crowd gathers to watch Sam’s glassblowing demonstration
during Silver Dollar City’s Festival of American Arts
and Crafts. Sam says he considers glassblowing more of a performing
art than a fine art.
The first thing
you notice about the man is his hat — midnight-black,
the kind a magician might wear. He moves with an air of confidence,
like Copperfield or Houdini, but he doesn’t need a white rabbit
or an ace up his sleeve to test the imagination and cause onlookers
to gape in amazement.
During the Festival
of American Music and Crafts, held Sept. 14 - Oct. 28 at Silver Dollar
City in Branson, a noticeable crowd has gathered around the man.
While many other guests stroll through the 19th century theme park
and only occasionally stop to examine one of the more than 125 visiting
craftsmen and artisans’ booths,
a small assembly has formed on the northeast corner of the main square to see
the man with the charcoal-gray beard and black top hat perform his ancient
“A lot of
people ask if I do hand-blown glass,” Sam
Davisson says with a Southern accent that’s almost too embellished
to be authentic. “Well,
I don’t do hand-blown glass — I can’t figure out how anyone
can blow glass with their hand.”
The crowd erupts
with laughter and Sam grins, knowing the well-rehearsed joke has
hit its mark yet again.
Sam Davisson puffs into the end of a blowpipe to expand a bubble
of colorful glass. He calls the process of glassmaking “The
Dance,” the series of steps that combine to create beautiful
works of art. The entire process usually takes about 15 minutes.
He takes the 5-foot
steel pipe in his hand and blows, causing the small bubble of honey-like
substance at the end of the pole to expand. The crowd watches in
amazement. The man continues his demonstration for another 10 minutes
before placing the colorful glass ornament that he’s created
into a kiln and asking, “Any
After waiting a
moment in silence, he adds, “Well,
thanks for stopping by, and enjoy your day at Silver Dollar City.”
crowd breaks out in applause. Sam smiles and nods in appreciation.
As the onlookers start to thin out, his wife, Patty Zieche-Davisson,
who sells wire wrap jewelry, approaches from the next booth. “He’s
an attention hog,” she says jokingly. “He gets a big head,
which is why he’s
got to keep that top hat on.”
Sam grins. “They
all tease me about it.”
As he knows, in
the world of glassblowing, there is much more to success than blowing
glass. Practicing this credo has allowed the professional artisan
from Sedalia to make a living for the past 18 years, while traveling
to art shows throughout the Midwest.
“I look at
glassblowing as a performing art rather than a fine art,” he
says. “I might not be the best, but I put on one of the
|Sam discusses marbles with Toni Nichols, a visitor to Silver
Dollar City from Crocker. Sam has heard many great stories from
visitors over the years because of the nostalgia evoked by marbles.
As he’s known
to do, Sam tells a story to illustrate his point.
Back in the early ’80s,
when he was first learning to blow glass, Sam drove several hours
once a month and paid $100 per hour to learn from a master lamp
worker named Jerry Capel. He learned many important things from his
teacher, including how to use a torch and handle a Pyrex rod. The
most important lesson he ever learned, however, came when Sam least
One day, while
Jerry was making glass flowers with a torch in front of an audience,
he turned the show over to Sam without warning. Sam had never worked
glass in front of a crowd before, so he was nervous. But he told
several stories and did his best to entertain the crowd.
Jerry told me something I’ll never forget,” recalls
Sam. “He said, ‘Anyone can blow glass,
but the show is what makes a glassblower great. Remember,
you’re an entertainer.’
never forgot that lesson.”
That much is apparent
to anyone who’s ever watched Sam blow glass.
rarely without his black top hat, which he picked
up for $45 in 1985 at a Kansas City crafts festival.
just became part of my trademark,” he says. “People
got to identifying me by it.”
While he works, he constantly tells stories,
going from a whisper to a hearty laugh. His accent,
which people often ask about, is really an exaggerated
country twang that he’s perfected for the act. The stories, the jokes,
the glassblowing explanations — all of it is packaged into a 15-minute
meant to entertain and inform curious onlookers.
oil-colored tree ornament is one of Sam’s many available
heard a lot of questions over the years,
so I know the most common questions and I try
to answer all of them during my demonstration,” he
says. “If no one asks a question when
I’m finished, then I’ve
done my job.”
While the top hat,
accent and storytelling all add to Sam’s performance,
perhaps the most fascinating part of any
demonstration is “The
The Dance consists
of the series of steps necessary to transform
molten glass into a beautiful piece of
Sam explains, “Like
almost any job, there’s a rhythm to glassblowing,
and you’ve gotta get used to
it. If one thing’s
moved, I have to re-learn the steps.”
make a bright, round lawn ornament — Sam’s
specialty — he
starts by melting cullet, or small
glass pieces that resemble ice cubes,
in a 2,000-degree furnace. The cullet
eventually takes on the consistency
of honey. At that point, Sam dips
his blowpipe in the furnace and brings
out a gob of the sticky material.
He then dips it in a bowl of colorful
fine powder that sheets the warm
Next, he sticks
the end of the rod in the glory hole, a 2,300-degree
heating chamber with a round opening,
to keep the glass soft enough to
frequently return to the glory
hole to keep the material soft.
molten glass from the furnace and blowing a small bubble, Sam
shapes the glass by using a jack. This is just one of many steps
pulling the rod out of the furnace,
Sam blows through the blowpipe,
causing the molten glass to expand
into a small bubble. He then
shapes the molten glass by using a jack,
a tool that resembles a pair
of pointed cooking tongs. He constantly
goes back and forth between shaping
the material with the jack, expanding
the bubble by blowing into the
pipe and sticking the glass in
the glory hole. Eventually, the
ball expands to its desired size
and smooths it out by spinning
it on a concave cherrywood block.
Finally, he adds a stem to the
top and lays the finished product
to rest in a large kiln.
process takes about 15 minutes. On a good day, Sam
can produce about 50 pieces while
working in his shed and occasionally
stepping out for a break from
will tell you the job requires a steady hand and a cool demeanor.
With the combined heat of the two furnaces, Sam’s shop in Sedalia
often warms to more than 100 degrees.
In addition, the job demands considerable upper body strength as a glassblower
frequently raises 10 pounds of glass on a 5-foot pipe. Working glass for
an entire day is enough to wear out even the most fit glassblowers.
can get pretty hot and heavy,” says Sam.
Although he is
a seasoned glassblower now, Sam wasn’t always an artisan.
In fact, he started out
by working at a seed company in Greenfield. Soon thereafter, he went
to work at Wal-Mart as a sales associate for nine years.
an employee at Wal-Mart, Sam helped with a stained glass business.
During that time, he learned to use a torch and Pyrex rod for lamp
working. Several years later, he learned to make colorful marbles
and figurines by using soft glass torch methods. This type
of work led to collaboration with two glassblowers from
Hannibal, who taught him the craft.
glass in the "glory hole," a 2,300-degree heating chamber
with a round opening.
Today, he uses
his entire array of techniques to make and sell lawn ornaments, oil
lamps, marbles, paperweights, bowls and glass lampshades. The pieces
range from $10 to $150, and Sam offers discounts on multiple items — a
sales strategy he says he
learned while at Wal-Mart.
Sam attends about
40 art shows per year throughout
the Midwest, and he travels
with his wife, Patty, who
sells her line of wire-wrap
jewelry at the events.
Through the years,
Sam has won multiple awards, including the Best of Missouri Hands’ Juried
Artist Award and Silver Dollar City’s Newcomer Award.
But he insists
there’s more to it than making
might not be
the best, but
I wear my hat
and put on a
good show,” he
and they remember
featuring Sam include a home show on Dec. 9, in Sedalia, and a show
on Dec. 16 in downtown Louisiana, Mo. For more information, call
Sam at (660) 826-0565; write to 822 N. Grand, Sedalia, MO 65301.