Full-time glassblowing and the road that leads there
Twenty-five years ago, Larry Zapf was working at a high-stress, performance-driven job in Manhattan and feeling as though under a microscope, constantly being evaluated and critiqued. But then an unlikely path to freedom presented itself when a friend invited him to come along to a weekend glassblowing class — a first exposure to what would become a means of personal expression free of judgments from above.
“I was able to utilize my talents in creative glassblowing as an outlet to focus on an objective product that I wanted, not what someone else told me they wanted,” Zapf, now in his late seventies, says. “At this point in my life, I’m more concerned in doing what it is I like.”
At Zapf’s Woodhaven Glass studio at Horse Shoe Gap Village, the artist’s freedom is on full display in his ever-expanding line of handblown art glass in a variety of decorative forms, from vases and bowls to Christmas and garden ornaments. “I’m constantly looking for new ideas for items I can add to my shop,” Zapf says. “It helps keep me current and my mind active. There’s never time to become complacent or bored.”
The learning curve for glassblowing is a famously challenging one, but Zapf was immediately captivated with the form after attending that weekend class so many years ago. “The most difficult part of the process initially was learning to cope with the intense heat, and how to take care of your body throughout the process,” he says, recalling his first experience working with furnaces that can reach temperatures of more than 2,000 degrees. But before long he’d begun selling some of his early pieces from a small Manhattan studio above a restaurant in the city’s Little Italy neighborhood, all the while taking classes and learning from more experienced glassblowers.
Among them was Bill Gudenrath, not only a master glassblower but a scholar of the history of the craft, whom Zapf met while practicing at Experimental Glassworks in the city, a forerunner of the now nationally famous studio Urban Glass. “I never took a lesson from Bill, but just watching him was like watching a professional dancer work on stage,” Zapf says. “He moved so fluently, so precisely, and with so much talent, that he was and continues to be an inspiration to me in pursuing this craft.”
The creative outlet that glassblowing provided expanded Zapf’s horizons in other ways, too, starting with the decision in the late 1990s to leave his native New York City behind and relocate to the mountains, where he took a job with an Asheville-based real-estate firm. But he kept refining his skills as a glassblower at Penland and at Dillsboro’s arts-based Green Energy Park, where he found a studio workspace. “I had the opportunity to meet quite a few fellow glassblowers, and whenever I had a problem creating something, I was able to ask a fellow artist and they would very willingly provide me with pointers and other assistance,” he says. “Glassblowing is a very giving group of people.”
The next phase arrived with Zapf’s decision to retire from his real-estate position some years ago and devote himself full time to making glass art. He and his wife set up a store in a building they renovated at Horse Shoe Gap Village and a studio that Zapf built from an adjacent repurposed corn crib. “I was commuting to Dillsboro two or three times a week from our home in Brevard,” he recalls, “and that was a two-hour drive each way. My wife has always supported me in my endeavors, and with retirement, we both had the time to open the store and the studio.”
Stocking the store means the studio is always busy. And in keeping with the generosity of the glassblowing community, Zapf offers classes for newcomers, especially reaching out to young people who, like Zapf, might find glassblowing a creatively liberating experience. Thirty years on, his enthusiasm for his craft and his business is undimmed. “It’s a great way to continue looking forward in life,” he says, “and never live in your rearview mirror.”
Woodhaven Glass Studio, Horse Shoe Gap Village, 3636 Brevard Road, Hendersonville, 828-777-5770, woodhavenglass.com. (One-hour classes are offered Thursdays and Saturdays, and can be booked via the website. Call for group sessions and availability for special class times.)