South Knoxville's Marble City Glassworks Creates an Artful Industry of Decorative Glass

Scene & Heard: Slices of Life From Knoxville's Neighborhoods

Part of a Series

Scene & Heard: Industry

Slices of life from Knoxville's neighborhoods: north, south, east, and west.

In this fifth edition of our ongoing series, we visited different types of industry in Knoxville to record what we saw, profiling the scenes and lives that help define our city.

With some care, Chris Szaton, a sturdy, bearded man in protective darkened glasses, holds a long metal rod the size of a pool cue. He walks toward a stout drumlike object, covered with mounds of some kind of foam. Then he opens the top of it, and within it appears to be imprisoned a small supernova. A blast of heat and light fills the room as Szaton pokes the rod into the captive brightness, and when he withdraws it, a tidy roll of goo glistens on the end. He closes the furnace quickly. That's 1,075 degrees, he says.

The substance on the end of the rod is molten glass. "At that temperature, it's the consistency of honey," says Matt Salley, also burly and bearded, who's narrating the process, and helping out here and there. Szaton rolls the cylinder in a colored powder on a hard table and then carries the hollow steel rod to another open furnace-like device with a visible gas-jet flame known in the industry as a Glory Hole. (Use of the term in glassblowing is centuries older than the sexual slang.) It's as big as the furnace but a good deal hotter, with a temperature of more than 2,600 degrees. In there, the glass gets a little sloppier, and only Szaton's deft turning it keeps it from dripping. "The first rule of glass is gravity," Szaton says. "Everything else is mostly suggestion."

Nearby are other industrial-size devices, including two furnace-like appliances called annealers, one front-loader, one top-loader. "They're for cooling the glass," says Salley. "Like a refrigerator?" you ask, and he answers a stupid question politely. They hold the temperature down to a brisk 900 degrees. Many glass projects require long periods of cooling, lest they bubble or crack.

And the entire work area—the furnaces, the work benches—is in a cinder-block room of maybe 500 square feet. In fact, it's an old two-car garage beside an old uninhabitable house on the rural fringe of South Knoxville. The door's open to the outdoors, where birds sing, and a happy mutt called Otis keeps an eye out for interesting strangers. Barely outside city limits, it's zoned agricultural, a fairly liberal designation for running a small factory. (At the other end of Artella Drive, half a mile away, and surrounded by Beware of Dog signs, is the burned-out remains of the childhood home of novelist Cormac McCarthy.)

Sometimes an assistant will help them with a big job, but most of the manufacturing done by Marble City Glassworks is done by Szaton and Salley. Both pros are originally from the Upper Midwest—Szaton studied glass formally, Salley mostly as an apprentice to other glassworkers—and they met in the '90s while working for noted local glass sculptor Richard Jolley. They started their own company here almost three years ago.

Szaton is making one of his personable glass birds, but it doesn't look like one yet. After turning it some in the high heat, Szaton takes the long pipe with the molten glass to a work area they call the blow bench, and gives the glob a toot or two, and puts the business end in a "cupping tool," a cherry wood scooplike device that looks like something hand-carved in Cades Cove. It cools it just enough to work with. His stout birds, which he says began as abstracted humans, have become a specialty.

But within a minute or two, even as he works with a small butane torch, the glass is already getting too cool, too hard to shape, so he has to put it back in the blazing flame. For a time, Salley and Szaton are working simultaneously on different parts of the sculpture, carrying around molten glass hot enough to seriously injure the careless, back and forth between the flame and the workbench. They don't speak, but Salley brings a piece of glass to Szaton just as he needs it.

It's a delicate job that requires concentration, speed, and some grace. "It's a dance," Salley says. "It's choreographed. The choreography is refined over many cycles of practice." When it's all done—the last step is setting in pre-fashioned glass eyes—they've got a plump, reddish, quizzical-looking bird made of glass. What was a gob of hot goo, 45 minutes ago, looks like the sort of thing you wouldn't be surprised to see in Tiffany's.

Salley says, "You know much about fiber optics?" as he stretches out a strand of glass several feet long. Of uniform width and hardly thicker than a hair, the long arc of pure glass seems a delicate and valuable thing until he lets it drop to the floor, and you realize he's just showing off.

Here and there are metal tools, some of them looking like archaeological finds from Pompeii—"these are the same basic tools used since Roman times," Salley says—some of them altogether unfamiliar; in fact, they've invented some tools in this room for shaping certain projects. On the wall a chart details a recent complicated project, with precise times for stirring or adding glass, and notations of temperature. "It's just like cooking," says Szaton. Just at extremely high temperature, and with the constant hazard that after all this care, the meal will shatter. A master glassblower loses about one in seven of his projects.

They use the term glassblowing, but acknowledge that actual blowing the glass through the tube is a small part of the process, which might otherwise seem to resemble blacksmithing. In fact, they do some work with iron in here, pieces to fit with glass sculptures. They also do some electrical work; what appear to be colorful glass vases switch on, and become lamps. "You've gotta take everyday work in order to pay the bills," says Salley. They have contracts with interior decorators, and recently did some pendant lighting for H.T. Hackney, which enabled them to put a display window in the front of the Fidelity Building on Gay Street.

What they call their "brick and mortar" is their table at the Market Square Farmers' Market, where they sell "low-dollar, high volume" work, like paperweights, glass flowers, glass balls, vases, bowls. During wedding season, a day never passes without selling a wedding gift. "We can blow glass all day," Salley says. "Selling it—that's where the real work comes in." The third member of Marble City Glassworks is Allison Roberts, Salley's wife, the communications manager who is in charge of their website. They sell about a quarter of their work outside the Knoxville area.

They're fond of their South Knoxville neighborhood—they both live nearby—and note that despite a rural nirvana that allows a crow to peacefully eat a squirrel in the middle of the road in front of their shop, they're only 10 minutes from downtown.

They turn down the flame in the glory hole, and suddenly, even on this lovely day with the door open, the room seems chilly. Szaton admits the lure of the fire is part of the almost instinctual drive of the glassblower. Some people don't like to be around furnaces. "Others get close to the heat, and it's like a fly going to the light. They can't get enough."