Arts & Culture

From garage to gallery: Kansas artist Karg built his career on glass

Renowned glass artist Rollin Karg’s mid-life artistic career started small.

It began as a backyard venture in a 17x20 garage in Wichita – allowing him to scratch a creative itch and probably a genetic predisposition to create things with his hands. Learning to blow glass using smashed up Pepsi bottles, he started creating small paperweights.

More than 30 years later, his workspace and gallery is spread out in two large buildings on a corner of North Oliver in Kechi, a small town just north of Wichita. When he started, Karg said, his was one of the first private glass artist studios in Kansas.

As his career grew, so did his creations and his effect on the glass art genre.

Now Karg creates, or “knocks together” as he describes it, tall sculptures – some 14 feet and taller – that are a mix of metal and glass.

His artwork is collected, sometimes even hoarded, he said, and is purchased all over the world, including by Fortune 500 companies. He has artwork displayed as part of public art in Chicago, Estes Park, Colorado and elsewhere, and it’s carried by galleries throughout the United States. His work is often featured on sculpture walkabouts in various cities, including the yearlong 10th Annual Sculpture Walkabout unveiled by the Arts Council and City of Wichita in late September.

He’s learned to build furnaces and other equipment used to create glasswork and has helped other glass artists install and build their furnaces, too. He and his employees had a hand building the equipment used in the glass studios at Wichita’s CityArts.

He spent more than 20 years trying to recreate and better the process of creating phosphate opal glass that was once used to diffuse the light of candles and oil lamps before electricity. Working with phosphate glass allows him to create milky white and other light hues in the glass he creates. He’s also known for his work with dichroic glass, which can be described as transmitting one color while reflecting another.

He’s also helped train several artists who’ve worked for him over the years.

“I’ve launched a bunch of careers,” Karg said. “You don’t have to look very far to find my prodigy or offspring, as you might call them.”

The artists who’ve trained with him even have a name – Kargis (pronounced with a hard g).

Works of Karg and some of his Kargis, along with artists from elsewhere in the United States, will be on display in the upcoming Karg Art Glass annual exhibition and show. The Glorious Glass Show opens with a 6 to 9 p.m. reception Friday, Nov. 9, that will feature live glass blowing, refreshments and live music. The show will continue during the shop’s normal business hours through Friday, Jan. 4.

Karg grew up with men who worked with their hands. His father was a carpenter. One grandfather was in construction, the other a tool-and-die man who could make things out of junk. They wanted him to work more with his brain. Karg studied business for awhile at Wichita State University and had an industrial engineering and sales career working with aircraft and other manufacturers. But he also liked being creative, doing woodwork, working with metal and such.

In the 1980s, on a monthlong family driving trip to Newfoundland in Canada, Karg stopped at the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, New York, that features ancient glass art and glass-blowing demonstrations.

“I watched them and I was hooked,” Karg said.

After that trip, he took glass art classes with Richard Stauffer at Emporia State University.

“I was 38 when I picked up my first glass-blowing pipe,” said Karg, 74.

He became a full-time artist in 1983, making paperweights in that garage in the Midtown neighborhood of Wichita.

“I was going to be a weight man,” he said.

His son and his son’s friend, not yet teens, were his first apprentices and employees, helping run the furnaces and making glass. The family’s basement living room doubled as the sales, packing and shipping area. With his work being carried at the Wichita Art Museum store and elsewhere, tour buses started showing up in the residential neighborhood to watch him work and then visitors would traipse down the basement steps to buy his work, with the family dog always not far behind.

He eventually found a space in Kechi that was bigger. Going from a 340-square-foot workspace to one that was 3,000 seemed overwhelming, Karg said. He dedicated about 450-square-feet to a gallery to sell art. But in six months, the place wasn’t big enough.

Karg’s transition into other glass works started literally by accident. He messed up making a traditional round paperweight but was intrigued by the new shape he’d created. He started creating more of them on purpose, calling them sculpture weights. He moved into making other artistic pieces, including disks and other creative shapes.

About 12 years ago, Karg Art Glass moved into its current facility at 111 N. Oliver, which consists of two buildings. The largest – at 7,300 square feet – houses the 3,200-square-foot gallery where Karg sells his work and that of other artists, and is where the Glorious Glass Show exhibit will be set up.

Behind the gallery, Karg and three other glassblowers make their artwork in an open-air studio, where furnaces glow, burning hot at about 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit. Some of the glass used to make the art pieces is created on site, while other glass, like the frit, are purchased. Several bread pans hold the frit – gravel-sized glass pieces of different colors – into which the glass blower dips the hot, sticky glass to add color.

The second building, a metal industrial-looking 3,000-square-foot building, is where Karg creates metal stands to display some of his art. Towering shelves hold several different shapes and sizes of metal pieces. Some of the pieces he creates himself, using a template he acquired 40 years ago. Other are purchased.

About three years ago, he started creating sculptures out of the metal parts, with some incorporating his glass work.

One of his more productive periods was when he found out he had cancer in May 2016, when making art became both cathartic and practical. He wanted to make a lasting statement as an artist and also provide his wife, Patti, with financial resources through the sales of his work. He knocked out about 20 sculptures during the six weeks or so as he waited for his radiation treatment and continued working. Then Patti got ill in April 2017. She died of cancer in August 2017. Karg continued to create.

Several of his metal and metal-glass sculptures are on display on the Karg Art Glass grounds. Welded together, the metal parts of the sculptures tend to be arranged in ways that give the pieces both flow and visual interest. The addition of the glass pieces give the sculptures a visual pop of color, and showcases Karg’s origins as a glass artist – which started more than 30 years ago with a piece of art, a paperweight, so small it could be held in the palm of a hand.

The Glorious Glass Show

What: Annual show that features the works of Karg Art Glass owner and renowned artist Rollin Karg and other U.S. glass artists

When: Opening reception 6-9 p.m. Friday, Nov. 9, with live glass-blowing demonstrations, refreshments and live music. Exhibit and show continues through Friday, Jan. 4, from 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sundays. Visitors can also see live glass-blowing during the studio’s regular scheduled public viewing of artists at work 8:30 a.m.-noon, weekdays except Wednesday and 8:30-11 a.m. Saturdays. It’s advised to call to confirm regular glass-blowing demos.

Where: Karg Art Glass, 111 N. Oliver, Kechi

Admission: Free

More information: 316-744-2442