Burlington's South End has long been a hotbed of creative entrepreneurs. Now, a new studio in town aims to add international style to the mix, with an art form that's really hot: glass. AO! Glass is the enterprise of glassblowers Rich Arentzen and Tove Ohlander. He's from Connecticut; she's from Sweden. His artistic inspirations are Italian/American; hers are, well, Swedish. Before opening their studio in the former quarters of Church & Maple Glass, the couple operated a studio in Oslo, Norway, for eight years.
With three young children in tow, they moved back to Burlington - this is actually their third time in the Queen City. Arentzen previously worked with master glassblower Alan Goldfarb and with Church & Maple owner Bud Shriner (who has downsized to a corner of the studio he leases to AO!). The choice "is more about lifestyle," Ohlander says. "We feel like the community presence is very big here; we tend to work well having community come in."
"Everything in the studio is very friendly," throws in Carrie McKnight, a glassblower from California who handles marketing for AO! "We want people to come and see what we do - it's really important for people to see the process, feel the heat."
Arentzen and Ohlander met at glass school in Orrefors, Sweden, in a region she calls the "kingdom of glass" - that is, a glass-factory town where "people have been glassblowing for generations, glass is in the paper every day, and there's almost something spiritual about the art."
Of course, Burlington's glassmaking is not world-famous, but Ohlander and Arentzen would like to change that. They've settled here not only to raise their family and launch another business, but also to establish the Scandinavian Glass Resource Center. "It's a cultural glass exchange with students in Scandinavia," she explains. "There, the glassblowing style is different."
Arentzen elaborates: "In Scandinavian [design], there tends to be a celebration of what is; the Italian style is a celebration of what could be."
"In Sweden, it's a celebration of simplicity," Ohlander adds.
Nothing about making these gorgeous bowls, vases and goblets, neatly arranged on shelves around the studio, looks simple to an outsider, but the differences in style are evident. The curious will have to go see for themselves, as the methods cannot be easily explained here. Suffice it to say that one of Ohlander's techniques is called graal, and its outcome is that graphic human figures appear silhouetted inside the blown glass. Arentzen creates goblets supported by stylized figures he says are inspired by those at the Vigeland sculpture park in Oslo.
Like all artists, Arentzen and Ohlander are realistic about the commercial possibilities of their work in the small Vermont market - and it's "tricky to compete with imports from China," Arentzen notes. He and Ohlander will continue to sell work around the country; they also plan to rent space to other glassblowers and offer classes at AO! Meanwhile, they've invited the public to an open house this Saturday, April 28, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. It's one place where taking the heat is a good thing.
AO! Glass is located at 225 Church Street in Burlington.