Sculpting Glass from Volcanic Ash of Mount St. Helens

American Artisans, History, People, Traditions
on August 31, 2008
Jeff Foster

An audience at the Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center near Toutle, Wash., watches as glassblower Lloyd Gladson, 40, gently rolls his blowpipe, shaping cranberry-colored molten glass into a work of art. In the distance behind him is Mount St. Helens, with its huge crater resulting from the May 18, 1980, eruption that spewed volcanic ash over 11 states.

It’s an appropriate spot for Gladson’s demonstration, as each of his creations incorporates the mountain’s ash into a secret glass recipe that’s used to make items such as vases, bowls, birdfeeders, ornaments and lamps that are sold at his Original Mount St. Helens Volcanic Ash Glassworks shop in nearby Centralia, Wash. (pop. 14,977).

After shaping and forming the hot glass for a few minutes, Gladson places it back into a 2,300-degree heating chamber, continually rotating the blowpipe so the glass reheats evenly. When the glass becomes pliable again, he returns to his workbench, where he cuts, stretches and bends the glass.

“This work really tries your patience,” he tells onlookers, “because I have to remember that the glass is the boss. I’m not.”

Ten minutes later, the audience gets a brief look at his creation—a colorful glass candy dish—before it’s placed into a cooling chamber where it remains overnight.

Gladson’s glassblowing demonstrations, which take place April through September at the visitor center, have become a popular attraction. “During the summer, people are fighting for a spot to watch Lloyd,” says Jamie Westervelt, who works at the center’s gift shop where some of Gladson’s creations are sold. “He makes some amazing art.”

His love for glassblowing didn’t begin until his early 20s. “Prior to that,” he says, laughing, “glass to me was only good for looking out of and drinking out of.”

In the early ’80s, Gladson was working in the parts department of an automobile dealership when he met glassblower Steven Hank Claycamp, founder of the Original Mount St. Helens Volcanic Ash Glassworks. Claycamp originated the idea of adding the mountain’s ash into glassworks in June 1980, when he discovered that the volcanic ash contained 68 percent silica, a major component of glass. The resulting glass took on a unique green tint and became a popular item among tourists wanting a piece of the famed mountain.

Gladson eventually left his auto-parts job to work as Claycamp’s apprentice. After years of study, Gladson mastered the craft and, in 2003, he purchased the business from the retiring Claycamp.

“I’ve worked with Lloyd since he was an apprentice and I’ve seen his work get better every year,” says Paula Lux, the glassworks’ office manager.

While there’s still novelty to the glassworks because it contains Mount St. Helens volcanic ash, it’s Gladson’s craftsmanship that has collectors scrambling for his original, handblown artwork.

“We have Lloyd’s pieces all over the house,” says Jean Toepfer of Vancouver, Wash. “Whenever we travel north, we always stop by the shop and pick up something new. We give them as gifts, plus we have about 50 very artistic pieces of our own.”

Gladson expects to be making his art for years to come, as he has a 10-ton stockpile of ash, gathered right after the eruption, that he keeps in dry storage. Currently, it’s illegal to gather ash from the eruption area.

Together, he and his apprentice, Mike Anderson, 21, create more than 10,000 pieces of art each year, sometimes as many as 100 pieces in a day, which range in price from $20 for a small, colorful Christmas ornament to $500 for a large, mushroom-shaped lamp.

“This never gets stagnant,” Gladson says. “I love the freedom of glassblowing.”