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Ex-teacher is student of creating art glass

NEWFANE -- Who says mathematicians aren't creative?

Just ask artist and former math teacher Catherine O'Connor, of Lockport, who fires on both sides of the brain.

You may have seen her glass art on networks like HGTV or DIY -- or closer to home at places like Del Fuego Steak House in Newfane. There, her art sizzles like the sirloins.

We recently spoke with O'Connor, founder of ArtEffects Glass, on how she reconciles her calculus with her kilns.

Explain how your seemingly divergent interests intersect?

This is where the mathematics and pottery come together -- I can graph anything, sketch it out and visualize it in two or three dimensions. I can also construct molds and do some very interesting things in glass. Sometimes the process takes a while until I'm happy with what comes out of the kiln. If I don't like a piece, I use a hammer, smash it up and reuse the glass. Then there are the "wow" moments where a piece is better than you could have thought possible. I had two of them this month.

>Sounds like fun! We understand that you left the Niagara Frontier to teach high school math in Pennsylvania, returned and became a potter for 14 years. Any other interests?

I used to garden, but a car crash a few years ago has made kneeling, bending, standing too long difficult. I also have to space out the time I work -- or pour on the menthol to keep working at the glass. There are nights when I roll into bed and everything hurts because I just had to finish that last piece.

So instead of actually gardening, I have been working on "garden glass" -- lilies, roses, delphinium, irises, daisies, in garden scenes, in glass. I've created a molding process on the back, and custom-cut all of the detail pieces on the front. They are fired to that perfect point where there's still relief on each cut piece that catches the light, so the panels sparkle and reflect. Then when you are up close, you see all of the detail on the back, showing through.

>Where have you used this technique?

This is the technique I used for the almost 9-by-4-foot glass mural that changes with the seasons in the Del Fuego restaurant in Newfane. Del fuego means "of the fire," and I thought that the phoenix, or fire bird, made a great icon for the central art piece.

The piece evolved from three small hanging abstract panels into a full wall with two trees and the phoenix in the center. The winter scene with bare trees and the phoenix is the permanent installation. The leaves and ground area change with the seasons.

I designed and constructed the frame so the additional seasonal panels slide over the permanent installation. I worked on the fall leaves and bottom area, installed late this month. Kevin Stubbs, the owner, is constantly asked where did he get the glass and they expect it was done by someone from "away."

>How did you give your heart to glass?

I became sensitive to mold in clay -- I got a rash and had trouble breathing -- and had to stop. I read about adding heat to glass, played with it for a year and had a 75 percent success rate. Friends mentioned a glass conference in Corning. I went, and have been flying since. This is what I was meant to do.

Creating beautiful, one-of-a-kind installations has become a passion. I love being in the zone, when everything is working correctly. I work at all hours. The kiln schedules determine the time I'm in the studio. My 25-pound sinks [for bathroom installations] are in the kilns for over a week, because they are made layer by layer, and each time in the kiln, they have to anneal -- or rest properly -- so they don't crack during the next firing in the kiln. Even then, there are times when the big hammer comes out, and I start all over.

>How did you make it pay?

I used to do art shows, and gave them up for a while to do national trade shows. I decided to go after markets outside of the area because there was an unfamiliarity in the concept of art glass for tile, sinks, wall art, lighting in this area. There's also a disconnect in the valuation of the product. I sell at my wholesale prices locally. Firms from outside the area charge two and three times my rate for the same products, and people pay it.

I was asked at one of the first Buffalo Home and Garden shows, "Is that plastic?," or did I copy what I saw on HGTV shows, or why I traveled to do the show here -- or, "Wow, I didn't know this was available in Western New York by someone who actually lives here."

I've returned to doing local art shows, since the local market is ready for what I can do. I also give glass classes in my studio on Thursday evenings.

Have an idea about a Niagara County resident who would make an interesting question-and-answer column, or an issue worth exploring? Write to: Louise Continelli, Q&A, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240

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