.Behind the Scenes with Visionary Glass Artist Heather Matthews

Surrounded by sensuously carved glass panels, and furniture draped with large sketches for upcoming work, I survey the barnlike interior of Heather Matthews’ etched glass works.

Koi, waterlilies, and kelp forests glide gracefully up one panel. Delicate jellyfish float in various states of transparency. Enchanting work, it showcases the tastes of a vast clientele for Heather Glass, the business developed by the artist and managed by her husband, photographer Tim Matthews.

Walking me through her process, the tall blonde explains that drawings are made at 1/8 scale. “Then I do a full-scale one for clients to approve,” she says, pointing to large drawings of vines and flowers draped across couches and chairs. “The next step is cutting the stencil.” For this she uses something called Buttercut—a pale green vinyl that is applied to the surface of the glass. “Everything has to be covered that isn’t going to be etched,” she explains. She transfers her drawing onto the vinyl surface and cuts out the design with an X-Acto blade.

The etching happens in a ventilated blasting chamber at the side of the old barn-like studio structure. She shows me the tiny nozzles that allow for intricate cutting and three-dimensional carving of shapes such as leaves and petals. “Tim got me this,” she smiles, holding a lightweight pink plastic blasting hood. The old ones—which resemble diving helmets—weigh 8 pounds.

Matthews carves her images into sheets of industrial glass that have been pre-cut and finished. “It’s physically taxing,” she admits. “I have to use both hands—one to hold the pen-like nozzle, and the other to steady it. And I have to work on the floor for designs on the lower sections.”

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Donor walls of hospitals and marine labs have been adorned with her waterscapes. “Sea life is a specialty. And I love two-sided projects,” she says, as I run my hands over both front and backsides of an etched botanical design. “These pieces change as the light moves.”
Matthews claims that organization is not her strong suit. “I encourage deadlines,” she says. “I’m not very structured. And the work can become arduous. It’s like having a baby. I can’t wait for it to be finished. But then when it is finished … ” Matthews has created thousands of such pieces, she says, pointing to the gorgeous collection of panels, tables, doors, that she has etched with her signature designs, most involving flowers and leaves inspired by her own garden, or sea creatures which she researches along the coast and in Hawaii.

Moving around a lot as she grew up, Matthews spent her first eight years in Germany, then back and forth across the U.S., finally ending up in Virginia when her stepfather was at the Pentagon. Art and science were her major studies, but art won out. “I came here originally to go to UCSC, but I never did. Thank God I heard about Cabrillo,” she says. At Cabrillo she studied with legendary teaches Holt Murray, Tom Allen, and Howard Ikemoto.

Heather Glass began with stained glass. “I fashioned boxes, windows, little hanging pieces that were all sold at Nepenthe,” she says. More work followed. “It turned into a business. I was lucky,” she admits, flashing a grin. Even after the earthquake in 1989, she was sought after. “People came to me to do repair work,” she says. By then, she had married the photographer and in 1990 they moved into a rambling barn structure on Soquel Drive almost at the very center of the Village.

“I gave away my stained glass equipment and started doing glass etching in the mid-80s,” she says. Working nonstop ever since, many of her commissions involve field research. Matthews shows me a richly detailed Sierra mountainscape window. “I spent time up in the mountains to research the plants and animals,” she says. One panel in the rustic studio reminds me of Tiffany, emblazoned with dogwood. Another of wisteria is clearly 19th century in feel. “I do my drawing at home in my garden. Gardening is my therapy,” she says.

Matthews works primarily by commission. Even though she displays samples of basic designs to help start the process, most of her huge roster of clients seem to know exactly what they want. “People really like to have their finger in the final product,” she says.

The work in person is unexpectedly lively for designs worked in glass. “I see new things in each piece all the time,” the artist herself admits. “In the changing light—it’s like a living creature.”

To see images of her work, visit heatherglass.com.


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