Artist Justin Parr discovered a passion for glass art that he explores by making marbles and drinking glasses. In the process, he helped build a community of fervent marble hunters. All photos by Louie Preciado.
Justin Parr knows how to make the perfect drinking glass. But, he says, it’s not only “super boring,” it’s also exactly what you can purchase at any big box store without a second thought. Luminous Stone
“A lot of craftspeople lean toward perfection. If you’ve made something 100 times, you’re going to make it perfect,” he says. “My goal has never been to do that.”
Instead, each of the thousands of glasses he has created since getting into glass art over a decade ago are unique. With flat bottoms for easy storage in cupboards and glass thick enough to not break with everyday use, they’re utilitarian. “But they’re kind of a little wonky and have the look that someone made them,” he says. “They’re all personal.”
The maker never intended for glass to become his primary medium. A contemporary artist, photographer and owner of Flight Gallery, Parr says the first time he tried glass blowing, he enjoyed it. But he also thought it was something he’d never do again.
Then friend and fellow artist Jake Harper opened Zollie Glass Studio across from Flight Gallery, when it was still on South Presa Street. Parr tried his hand at the kiln again and says, “I just kind of never left.” Zollie became a hub for San Antonio’s robust glass blowing community. The artists gathered to make complex marbles and other art pieces, all while collaborating and becoming friends. Harper’s studio has since closed (although it’s slated to reopen this summer), but Parr says the community continues to thrive, mostly working in their own studios but sometimes getting together to collaborate and create.
For his part, Parr can usually be found in the private studio atop his shipping container home adjacent to Hot Wells Conservancy. “It’s heaven,” the artist says. “I’m surrounded by windows, and my studio looks out into the trees.”
He made his first set of kitchen glasses for himself and quickly found that friends and visitors were interested in purchasing them. Demand grew from there, and his glasses are now carried in stores throughout the state and collected by people nationwide. “Before I realized it, I was doing a lot more glass than anything else,” he says. “I really do love it. I like making tactile objects that people can use and appreciate in their daily lives.”
To start, Parr uses 5-foot tubes of borosilicate glass that he pulls into points and then crafts using a traditional Italian lampworking technique. Then he finishes out his works with his “own flair.” During COVID-19, demand for his products grew exponentially and Parr says he’s been meeting holiday-level demand for about a year, churning out as many as 12 to 20 glasses per day while still making the occasional marble or other piece.
“You can only do it for two to three hours before you have to take a break,” he says. “You’re working with a flame that is close to 3,000 degrees, and when it hits the glass, it reflects off and on to you, so it beats you up in an unusual way.”
Justin Parr’s work station with colored rods of glass, tools, some of his signature DNA marbles and handmade glass cups.
Parr combs through rods of colored glass, which he uses to create his marbles.
Parr melts a small piece of dichroic glass to incorporate into a marble. Dichroic glass bounces and reflects light, giving a rainbow of colors that sparkle and almost look like shattered glass.
The artist continuously heats the glass in order for the marble to maintain its shape.
After heating and melting small rods of glass onto the end of the melted glass rod, the marble and vortex design begin to take shape.
Two large rods of glass with melted ends are joined together to form the final stages of the marble.
After various colors of glass are melted together onto the marble, Parr uses a tool to draw designs onto the back side of the vortex marble.
The marble is shaped inside a mold one final time before it’s removed from the glass rod.
Parr inspects the marble before placing it into the kiln, which will safely bring the marble to room temperature. Cooling too quickly can result in the marble cracking internally.
It takes only a single online clue for dozens of members from Esferas Perdidas to set off on their next hunt.
A Facebook group launched over seven years ago by artists Justin Parr and Sean Johnston, Esferas Perdidas (Lost Spheres) started as a fun way for the San Antonio glass-blowing community to introduce people to its work through handmade marbles. It still does that, but with 8,000-plus members, it also has become a popular treasure hunting pastime that often has people competing for weeks or months to be the first to find the latest hidden gem.
“My girlfriend and I shared clues for a road trip search that included drawings that corroborated with points on Google Earth,” Parr says. “It took the group two-and-a-half months, but one day someone realized exactly where it was. He drove to Port Aransas and picked it right up.”
Many of the marbles are hidden around San Antonio at places like the Japanese Tea Gardens, Landa Library or even random parking lots. Most locations are easy to access and allow for plenty of social distancing, making it a pandemic-friendly pastime.
To start a hunt, an artist or marble hider will post “Lost” along with a photograph of the marble and a picture, drawing or illustration that provides a clue about where to begin looking.
Group members typically update after a successful search with a “Found” post that gives more details about where the piece of art was hidden—whether in a small fountain, under a park bench or dropped amid the brush.
Parr says he and Johnston have learned a lot about humanity through the group. People are both kinder and more frenzied and competitive than you would think when a free piece of glass is at stake. It also has grown into a larger community than they could ever have imagined back in 2014. “It’s gotten people interested in marbles and glass art,” Parr says. Plus, it’s good old-fashioned fun. Join the hunt by searching “Esferas Perdidas” on Facebook and requesting access to become a member.
Get a behind-the-scenes look at how glass pieces are created and test your own hand at the art form
Like so much else, its classes turned into virtual demos during COVID-19. The professionals who craft custom glass creations here are already welcoming back visitors who make appointments to observe and even try glass blowing under their guidance.
The family behind this studio welcomes guests for a narrated glass-blowing demonstration and studio tour that allows you to see how a piece goes from idea to finished product. After a pause during the pandemic, the studio has restarted in-person demos with limited capacity.
Groups of six or fewer can book glass-blowing experiences or lessons in this Five Points studio. The studio and its artists create everything from sculpture and custom glassware to lighting fixtures.
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