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Former math teacher finds a career in glass art

NEWFANE – Sprawled out on a rambling country lot on Lockport-Olcott Road, you can find bits of art wherever you look. Outside, there are still the remnants of a summer garden with homemade birdhouses, mosaics and decorative concrete benches. Inside an 1830s-era stone farmhouse, there are all varieties of curious pieces from glass to china to pottery. An outbuilding is filled to the brim with more good ideas in the making.

“People are always handing me stuff,” said artist Catherine O’Connor as she sits down and shares a cup of tea and fresh-baked cookies.

O’Connor, 60, of Newfane, is a Sweet Home High School graduate and former West Seneca resident. She is the owner of ArtFX Glass.

“I’ve been a lifelong collector. I’m the person everyone gave their treasures to because I appreciated them,” she said.

Some of the designs O’Connor collects are inspirations for her own work, which has changed over the years from exclusively working in pottery to her current work in glass art. Her pottery skills are used to create molds for her glass pieces.

She recently received a $2,500 local grant from the Arts Services Initiative, which provides grants to artist in Erie and Niagara counties.

Her piece “The Evolution of Self” focuses on four families and their facial similarities and traits using two- and three-dimensional representations in glass.

“I am going to be molding the person’s face in clay and then will drape the glass over” the mold, she said of the process.

Her project will open Tuesday from 6 to 8 p.m. and will be on display through next weekend at the Lockside Art Center, Lockview Plaza, 21-41 Main St., Suite 208.

O’Connor said her she began her career as a math teacher after she graduated with a degree in mathematics.

Do you find that people think math and art don’t go together?

Definitely. Sometimes I feel like I bring up that I have a degree in math to justify my existence, because people don’t value art. It would be nice if they did. Because of Facebook, I have 1,200 close friends from all over the world who are all artists of some sort and that’s been the constant thread. If you are not a sports figure or you didn’t invent the latest electronic gizmo, you have no worth.

How did you get started in art?

I was a potter and was going through 5 tons of clay a year. My husband, Ken, was afraid we were going to burn the other house down. Before I knew about pole barns, we were looking for outbuildings I could make use of. If I had known about pole barns, we probably would have had a newer house.

But you have a degree in mathematics?

I was a high school math teacher. When we got married, we moved out to the Poconos. We came back here, but Pennsylvania doesn’t have reciprocity with New York State education. I would have had to been recertified to teach here. My husband said, “Please find something else to do.”

Are you glad you left the field?

Yes ... but I love teaching and most people who take classes from me say I am very thorough. When you love a subject, it’s easy to pass it along. I love mathematics, the purity of it, the elegance of it. You have mathematics in music. I love physics and fractal design. It’s very organic design and fractal particles came about from physics. I think if I was 10 years later in my college career, I would have gotten a degree in physics.

What about engineering?

My dad was an engineering professor at UB and he wanted me to be an engineer, but at the time, I didn’t see the purpose of it. I’ve since discovered ceramics engineering at Cornell. That would have been a wonderful school to go to. My husband is also an engineer.

How did you go from teaching to pottery?

My husband’s great aunt gave me a kiln and I found a wonderfully rotten ton of clay. This was in the mid-’80s and you could go and do a show and make a lot of money. I also had a friend who was a buyer for Jenss and used to wholesale to Jenss.

What did you make?

Wind chimes. Your standard ’60s, hippy-dippy things with an ’80s twist. Jenss sold my Christmas ornaments. I sold them all over the Eastern corridor and that was nice. I did art shows. I drove all over Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New England. But I had a meltdown in the kiln. This was when I was in the basement. My husband said you have to have a separate building because he didn’t want to burn the house down. We found this property because the barns were in good shape.

How did you end up moving from pottery to glass?

I ended up getting allergic to the mold in the clay. Mold is what makes good clay work. It increases its binding power. I used to let my clay sit for a year. It was super stinky and super moldy, but it worked really well. But I couldn’t do it anymore. I was breaking out. I had been reading articles about adding heat to glass and I had done stained glass in the Poconos.

So then you moved to glass art?

I was using my clay kilns to work with glass. I was doing blended shows with pottery and fused glass until I transitioned entirely into fused glass. At that time, it was a novelty. It was pretty cool. Mainly I was doing it for color trends. I read about glass sinks at the time. We’re past that style now, but I was one of the few people in the area who could make a glass sink.

You said you went to Corning, where the Museum of Glass is. Did that change your style?

I went there for the Conference at Corning. They have them twice a year. People from the glass colonies in Portland and Seattle came east for these conferences. I found out what I was doing wrong. There’s only a certain amount you can learn by reading and investigating and playing. After that, I was so jazzed and energized. It was like the heavens opened up and this was where I was supposed to be. It was part technical and part creative. I had all the skills from working in clay, so I knew about temperatures and glazes and properties.

What is fused glass?

Basically you can put any two pieces of glass together in the heat. They will be happy until they cool down. Once they cool down your top piece might cool at a slower rate, your bottom might cool faster and they rebel. That’s where you have fractures and things breaking apart. Bullseye Spectrum came up with a system that is very precise in their controls and very careful with their mixing. I could put a red on a clear and it won’t go snap, crackle, pop. But unless it’s marked you don’t know.

What makes you different from a hobbyist?

You reach a certain skill level and you have to get paid for your labor. This is my bread and butter. I am not a hobbyist. I do go out into the community and give classes, but I did all the cutting and grinding and the kids picked up pieces I prepped and they had something really cool to bring home. But I also have $10,000 worth of equipment behind me and how many years of experience. I’m all for self-empowerment, but don’t minimize my skill and what it took to get to get here.

You also said you are bringing new technology to your art.

Yes. I am looking into mold-making with 3-D printers. They are so cool. You can print with a whole lot of materials.

Know a Niagara County resident who would make an interesting question-and-answer column? Write to: Niagara Weekend Q&A, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240, or email