There’s something magical about working in glass. A torch’s flame melts a hard glass rod, turning it into a malleable medium. The artist shapes the molten material – twists it, curves it, forms it – until the piece matches the vision. It is then, and only then, that the glass is allowed to return to its solid state, transformed into something rare and beautiful. The whole process seems nothing short of alchemistic.
It’s that process that alumnus Dan Neff says, “called to me.” The siren song of glass has taken Neff on a wonderful journey. So many elements that he enjoys have come together. Art has melded with business and teaching has become a satisfying constant.
Recently Neff was honored by UMD’s Center for Economic Development as the 2014 recipient of the Labovitz Micro–Entrepreneur Award, given to a business 2-5 years old with less than five employees. “It was great to be recognized for all the hard work,” Neff said.
Hard work illuminated by the light of a 5000 degree Fahrenheit torch flame.
As a kid, growing up in Virginia, Minn., Neff loved artistic pursuits. “I was always creative. I wrote plays, put on puppet shows. When I was about 8 years old, I started playing the drums.” By the time he was 19, he could play about eight different instruments.
Yet he wasn’t quite content. “I wanted to master something. I wanted to focus on one thing and put all my energies into it.” He credits his grandfather with sparking this passion. “My grandfather was a stone mason, and I started working with him when I was 12. I would watch him lay brick, and I really loved his mastery of that. He made it look so easy, yet when I tried it . . .,” he recalled with a laugh.
Neff took his first glass making class when he was 17. He worked as an apprentice for three years. After that, he continued to teach himself via books, how-to videos on the internet, and hands-on work.
A lover of nature (at age three Neff could identify and make the sound of every bird that visited his family’s feeder), when it came time to think about college, he was intrigued by UMD’s recreation/outdoor education major. “I thought, ‘That’s a degree?’” Neff said.
In his senior year at UMD, he had the opportunity to do an internship in Washington, which also just happens to be an epicenter of glass making in this country. “I took my first professional level class in glass making. It was very inspirational. I got a lot more skills sets under my belt.”
Returning to Duluth, it was then that he made a decision. “Before I went down another career path, I needed to try working with glass full time. I realized I had worked harder and longer on glass than even on my degree. I thought I’d try it now, when I’m already living like a college student. It was the right time to do it.”
After graduating in 2008, he began pouring his energies into glass. Although he does blow glass, his is predominately torch work, which allows for more detail. He began showing his pieces at art shows and galleries around the country, including Glensheen’s Festival of Fine Art & Craft and the Park Point Art Festival. For seven years, he worked out of his home.
In 2011, Duluth’s Greater Downtown Council announced the Great Space Giveaway. Winners would receive rent-free retail space downtown for one year in addition to marketing assistance. “It was just the incentive I needed,” Neff said. “It was a great opportunity.
Fortunately Neff had already been working on a business plan. He submitted it and was one of three businesses selected. Lake Superior Art Glass at 202 E. Superior Street was born. At the end of May 2014, they celebrated two years in their location.
Neff, along with two employees (and UMD alumnae) Caitlin Johnson (2012) and Alyssa Peoples (2014), have created something more than an art showroom. “Our gallery is about connecting people to the art work. We personally know every artist who has work here. We know every artist’s story, and we strive to make connections between the customer and the artist,” Neff said.
Making connections between people matters deeply to Neff, and it is woven into every part of his work, whether in sharing his own art, representing fellow artists, or nurturing the creative process in others.
Recently he demonstrated glass making to sixth graders at a Hibbing middle school. “They designed their own pendants, choosing their colors. I wanted them to have some say in the final piece they got.”
Back at the gallery, Neff and other artists, took 145 little vials of colored glass chosen by each student and created 145 unique glass pendants. A number identified each pendant, so that it would find its way back into the hands of its proud young designer. It’s that kind of individual commitment to 145 students that elevates Neff’s demonstrations above the ordinary “show and tell” art demo.
At his gallery, Neff offers glass making classes, from beginners through advanced. Artists can even rent studio space at Lake Superior Art Glass.
A new class that will soon be offered is Make Your Own Wine Goblet. “We’ll provide the cup and the foot. People will make their own stems,” Neff said. “While I assemble the pieces, adults can enjoy a glass of wine.”
Through teaching, Neff puts what he learned as a recreation/outdoor education major into play on a daily basis. “Understanding different learning styles, figuring out how to explain something differently has been really useful,” Neff explained. “Being able to utilize these different teaching techniques has been invaluable.”
Neff ’s connections with UMD go well beyond alumnus status. He’s taken advantage of the Center for Economic Development’s Student to Business Initiative in which groups of Labovitz School of Business and Economics (LSBE) students work with companies to meet specific goals. Neff worked with LSBE marketing students last spring to expand the gallery’s social media efforts.
He is very interested in UMD’s new Cultural Entrepreneurship program and hopes to work with interns from UMD “so they can get some real world experience.”
At one time, Neff thought of being a musician, but realized, “There are a million guitarists, a million saxophone players; there aren’t that many artists working in glass.”
On any given day, you will probably find him at Lake Superior Art Glass, creating a piece as customers shop the gallery or even peer in at him from the storefront window. He encourages visitors to watch as a thin glass rod turns into an elegant tree or a unique little bird. At the end of the day, he has, like his grandfather, “something to show for my hard work.”
While his quest to master glass will, no doubt, continue to challenge him, the results along the way are guaranteed to be endlessly magical to the rest of us.
For more information, see Lake Superior Art Glass.
This story appeared on the UMD Homepage in June 2014 and was written by Cheryl Reitan with UMD External Affairs.