by Thomas Calder
In this new bi-monthly feature, Xpress explores the stories behind area artists, from how they got to Western North Carolina to what their process entails.
When you enter the Asheville Glass Center in the River Arts District there’s no telling what phase of the glassblowing process you’ll find John Almaguer in. He could be standing before the furnace, gathering molten glass, or perhaps at the steel table, shaping it. He could be blowing the glass, or cutting the glass or transferring it over to the punty rod. He could also just as easily be away from the glass, perhaps at the front of the studio, shaking hands with a visitor who’s interested in signing up for a class. There are many steps and components to the glassblowing process.
Even the journey to the craft itself involved a lot of steps, beginning with a box of gold. Almaguer received that gift — a shoebox full of gold fillings, left from his late grandfather’s dentistry practice — from his grandmother while he was studying glass blowing at the Appalachian Center for Craft.
At the time, Almaguer thought he might cast the gold as a tribute to his grandfather — a man who, at one point, lived in an abandoned railroad car and worked in a steel mill to save money for tuition for college. Ultimately Almaguer decided to return the shoebox to his grandmother. “I was worried my inexperience in casting would ruin the collection,” he says. His grandmother refused to take it. And so for years Almaguer kept the shoebox in his garage.
By 2010, Almaguer felt an urge to move west. Though he couldn’t explain it, he was certain California was where he needed to be. Money, however, would be an issue. With $400 dollars to his name and two weeks left on his lease in Tennessee, Almaguer began giving away all possessions that didn’t fit in his car. In the process, he rediscovered the shoebox.
Almaguer contacted a friend in the jewelry business, and when he brought the fillings into the shop, Almaguer learned that his grandfather’s old shoebox had been housing a small fortune. “For four years it just sat there in my garage,” he says. “My bedroom was right above it. I was literally sleeping on a goldmine.”
The next nine months saw Almaguer bouncing around California, living on the couches of family members and friends. Meanwhile, he worked as an assistant at a handful of glass studios, where among other things, he helped in production work. The repetitive nature of the practice didn’t initially intrigue him. “I wanted to make one of a kind pieces all the time,” he says. “But I eventually found some value in it, a practicality I might not have otherwise experienced.” In the end, Almaguer’s desire to create his own works led to his departure from the Golden State.
Murano, Italy marked the artist’s next stop. Through a former colleague, he had secured a position in the small Zanetti family studio where, for the next year, he blew glass. During that time, Almaguer saw his skillset grow immeasurably. “I learned self-reliance,” he says. “How to figure things out as they came, how to create on the cuff.” He also had the opportunity to meet glass master Pino Signoretto. That artist’s distinct style, sound technique and fearless approach inspired Almaguer, who began thinking about his own craft and how he would distinguish himself as a glassblower.
Inspired by cane working, a technique that involves stretching molten glass, Almaguer began sketching what he ultimately called “chambers,” a series of individually blown tubes fused together before being simultaneously blown. The early sketches were drawn in Italy, but it took Almaguer another five years and a move to Western North Carolina before he took the next step in creating what has since become his innovative style and newest body of work.
His arrival in Asheville in late 2011 came about in a similar fashion to his move out west — through instinct and faith. Unlike relocating to California, though, Almaguer came to the mountains newly married. “It’s funny, we didn’t even know Asheville had the sort of arts community it does, until after we arrived,” he says.
It didn’t take long for Almaguer to immerse himself in this community. These days, his work can be found in several local galleries including the Van Dyke Gallery and the Asheville Glass Studio. Almaguer teaches glassblowing three days a week at the latter. He also teaches at the Jackson County Green Energy Park. His works are available to view and purchase, by appointment, at his home studio — Almaguer Glass Home Gallery — in Leicester.
For more information, visit almaguerglass.com