Stihl Dealer Days

Rural Missouri Magazine

The glassblower
To Sam Davisson, the art of glassblowing
is part of the show

by Jarrett Medlin
A 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 craft.

“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.

Glassblower 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 questions?”

After waiting a moment in silence, he adds, “Well, thanks for stopping by, and enjoy your day at Silver Dollar City.”

The 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 best shows.”

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 expected it.

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.

“Afterward, 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.’

"I never forgot that lesson.”

That much is apparent to anyone who’s ever watched Sam blow glass. He’s rarely without his black top hat, which he picked up for $45 in 1985 at a Kansas City crafts festival.

“It 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 spiel that’s meant to entertain and inform curious onlookers.

A bright, oil-colored tree ornament is one of Sam’s many available glass pieces.

“I’ve 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 Dance.”

The Dance consists of the series of steps necessary to transform molten glass into a beautiful piece of art.

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.”

To 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 ooze.

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 work. He’ll frequently return to the glory hole to keep the material soft.

After pulling 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 in glassmaking.

After 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.

The entire 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 the heat.

Any glassblower 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.

“It 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.

While still 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.

Sam heats 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 beautiful glass.

“I might not be the best, but I wear my hat and put on a good show,” he says. “People appreciate it, and they remember me later.”

Upcoming events 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.

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