Bouquets in Glass

Melissa Ayotte makes fine-art paperweights based on themes from nature in her New Boston studio.

It takes serious tools and know-how to create the delicate floral paperweights that are the trademarks of Melissa Ayotte’s studio. 

Melissa Ayotte, daughter of renowned glass artist Rick Ayotte, was born and raised in New Hampshire. Her signature work, like her father’s, is paperweights of exceptional beauty inspired by nature. A love of the outdoors has always informed Melissa’s work, and she imagines her particular affection for flowers may be due in part to their all-too-brief appearance during New Hampshire’s short growing season.

In her roomy New Boston studio in a barn near her home—where she and her father have worked for the last thirteen years—are kilns, worktables and cubbies upon cubbies full of glass rods in sizes from thick to thin, and in every available color. In this space, she creates tiny, exquisite floral arrangements from glass and encases them in clear crystal to make traditional-style paperweights. She is also continually challenging the traditional paperweight form—creating new shapes, sizes and textures.

Melissa’s art will be featured in a show in England in June 2018. Locally, her paperweights can be seen at the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester.

Melissa’s more recent work plays with traditional forms of the paperweight, like this example from her Circulus series, which features a mid-century-modern-inspired rim encircling multi-colored roses.

New Hampshire Home [NHH]: What made you decide on paperweights as your artistic focus?

Melissa Ayotte (MA): As a second-generation glass artist, I was inspired by my father’s passion and talent. That is where I started, and where I eventually landed, working at his side for many years. As a medium, it is very challenging to take a three-inch, round glass dome and encase your life’s work inside of it.

NHH: Paperweights have had sort of a renaissance, haven’t they?

MA: Yes, in the 1960s and 1970s, a number of artists started to look at antique paperweights from Europe. From there, they expanded upon—and to some extent, created—a new genre. Some emulated the antique form, while others stepped out, challenging themselves with the interior content. My father was part of that renaissance period.

NHH: And you grew up with all that glass work going on around you?

MA: Yes, but as it is going on, you don’t think much about it. Your father is over there doing his thing in the fire. I was slowly drawn to the flame.

NHH: What got you interested in working with glass?

MA: It started as a part-time job while I was in graduate school, working in the psychology field and needing to earn a little extra money. Assisting my father just seemed natural, and the torch and glass were a nice way to be centered and process material from my life’s experiences.

This piece from the Circulus series features an exterior designed to look like a ring, with deliberate, triangular cuts that add texture and light to both interior and exterior. The form brings focus to the bouquet of lime-green dahlias, purple lilacs, cornflowers and bloodroot.

NHH: And that’s when you became hooked?

MA: Yes. As soon as I sat down with the torch, it was like: “I’ve got to do this.” The thing about glass is that you have to be present, working very much in the moment. Handling 2000°F molten glass forces you to be hyper-aware and focused. I think that is one of its most alluring features. If something’s not going the way you want it to, you have to figure out what to do about it. So much happens. Some of it you control, and some of it you don’t—you have to be flexible.

NHH: Flowers are obviously very important to your work. What is it that attracts you to them?

MA: Flowers for me are the perfect language. There’s such precision in the flower, such grace. Almost every element of nature can be found in the flower. There’s a fragility and also a resilience. You know what spring is like in New Hampshire! I’m always amazed to see crocuses bloom, and then it snows again and the crocuses struggle to survive.

To me, the flower is emblematic of so many things. It has its own perfect grace, but not a grace without dying. The idea in my work is to distill what is perfect about the flower—the color and the form—and bring it into focus so people can enjoy it.

NHH: The flowers in your paperweights look real. In fact, when I first saw pictures of them, I thought they were real. Does anyone ever encase real objects in paperweights?

MA: Not in glass. We pour a molten crystal, which can be anywhere from 1550°F to 2000°F, over the piece. There’s not a lot that would survive the process.

NHH: Can you walk us through that process of making a paperweight?

MA: There are a number of steps. First there is the flame work, which is also called lamp work. I use the torch to create small-scale sculptures—leaves or petals or berries. Typically, there are two or three different colors of glass rods used to create just one petal or leaf. Then each petal or leaf is assembled to create the flower, and the flower is assembled into a larger piece.

The next step is to assemble the flowers into a larger design while keeping everything hot—or else it cracks. That’s the key. Glass is a super-cooled liquid, so when you work with glass, you are bringing it back to a liquid state, or close to a liquid state.

What we use in the studio is called soft glass, and it’s difficult to work with—it’s not like Pyrex. You have to heat it slowly, or it will crack. As you assemble the piece, bit by bit, you take it in and out of the kiln, moving the piece back and forth while keeping it hot and adding to it, until it’s built up. Then the whole piece goes into the kiln to stabilize.

Melissa Ayotte has also recently created a series of Native American basket-inspired pieces. This one 
incorporates thistles, sunflowers and blue prairie flowers as well as a bumble bee.

Next I encase the design. I heat up the glory hole, which is what you are used to seeing with glass blowing— for example, at Simon Pearce, a glass maker in Quechee, Vermont, where the glass blowers are constantly reheating their pieces in the fire. I pick up a glass gob on my punty [an iron rod to hold and shape soft glass] out of a kiln where I have pre-heated it, and heat the glass further in the glory hole. The gob of glass for the encasing is one of the things that make paperweights so expensive. We use optic-quality crystal, which is very, very refined, expensive, and difficult to get, as few companies are making it any longer. When the gob is the right consistency, almost like honey, I drop it over the design—boom!—to encase it.

Then while the piece is still hot, I clean the piece and start shaping it, using carbon forms.

The final step is the annealing process, when the paperweight goes into the kiln to cool for two days.

NHH: It seems like a lot could go wrong. What’s the most treacherous part of the process?

MA: Perhaps not “treacherous,” but challenging. Glass does not give up its secrets easily. There are many variables that can and do impact the success or survival of each piece—the tempera-ture, the compatibility of different glasses being used, the size of the piece, the amount of annealing. Sometimes you open up the kiln, and … ugh … a crack. You’re starting over.

NHH: How long does it take you to make a paperweight?

MA: Everyone asks that, and it’s a difficult question to answer. There’s designing the piece. There’s figuring out which glass will and won’t work together. There’s achieving whatever it is in your mind you want to create— the technical research and development if you will, and then there’s making it. Once you get everything figured out, you could do a piece in a week, but more challenging pieces need more time.

This is such an involved art form. There is so much to the process, from conception to actualization. Often it involves a lot of trial and error, and heartbreak. Then, once the piece is realized, replicating the process can be equally as difficult. To achieve the colors in our paperweights, we mix glass like a painter mixes paints to achieve a certain hue. The glass comes from all over the world: Italian glass, Czech glass, German glass. All these glass rods react differently when mixed together. My father’s body of knowledge of what works and what doesn’t work together has helped me avoid a lot of the trial and error.

NHH: Whereas if somebody like me wanted to make glass paperweights, I would be starting out on my own, learning in school and on the internet.

MA: Yes, years ago there was maybe one glass catalog. Now you have something like eight distributors of glass, and many schools and studios offer instruction. So there’s more knowledge of glass in general. That has changed, but you still have to sit down and do the work, and it’s not easy. It’s also expensive, with the gas, oxygen and raw materials.

NHH: You’ve been working with some new variations on the paperweights, such as your Native American baskets. Can you describe those?

MA: My inspiration usually comes from nature, but during a visit to a collector’s home, I fell in love with her collection of native baskets. I had already been moving away from the traditional paperweight form with my stone series, the pods, the wall hangings and the multifaceted exteriors. One morning while sketching a different idea, thoughts of the native baskets I had seen earlier came to mind, and soon my sketch pad was filled with them.

The glass orb containing the flame work can be as much an expression of art as the interior. I have made paperweights with an urchin-like exterior, or a mid-century modern rim with holes. I long for that more tactile experience, and I think that has guided my deviations from the traditional form. Currently, I am working on what I call the Circulus series. Some are double-sided, with a bouquet on each side of the glass displayed upright in stands. This is really challenging. I’m also doing wall pieces now. The pieces have backings and hang on the wall in groups. It’s another way of displaying paperweights, instead of having them stacked in a case. Plenty of people have these wonderful collections at home, and they’re beautifully displayed in cabinets or on shelves, but to have the pieces where people can see them at eye level when they walk into a room is different.

NHH: What are you planning next?

MA: I was going through one of my journals recently, and I discovered that back in 2003, I had sketched a piece that I finally made last year. So I’m several years behind. That is one of my constant struggles: Will I have enough time? Will I get to it? I don’t think there’s an end to my desire to challenge the form. That urge feels very much a part of my second- generation role, if you will.

NHH: The eternal question: Why do you do it?

MA: People say, “I look at that piece and it makes me feel good.” That’s the joy of it. I try to make things that speak to me, that I would want to surround myself with. That and the alchemy—making the different pieces work together and figuring out the processes.

In the flame-work stage of the paperweight-making process, Melissa Ayotte creates the pieces of the floral assemblies (such as the tiny blueberry shown above) that she will eventually encase in molten glass. 

Left: Melissa Ayotte’s first step in making a paperweight is to plan the project.

Middle: The leaves, petals, stems and other elements of the planned piece are collected before being assembled.

Right: Melissa carefully assembles the floral arrangement that will appear in the interior of the paperweight. 

Left: Using an iron rod called a punty, Melissa heats a gob of optic-quality crystal glass, which will be used to encase the floral assembly, in the oven (called the glory hole).

Right: The encasement rests on rollers in the flame of a Bunsen burner. 

Left: Using a torch and another piece of glass, Melissa peels off impurities picked up by the glass during encasement.

Middle: She pulls the punty from the top part of the encasement, which she will then begin to shape  using a A cup. 

Right: After spending some time in the kiln, an exquisite paperweight comes to life. Included is the blueberry seen on the previous page. 

Another Circulus piece showcases red dahlias, purple mums and blue bloodroot in a blue rim. In the background are cubbies of glass rods in an array of colors and sizes that will eventually find their way into Melissa Ayotte’s work.

Categories: Architecture and Interiors, Artwork and Design