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Artist catches eyes with lifelike glass fish

By Joel Brown
Globe Correspondent / January 4, 2009
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NEWBURYPORT - The magic is not that the fish are anatomically correct or the right colors. It's the spark of life that suggests they are about to swim away.

John E. Soward has been making his tiny glass fish on and off for a decade, including bluefish and bonefish, striped bass, and a creel full of trout species. "I am a fisherman to the core," he said, and he has sold his creations wherever anglers gather - the coast of Maine, the Florida Keys, the fly-fishing precincts of Montana and Wyoming.

Now, after a couple of years in Nashville playing drums with a rock band, Soward and his cat, Napoleon, are temporarily living with his family in Newburyport, and he is making fish again.

"I hate letting glass artists know how I do this," Soward, 33, said at his base ment workbench on a recent afternoon. "I'm basically making a giant bead."

The thumb-sized rainbow trout he was shaping from a lump of raw glass belied his modesty. He hunched over a 2,000-degree-plus propane torch - an oversized classroom-style Bunsen burner. With his left hand, he twirled a small steel rod with the glass on one end, keeping it in the flame, heating it so it was soft enough but not too soft. With his right hand, he used a small graphite paddle to shape the body of the fish.

The New Jersey native started at Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y., as a music major but soon switched to art.

"I was into ceramics," he said. "The pottery studio was right next to the glass studio and I could look through the window and see the seniors blowing glass, and I was just blown away. I thought it was the coolest thing. . . . I was amazed at just the intensity of it. It was not something you could just put a wet rag on and come back to."

He left school after three years and went to work for Vandermark Merritt Glass Studios in New Jersey, which made beautiful perfume bottles, paperweights, and other decorative items. He learned everything he could about the business and eventually struck out on his own. He couldn't afford a full studio, though, so he bought the torch and some other equipment.

"To succeed you really need something special to catch someone's eye," he said. His brother-in-law, a fishing guide in Wyoming, asked for a little glass rainbow trout he could wear on a necklace. A light went on. Soward began making his fish and put 220,000 miles on his pickup truck connecting with stores around the country.

When the trout's body assumed the correct shape, he began to choose from the assortment of tiny sticks, or "canes," of colored Moretti glass from Italy arrayed on his workbench beside him, some as thick as a strand of spaghetti, others not much wider than a hair. He layered them onto the body: A dark, dark green strip along the back, lighter green, then pink. Each joined to the body by the heat of the flame and then slowly smoothed in, sometimes with a clear layer between them to avoid chemical clashes between the metal oxides used to tint the glass.

The process is exacting and entirely freehand. For roughly two hours, he seldom took his eyes off the fish or his hands away from the torch, turning and heating and smoothing, every step in order. The glass is unforgiving.

"People just think it's a mold," he said, shaking his head.

And don't even ask about burns. You don't want to know.

Once the colors were right, Soward made fins from a slightly larger cane of glass, the end of it heated and then crimped with a ridged tool his father, John P. Soward, created for him. The elder Soward worked most of his life in the financial industry, but the upstairs of the house is decorated with his detailed watercolors of area birds. Soward's stepmother, Nancy, paints landscapes.

Father and son also collaborate on woodworking projects, including the finely detailed cherry frames and display boxes for Soward's fish. Soward sometimes works as a finish carpenter.

By Soward's workbench was an annealing oven, the size of a small cooler, heated to 950 degrees. He put the finished fish inside and turned the oven off. The oven would cool down slowly overnight, so the fish wouldn't crack as it came to room temperature.

The fish retail for $260 and up, depending on species. Since leaving the band, Soward has reconnected with some of his retail outlets and is looking for new ones. He donated a striper to the Lowell's Boat Shop annual Christmas fund-raising auction, where it was purchased for below retail by an Amesbury woman named - appropriately - Carol Finn. She will add it to other maritime pieces in a special room of her Point Shore home.

"I saw it across the room and it had such a glow, it looked so lifelike," Finn said. "The colors just seemed to glow, and I loved the way the artist had captured the shape of the fish and the details. . . . It's a magical piece."

To diversify, Soward is experimenting with putting his glass fish inside glass paperweights. The problem is air that gets trapped in the open mouth of the fish when it is submerged by the glass for the paperweight.

Soward's website, including a gallery of fish, is http://www.wildlifeglass.com/index.htm.

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