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The Express

The Student News Site of Sacramento City College

The Express

The Student News Site of Sacramento City College

The Express

Glowing Glass
René Steinke of Sacramento Art Glass works on a sculpture. Photo by Jake Patrick Donahue / Mainline Magazine Staff Photographer / [email protected]

It’s mid-morning on a surprisingly cool June day in Sacramento, but it’s already sweltering in the white warehouse less than a half mile from City College.

The coolest of the five ovens in the hot shop is kept at 960 degrees Fahrenheit.

“I got more burns at the pizza parlor I worked for,” says René Steinke, artist and owner of Sacramento Art Glass. “You don’t respect 450 degrees. Not really. But when your coolest oven is close to a thousand degrees, you’re a lot more careful.”

The Eagles’ “Hotel California” blares over the sound system as René moves around the shop, constantly spinning a blob of molten glass on the end of a hollow steel blowpipe.

He knows exactly where everything is – his tools, his work table, the bench. It seems he could do this with his eyes closed.

René rests the long pipe against one side of the workbench and puffs into the end opposite the glowing orange glass. The blob expands, and René keeps the pipe spinning, whistling as he works.

Over the course of the next hour, the glass is spun, shaped, twisted, bent, heated and reheated until a foot-tall fluted vase sits cooling in the annealing oven and René sets down the blow pipe.

“That was fun,” he says. “Best way to start your day.”

René Steinke and his partner Neelie Joyce started Sacramento Art Glass in 2010. Neelie has been a part-time City College student since 2009. She is studying in the physical therapy program and manages the business side of things at Sacramento Art Glass.

On top of that, Neelie and René, who call themselves 50-50 partners in life and in work, also juggle an active young family.

René Steinke of Sacramento Art Glass basically a changing of the guard, and then I go to school. I study when the kids nap and wherever I find time. It’s not an easy program, but it’s not too crazy.”

Their children sit in a two-seater stroller and watch their dad work. Maxwell, the older of the two at 18 months in June, seems transfixed by the glowing glass until Sasha, the family’s dog and shop’s mascot comes over for some attention. Caliegh, Maxwell’s 6-month old sister, observes between a series of short naps.

Sacramento Art Glass’ business supports the family. “We can call it a career now,” says Neelie. “It’s our bread and butter. It’s what pays our bills.”

“Yeah, we have an interesting little life,” says René. “I think it’s really cool that we’re able to support a family off of art.”

Neelie was worried about that at first, too.

“And then the kids,” she says. “It was a big deal. It was like, ‘Oh, I’m pregnant. Oh, I’m pregnant again!’ We had one right after the other, and I kept thinking that I might have to go back to work or find something I could do at home to supplement, and I haven’t.”

“I call her ‘my enabler,’” René says. “She schedules everything and makes everything happen. This would not be operating at this level without her.”

René works more on the vase that is still taking shape on the end of the blowpipe, and Neelie pauses to watch along with the kids.

“It’s his passion,” she says. “This is what he wants to do. And I think that’s really fuels the whole process. He loves what he does so much. He’s always happy — he’s infectiously happy.”

And René loves collaboration.

“He’s got this motto, ‘Unite or die,’” says Neelie. “His dream is to bring people together and make stuff together. He has friends who different things and can all work together.”

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“The heat’s hard for some of our students,” Neelie says. “I have to put a disclaimer on the emails that I send out reminding people that it’s hot. We’ve got swamp coolers and misters and fans — we do what we can.”

But there’s only so much anyone can do against a room full of 900-degree ovens.

“Our friend has a thermometer on the wall in his hot shop. It’s a smaller space, but it’ll say that it’s up to 120 degrees in there,” says Neelie. “I’ve asked René several times if he wants me to get him a thermometer, and he says that he just doesn’t want to know.”

“Over here we have the furnace,” René says, indicating a huge squarish metal box. “It’s full of molten clear glass.”
This furnace is heated 2,130 degrees Fahrenheit. When he opens the heavy metal lid, a wave of heat radiates through the entire shop.

“And it’s on 24/7,” René says. “All the time, always. It takes about three days to heat up and three days to cool down, so if I want to work, I need to keep it on.”

In contrast to the ovens, René is quite cool, according to his customers.

“Somebody put on our Yelp page, ‘René is the fucking coolest guy.’ Ever since then, he’s been like, ‘I am the fucking coolest guy,’” Neelie says with a laugh. “I’m making him these business cards, and he keeps asking me, ‘Can I put that on there as my job description? René: the fucking coolest guy.’”

René finishes the piece he is working on and steps outside for a cigarette.

He indicates parts for a chandelier on the way out. “Those pieces can take up to seven or eight hours,” René says. “I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of runner’s high, but it’s kind of like that. When you have a piece that you’re really focused on, the whole world just drops out. It’s a really cool experience to just fall into that moment, you know. The world just melts away.”

René fell in love with glass blowing when he saw someone doing it at the state fair.

“That was the only thing I saw that year at the state fair. I was just like, ‘OK, you guys can do whatever you want. You know where to find me. I’ll be right here.’ I was, like, 12 or something. Very young.”

Years later, René was offered the chance to help out a glass blower.

“The people who owned the place saw that I wasn’t afraid of it, and I was jumping in there like, ‘Hey! This is fun!’ and they offered me a job, and that was kind of the end of it,” René smiles.

“I started blowing glass with Patrick Mullen over in West Sac. He’s a cool dude. I really love that guy. He’s kind of the guy who really took me under his wing and taught me to blow glass.”

René took some classes, too. “It’s really weird because you go and take an introductory class, and then you have to spend so much time learning the craft. You invest so much time into getting it right. And then you go take a class from a master glass blower and you think, ‘Oh, well, that trick makes everything so much easier.’ But it’s all about practicing up to the point where you can actually use the knowledge that you’re getting from someone.”

Seventeen years later, René, Neelie and Sacramento Art Glass are thriving.

René smiles and looks around his shop. “It’s very fun stuff ,” he says with a satisfied smile. “I like this. I like my little life.”

Editor’s Note: this article first appeared on December 8, 2014 in the fall 2014 issue of Mainline magazine.


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