The Glass of
George and Phyllis Zajicek
by Bill Weaver
photo by Cindy Steele
“Glass is exciting,” George Zajicek says of the art that he and his wife Phyllis have been making for the last 35 years.
Using a technique called fused glass they create original bowls, vases, panels, lamps, jewelry, and art pieces in their studio, Tippers Willow Art Glass, on Lanam Ridge Road.
“Starting from scratch you have a flat piece,” Phyllis demonstrates. “Then you cut it into the shape you want.” Smaller pieces are carefully glued into place and the entire assembly is moved to the kiln for its first firing. “People are always amazed, they say, ‘Oh, that’s a lot of work! How do you know what to make?’
“You’ve just got to let your mind go,” she says emphatically. “Go read a book or take a walk. Things come to you.”
The next day the glass is carefully placed on a mold so that it will melt into its proper shape when it’s fired again. “It takes two different temperatures to go into your bowl shape and make it smooth enough that you don’t get any sharp edges,” Phyllis says. “It’s very precise. On a good day I can lay up two.”
The couple bought their first kiln in 1978. “Before that we did flat glass,” George says, mostly repairing antique lamps and stained glass windows.
“In the late ’70s, early ’80s everyone was unearthing old lamps out of grandma’s attic,” Phyllis says.
“We did a lot of architectural glass when we had our studio in Chicago,” George adds. “There’s something about old glass…I’ve repaired Tiffany lamps and worked down at the Indiana Theater restoration in Bloomington. If I find a lamp that’s a hundred years old, I probably have a piece for it. It’s all about matching.”
While working in repair and restoration they were also seeing what artists like Mark Duro, and Frances and Michael Higgins were doing with glass. Soon they were inspired to make original work of their own. “We had the opportunity to meet some of the big names in glass,” George says. “And learned a lot.”
“I experiment all the time,” Phyllis continues. “That’s my favorite thing to do. I like to see what I can get away with. There are things that turn out really good and I think—I’ll be buried with this piece. You get one in about every hundred bowls that’s…” she sighs, “perfection. Everything is right.”
“We’ve been at it so long we can incorporate just about any technique of glass working,” George continues. “Phyllis does most of the fusing.”
“He does all of our designing,” she finishes.
One of their more ambitious designs is a commissioned piece inspired by the famous Michelangelo painting in the Sistine Chapel of God reaching out to the hand of man. Only in this case it’s a Wiccan goddess with painted nails who is doing the reaching.
“It ought to cause some controversy, huh?” Phyllis laughs.
Another piece is three-dimensional, of a human face pressing out of the galaxy’s cradle. “I’m fascinated by movies with the faces coming out of a mirror,” George says. “So I tried to replicate that. That was exciting. That takes it out of the realm of stained glass.”
The couple, who used to attend as many as 37 shows a year, has slowed down to eight or ten a year. “At that time in Chicago there was always a show you could go to on Rush Street, or people would set up in a parking lot. It was a different time,” George reminisces. “Casual. A bottle of wine, a guy leaning against a tree playing a guitar, it was free and easy.”
Now they stay close to their Brown County home where they’ve lived and worked since 1988 and let the world come to them. “If somebody can see you work it’s almost a sure sale,” George says. “It’s not a machine stamping it out. Everybody puts part of themselves into their work.”
They discovered Brown County after talking with a native during a show outside Chicago. “He told me about the hills of Indiana,” George says. “If you’re living in Chicago your idea of Indiana is northern Indiana—steel mills. I was in Indianapolis and called Jim and said, “Hey, do you mind if I stop over?”
It was nighttime when George arrived but the next morning he awoke to birds singing and when he looked outside all that the city boy could see were trees. “I thought I’d died,” George remembers. “I told Phyllis about it so the next time we did the St. James Show in Louisville I said, ‘Do you want to see Brown County?’ She fell in love with it immediately and said, ‘Let’s sell the house and move down here!’”
“It took me awhile to slow down after I moved here,” Phyllis relates. “If you call a workman and he says he’ll be here tomorrow, he won’t turn up for two weeks. But that’s the way it is. I understand it now because I say, ‘Yeah, we’ll be there.’ And then I don’t get there for two weeks,” she laughs.
“You get to know the natives and they are really great people, very helpful,” George adds. It’s just a special place. It’s people like yourself—creating. That’s where it’s at. I feel like I’m fulfilling my life.”
When asked if he has anything to add George looks at his wife of 46 years and says simply, “Mention that Phyllis is beautiful yet.”
“Oh, you’re so kind,” she laughs. “We’ve worked together 24/7 for almost thirty years. We’ve had fun. I look forward to coming out here to the studio every day, even if it’s just to stand and stare at something.”
You can arrange an appointment at Tippers Willow Art Glass by calling (812) 988-7096 or visit their website at <www.tipperswillow.com>.