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Artist Shayna Leib: Homegrown glass blown

'6 Species' was inspired by sea life of Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal. More of Leib's work »
'6 Species' was inspired by sea life of Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal. More of Leib's work »

Shayna Leib knows to call it quits for the day when she starts getting dizzy or sees black spots.

If she continues blowing glass in the extreme heat, after all, she could get nauseous, vomit or pass out.

While working with glass can be a sweaty, uncomfortable process, Leib’s Wind and Water pieces — her most popular series — reflects the coolness of the oceans she has explored as a diver.

Leib, who first witnessed glass blowing at a Cal Poly Royal event as a child, grew up in San Luis Obispo, then attended Cal Poly where she studied philosophy. After obtaining an MFA from the University of Wisconsin, she eventually relocated to Madison, where her ornate glass art — some requiring up to 40,000 pieces — has garnered interest from art patrons around the world.

Leib has displayed and sold her art — which ranges in price from $10,000 to $75,000 per piece — at galleries in Chicago, New York, Dallas and Palm Beach, Florida. And a recent feature in “American Craft” magazine affirms her status as a rising star in the glass-blowing world.

The 37-year-old artist, who also studied piano for 14 years, has a studio in Wisconsin. But her roots remain in San Luis Obispo, where her father, Duane, a retired county general services director, and mother Sharon, a retired Cal Poly administrative assistant, still live.

We spoke to her at a local coffee shop while she was in town visiting.

Q. I read about the first time you ever saw glass blowing — at Cal Poly. What do you remember about that? You were only about 7 years old.

A. I remember being really hot. And I remember the sounds more than anything. When you’re really little you can’t see past all the adults. There was the roar of the furnace. Just walking into that atmosphere, it made me really curious. I think my dad lifted me up in order to see what was going on, and I saw fire, and it was exciting. It was surreal for a little kid.

Q. That seemed to have a pretty profound impact on you. Was there a similar event — or something that happened — that got you interested in philosophy?

A. No, I was just a very, very thoughtful child. Always asking questions and driving my parents crazy. You know, questions about death — you don’t want to lose your favorite pet. I was in advanced placement English in high school, and that’s just a hop, skip and a jump from philosophy.

I went to study English at Cal Poly, but when I took my first philosophy course, it was like I knew immediately that was where I wanted to go. At the time Cal Poly didn’t have an art program. We were just allowed to dabble and minor in the subject.

Q. Did you do other art stuff growing up?

A. Oh yeah. Anything I could get my hands on — drawing, painting, a little bit of stone, a little bit of print making. Ceramics is where I got into 3-D. And I had to wait until I got into metals and glass.

Q. You couldn’t do it at home. A. No. Even in a university setting, I don’t think they start people at least until they’re 16 for liability reasons. So I had to wait. And that was one of the first classes I took when I went to Poly. That was one of the reasons I’d stayed here. I didn’t want to stay in San Luis. But I stayed for glass, because I knew I wanted to do it so bad, and the other programs I applied to — the other universities — didn’t have it.

Q. When did you know, “Art is going to be my career?”

A. I didn’t. In fact, after I graduated, I foundered around for a couple of years. I had no idea what I wanted to do. I got accepted to a Ph.D. program in New York for contemporary European philosophy — even got partial funding. I got a glimpse into what my future would be like, and it was a really intense future.

When you get really heavily into a discipline, you realize when you love it so much, it limits who you communicate with. And when you get into something that cerebral, like philosophy, you can really only talk to other philosophers about it, and that leads to a very lonely life.

Q. So you had a couple of years after you graduated. What did you do during that time?

A. I worked in gas stations, restaurants, odd jobs. It was a dark time.

Q. You wound up in Wisconsin. What made you stay there?

A. I didn’t. I went there from 2000 to 2003. I graduated. I took a goldsmithing job out in Maine. Moved here after that, taught at Poly. Then got offered a small position back in Madison (at the University of Wisconsin), intro to glass blowing 101. It was only a first semester, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do so I went back. And after the position was up, I was freelancing. And I managed to make it.

There are times when I really don’t like the Midwest, and there’s times when I do. Ideally, it’d be nice to be here in the winter and spring and there in the summertime. But I don’t know how to make that work.

I haven’t found a place that’s better than where I’m at. Madison’s a really cool place. It’s a college town, very progressive, it’s between lakes. Incredibly livable.

Q. What got you into the Wind and Water series?

A. Honestly, I think it had more to do with watching wind move over fields of grass. And also before I became a diver, just being mesmerized by the soft coral in aquarium tanks and just watching that movement and noticing how similar they are, the grass and the anemones.

Q. I noticed on one of the pieces, titled “Morro Drift,” you wrote it was inspired by kayaking in the Morro Bay estuary.

A. I didn’t start kayaking until I was in my 20s. But I grew up in the ocean. I’m really comfortable in the ocean. My friends and I used to just go there at 10 o’clock at night and float in the ocean.

Q. You used to have nightmares about fire, and then you had a phobia of deep water. Now you work with fire and dive. Do you have a thing about confronting your fears?

A. I do. I don’t like being ruled by any fear. You only get one life. It’s like, why wouldn’t you just get rid of that? I want to get rid of it — I don’t like it. I don’t want to live in fear.

Q. Why did you begin diving?

A. The diving was mostly because I really needed to have that hands-on, visual experience to be able to view some of these marine creatures for my work.

Q. When you dive are you taking photos?

A. Yeah. I have an underwater camera. I take photos, I do research.

Q. I’ve never actually been in a glass-blowing studio. Do you get sweaty?

A. Oh, hell yes. Are you kidding? Some days I walk in the studio and the thermometer on the wall reads 95 degrees. And that’s before I turn the equipment on. And then when I turn it on, and it’s hovering around 2300 degrees and you work two feet away from it, the sweat pours and pours. It stings your eyes. It’s actually a really miserable work environment.

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