanding Oregon chefs for first place in a charity event. Then he returned to the hotel to show off for appreciative diners.

Lincoln City is fortunate to have several fine restaurants. Two others are the Bay House Restaurant, at the south end of town, and the Blackfish Café, close to the center.

At the Bay House, any doubts that I may have had about the skill of 26-year-old chef Sean McCart, a rising star in Oregon's culinary universe, were washed away with my first course. It was pan-fried soft-shell crab, presented with a blood-orange, hazelnut and frisée salad. Together with a plate of ahi tartare, it was all I required for a superb dinner.

Blackfish chef-owner Rob Pounding has been well known to area diners for a quarter-century, first at the Salishan Lodge for 14 years, and since 1999 at his own little restaurant in downtown Lincoln City. His duck breast, grilled in blackberries and port wine, served with a sage-and-walnut risotto, has few rivals.

Two fine choices for breakfast or lunch are at opposite ends of town. In Taft, the Beach Dog Inn shows its allegiance to the canine species with doggy photos and décor throughout. The omelets are unforgettable. Just north of Lincoln City, the Otis Café has just as many fans of the two-legged variety who crave the great burgers.