The beauty of hand-blown glass is a careful process and it takes undeniable patience that artisan Prentice Hicks knows all too well.
Born in Chattanooga, Prentice grew up knowing that he wanted to be some form of an artist.
“The first thing I brought home from school was a crayon drawing. I liked working with color, but I basically just did the assignment the teacher gave us. I copied a page from a book - almost a literal copy. I thought that was what I was instructed to do… it’s interesting to see what other people consider art versus what I wound up doing,” Prentice says.
Observing his father’s stringent work ethic helped Prentice to discipline himself in his own business, along with the enjoyment of making art, that he says most definitely comes from his father.
The satisfaction of making and creating things also stemmed from childhood play.
“My brother and I made pretty intricate tree houses and built several substantial dams on a creek that ran through the property,” he says.
Prentice enjoyed watching the flow of the water over the hand-built dams and also having a place to swim if there was enough rainfall during the summer. He attended McCallie School and his first job was working as a parking attendant at Ruby Falls.
Surrounded by the creek’s water, the colorful falls and combined with his distinctive talent, nature would beckon his artistic expression in the form of blown glass.
His art teacher, Mary Carrithers, had taught him the fundamentals of painting, drawing, ceramics, sculpting and gave a hands-on-approach of studio work using different mediums.
Prentice was intensely shy, but making art was a wonderful way to communicate his passion and interests.
He attended Tulane University and received his bachelor of fine arts in ceramics. He liked working with clay, but ended up taking an elective class during his senior year in glass blowing and decided he would pursue it for an occupation.
Once Prentice had graduated he went to work as a merchant seaman for eight years. He then built his first hot glass studio.
In 1995 he married his wife Maryon Wright and has two step-daughters, Hannah and Chloe.
After having learned how other artists were operating their shops, in 1996 Prentice took his business Wauhatchie Glassworks that he had started in 1992 and formed his own shop. He had observed how other businesses melted their glass and how they reheated it. Then he had fabricated all the equipment he needed to work with hot glass and is still using the same hot glass furnace that he first made in 1987.
“What interested me with glass was getting the results I liked. It was so incredible that these pieces were actually able to be,” Prentice says. “Glass in some respects is a mechanical process, but in other respects it is an industrial process. It requires very specific tools and a dedicated space to work with it.”
The glass-forming technique involves inflating molten glass into a bubble with the aid of a blowpipe. The molten glass is gathered onto the end of the blowpipe and rolled on the marver to form a cool skin on the exterior of the molten glass blob and shape it.
Air is then blown into the pipe, forming a bubble and the glassworker can gather more glass over the bubble to create a larger piece if desired. The molten glass is attached to a stainless steel or iron rod called a punty for shaping and transferring the hollow piece from the blowpipe - to provide an opening and to finalize the top.
“Glass is a very difficult medium to work with. The experiential knowledge of getting from one part of the process to another and culminating it to a finished piece is such that it takes a long time to be competent with the material,” Prentice insists.
“It is like learning to ride a bicycle, where you not only have to learn stand up right but peddle at the same time and still maintain your balance. There are several forces at work - gravity, heat, centrifugal force that you have to work with your hands and your eyes to bring something to completion. I found that difficulty almost arresting,” he admits.
Though Prentice liked the results he achieved when he was successful in his creations, the letdown was his success rate being about 10 percent of his effort.
“And out of the 10 percent that you actually complete, there are probably only 10 percent of those actually worth putting on a shelf,” he confesses.
“I think as artists, we see only the bad and others see through the bad and see the beauty in it. That is a difficulty quandary artist have, but one of the most valuable pieces of advice I received was from a man who told me that my most valuable tool was a trash can,” Prentice reveals. “You really have to pass judgment and throw something away, rather than keep fiddling with it.”
Wauhatchie Glassworks studio is more of a working space than a retail space and is located on Kelly’s Ferry Road in the Wauhatchie area. It is named after Chief Wauhatchie who was severely wounded while serving in Col. Gideon Morgan’s Cherokee regiment during the Creek War.
Prentice creates functional drink ware, vessels and light fixtures. He maintains his website in which he has about 12 accounts - one of which is Plum Nelly in Chattanooga.
When asked what the hardest thing about the craft is for him, he replies, “Basically… just getting in the studio.”
That is understandable when having to deal with the 2,400 °F (1,320 °C) heat of a fiery furnace.
“The process of doing it isn’t so ironed in …really and truly the most difficult thing is getting to work.”
Over this summer, Prentice worked once again as a mariner and helped deliver a schooner from the Caribbean to Nova Scotia.
When asked if there were any pirates on the open sea he jokes, “Just us!”