story by Lynn Cook
photo by Joe Graziano
Stepping from a sunny Kailua parking lot into Island Glassworks’ cavernous workspace, it takes a while for the eyes to adjust. Inside, a furnace burns at more than 2,000 degrees, the darkness punctuated by molten chambers glowing like windows into a fresh lava flow.
Geoff Lee, owner and artist-in-residence, pulls and stretches a lump of molten glass on the end of a long iron rod that, seconds ago, was resting in the white-hot furnace. He swings the burning sphere around as his assistant, glass artist Emily Thomas, blows steadily into the steel tube. Like ballet dancers, they antici-pate each other’s every need, communicating over the roar of the furnace in one-word
sentences. Safety visors cover their eyes
but their arms are bare—asked about this, Lee just laughs and says, “You only need one burn to learn.”
Lee first found his passion for glass at Punahou School. After earning an M.F.A. from the University of Hawai‘i, he moved to the Mecca of glass, Washington state, where he interned with internationally renowned glass artist Benjamin Moore. An apprentice in the classic manner, Lee worked for free to learn his craft and then went on to become, as he puts it, “a young punk, hitting the road as journeyman glass blower, living out of my truck.”
Following stints in Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania, Lee returned to Hawai‘i, which is home to a fair number of glass artists but relatively few full-fledged foundries. So he shipped in furnaces, built his own rolling tables and opened his doors in 2005. Now he makes and sells his work, creates large commission pieces and offers classes that begin with crafting paperweights and move to advanced glassblowing.
As for Lee, one has to ask about his own body art—wildly tattooed shoulders and arms, covered in stars, moons and his
company’s floral logo.
“No deep meaning,” he says as he scoops more glass from the fire, “I just like them.”