On the Cutting Edge of Art Glass in Portland Oregon

Located on the banks of the Columbia River in northern Oregon, Portland (also known as Glassland) is the home of art glass manufacturing businesses including Bullseye and Uroboros. Just like Silicone Valley is known for its high tech internet enterprises, Portland is something of a shrine to glass artists nationwide.

As a glass artist, spending time with my cousins, Cheryl and Dennis McGaffey, in Portland seemed like the perfect way to celebrate my birthday.  I hoped to do art glass with Cheryl in her home-based art glass studio.

Upon arrival in Portland, Cheryl picked me up at the airport where the temperature was a chilly 28 degrees with wind chill making it even colder. I was prepared with down coat, fleece scarf and hat along with another coat that my cousin provided when she arrived.

Savory Spanakopita


Design Lite Glass Studio in Portland

Back at the house, my cousin DC (AKA Dennis McGaffey) was preparing a vegetarian spanakopita which is a savory Greek spinach and cheese dish. He couldn’t have picked a more glamorous dish for my birthday feast especially since I hadn’t eaten in the airports that day while negotiating layovers and flight schedules to get from Bakersfield to Portland.

The last time I stayed with my cousins was two summers ago while attending vegan chef school at a local venue called Tabor Space in the Mount Tabor neighborhood. That is also when I became an avid fan of fusing glass thanks to Cheryl granting me open access to her studio and expert instruction.

It was sweet of my cousins to make vegetarian food for me which reflects their overall benevolent indulgence toward me and my capricious food whims.

Cousin Cheryl set me up for my week-long stay in the upstairs apartment adjacent to her room in a comfy queen size bed with ample blankets. I slept great that night and awoke early the next morning to wander into the glass studio and get inspired for my glass projects that week.

Merry Mavens of Art Glass

portland stained glass

Stained Glass Design Lite Studio

Cheryl’s studio is called Design Lite Studio and is devoted to both fused and stained glass art. Cheryl started the studio downstairs in the basement of this house which then belonged to her mom.

Selling her own house to move in with her mom gave Cheryl the resources she needed to build an entire new wing on the house completely devoted to the glass studio and art glass business.

Cheryl’s beloved mother, Pat McGaffey, co-managed the business with Cheryl. Their successful collaboration yielded high retention rates as students returned every term, year after year. Some students have been attending classes here for over 15 years.

After laboring on oxygen for several months, Aunt Pat died at home in her sleep of natural causes in September 2013. Grieving the loss of her treasured mother, Cheryl invited her brother to help her run the glass business.

Today, the business is a family affair. Cheryl creates glass art, teaches classes, operates the kilns, manages glass and product stocks and calculates the totals on everyone’s glass purchases. Cheryl and Dennis’ big sister Marilyn, who lives just south of Portland in Oregon City, manages the accounts for the studio.

dcmalone in Portland

Cheryl’s brother, Dennis, whose job performing stand-up comedy and fronting his own band leaves him free time during the day to work with glass art, recently created glass tiles fused with illustrations printed off the internet to adorn the top of a series of boxes.

Design Lite Studio – The Art of Glass

Located at 6218 Oberlin, Design Lite studio is situated in the University Park neighborhood of North Portland not far from the iconic St. John’s bridge.

It is an easy walk to the bus stop at Lombard and Wall where you can catch a bus to get nearly anywhere in the city.  A robust public transportation system of buses and high speed rail links the city and provides commuter relief from the rush hour gridlock on the freeways.

Students can take either fused or stained glass classes at the studio. Cheryl offers eight and four-week terms throughout the year. She teaches classes most days of the week except Sunday and offers open studio on Saturdays during the term.

We all just Want to be Loved.”

My first full day in Portland started bright and early in the studio with cousin Cheryl when her student Dora breezed in and gave Cheryl a hug and said “I appreciate you so much.” I marveled at the thoughtful gesture.

Pretty soon Dora started alluding to a troubling event she wished to discuss with Cheryl. After beating around the bush for a few minutes she finally gave in and told her story.

As Dora told her story she asked us what we thought. After some discussion, Dora decided that everyone really just wants to be loved. She called Cheryl later that night to tell us everything was fine. She thanked us both for the chance to let off steam and resolve the situation.

After Dora left the studio, another glass student,  Portland resident Julie Duong, arrived. She carried in her arms satchels loaded with art glass supplies like texture rollers, stencils, fusible paper, stickers, and other assorted necessities for a new project we were going to try that afternoon.

Meet the Boss

Cheryl McGaffey Glass Artist

Julie enjoys a special relationship at Design Lite Studio as Cheryl’s business coach. With her career background in website design, Julie manages Cheryl’s publicity and marketing efforts to leave Cheryl free to create. Julie motivates Cheryl in a gentle way stating, “She needs to be the creative artist.”

After noting that she’d been Cheryl’s student for at least 10 years, Julie responded to queries about what inspires her by saying, “I love the medium. It’s playing on light and it’s so beautiful. It’s all about the play of light for me.”

Julie creates intricate pendants layered throughout a series of five firings to create colorful landscape-style backgrounds that she chooses then cuts out with a saw. She then affixes decals like trees and fairies on her pieces preferring to use natural images since people seem to resonate with them.

Fused glass pendant by Julie

As Julie describes the elemental spirituality of using natural images on her pendants she notes, “There’s a perception that glass is expensive but it‘s made out of sand and I’m inspired by nature. ”

By the end of the show Julie generously endowed both Cheryl and I with our choice of one of her exquisitely layered pendants to take home.

Fusible Paper and Ink Blots

For our project that day, we were painting fusible paper with glass paints that we just poured in a random fashion over half the paper then folded the paper and rolled a textured brayer over the surface.

After rolling the paper we opened up the fold and discovered our inkblot glass paintings.

Once we dried our paper with a blowdryer we cut it into 4 X 4 inch squares and sandwiched selected pieces between opal glass on the bottom topped by clear glass before fusing the plates in the kiln.

Following that project we commenced a similar one this time using heavier fusible paper and watercolor glass paint. We washed the paper with background colors, then applied stencils using the glass paint over the stencils to create interesting designer paper.

Yield and Rebound

That was a pretty full day and that night cousin DC (Dennis’ stage name is D.C. Malone so his friends call him DC) made a spaghetti dinner for all of us including his sister and her husband, cousins Marilyn and Glenn, who drove up from their home in Oregon City to visit.

Surrounded by family and full of delicious vegetarian spaghetti , garlic bread, red wine and salad with fresh blue cheese dressing, I stretched out on the floor to watch a movie at the end of an eventful first  day in Portland.

The next morning, I entered the studio early and perused the displayed glass art to decide on a couple of pieces that I absolutely had to make. When Cheryl opened up the studio for the day, I pointed out my requests and she helped me create my work.

A Green Business

fused glass leaf in Design Lite Studio

I wanted to make a leaf first. Cheryl had sculpted a leaf mold in her ceramic class last year to slump unique and delicate glass leaf plates. I immediately cut two leaf shapes out of clear iridiscent glass to make one leaf plate for me and one for someone else.

Creating the leaf included brushing frit into the delicate veins on the mold which was somewhat tedious. On the next leaf I went a little faster and it wasn’t as good as the one where I was more careful so it needs the extra time. But I made up for it on the second leaf by using silver foil inclusions which fired into a gold color adding interest and luster to my leaf after all.

The big project for me, on this trip, was making my interpretation of Cheryl’s baguette platter.  This piece utilizes a chemical reaction between two different types of glass, one a sulphur-bearing french vanilla and the other a copper-bearing aquamarine frit (frit is crushed glass used to add color to our pieces).

fused glass tray

While I was working on my leaf, Cheryl filled a terracotta flower pot with green glass scraps and placed it in her compact vitrigraph kiln which sat on a stainless steel shelf about five feet off the ground

Vitrigraph Kiln & Twisted Stringers

The vitrigraph kiln is a small programmable glass kiln with a removable bottom and a replacement shelf for the bottom with a hole in the middle where you place a flower pot full of glass over the hole while aligning the hole in the bottom of the pot with the hole in the bottom of the kiln.

The kiln was donated to the studio by Cheryl’s student and assistant teacher, Angie Eamons, who sold a large stained glass window at last year’s show and turned the money back into the studio by buying the vitrigraph kiln for the studio.

After “charging” the kiln (with the loaded flower pot) Cheryl turned on the kiln which had to heat up to 1700 degrees (this took most of the day).

Eventually, we noticed a bulge of molten glass coming out of the hole in the bottom of the kiln. Cheryl donned giant welding gloves and glass pliers to pull the blob of hot glass out of the hole.  Stretching it down toward the floor pulled the molten glass into a long skinny string which I would cut off with wire cutters at its thinnest part.

I tried my hand at pulling the hot glass and twirling the molten stringers into random swirls and squiggly lines. These would be cut at the skinniest part, then further cut up and chosen as accent pieces such as on the reactive baguette plate above where the green loops in the design were formed with stringers made from the vitrigraph kiln.

Cheryl was firing both of her main studio kilns every day and was also working on her own projects, such as her signature cat ornaments for the annual Christmas art show held at her studio that weekend.

Christmas Show and Sale

By the end of the week, Cheryl was finishing up her cat ornaments and I was making some of them too. I was also making an assortment of Christmas tree ornaments to give out to my yoga students and massage clients as Christmas gifts back home.

fused glass ornaments

The day before the art show, Cheryl’s Thursday night students were scheduled to help her decorate for the art show which was starting the next morning.

Cheryl wanted to feed her helpers dinner so I volunteered to make veggie wrap sandwiches out of flour tortillas, cream and cheddar cheese, sautéed mushrooms, bell peppers, onions, marinated artichoke hearts and olives. They were delicious and we had some left over for lunch the next day.

It was a flurry of activity while the students transformed their studio into an art glass boutique. We assembled three Christmas trees to display the fused glass ornaments which included gnomes, Christmas trees, cats, dogs, doves, toad stools, elves, lollipops and more.

Design Lite Studio Christmas sale

After the students left that night, the studio was ready to open up to the public by 10am the next day. Along with both my cousins, I retired to the living room.

Students and Customers

Cheryl waited until just before opening time on opening day to set up her sandwich-board signs around the neighborhood. She explained that she didn’t want the signs out too early as customers might come by when the signs are up rather than when the show is open

With Cheryl still out putting up signs around the neighborhood, I was handling the early birds who were walking into the studio at least ten minutes early. Having met Cheryl at a recent art exhibit, two women fans were interested in getting the first chance to buy more of her pieces.

One of the first items that sold was a whimsical fused glass fish made by glass artist Angie Eamons who teaches the Tuesday night classes at the studio.

fused glass fish by Angie

After buying a fish for her husband, the patron left two more fishes behind on the wall; one of which sold, within the hour, to an appreciative fisherman. By the end of the weekend all the fishes had found new homes.

The Calm before the Storm

Open from 10am-9pm on Friday then 10-5 on Saturday and Sunday, there were times when the art show had a lull in customers and I could slip into the house to give massages to my cousins on the massage table DC borrowed from his friend.

I gave a couple Swedish style massages to both DC and Cheryl and then craniosacral therapy to a few people including a student with migraines and both Cheryl and Marilyn. Hopefully everyone slept better and felt looser after the sessions on the table.

Into the Night

The first day of the art show coincides with Aunt Pat’s birthday which is Dec 4th. Open til 9pm on Friday, the evening hours were expected to draw a rollicking crowd of family and friends used to celebrating the birthday of their venerable patron.

Neighbors and friends stopped by throughout the evening while student volunteers staffed the art show, checking out guests and keeping the snack larders full.

Every day of the show, Cheryl would heat a vat of mulled cider served in the morning with cookies. In the afternoon she’d bring out crackers and cheese or chips and salsa. By late afternoon two types of wine would appear along with her signature dish called drunken puppies, which are miniature hotdogs cooked in bourbon and ketchup.

I snacked on pretzels and nuts and imbibed hot cider liberally.

We watched movies in the living room at night including one called The Way starring Martin Sheen and directed by Emilio Estevez, Sheen’s son.

The movie was about a trek, or pilgrimage, starting in France and crossing over the Pyrenees into Spain, spanning 800 miles for pilgrims walking the entire route.

Portland is 913 miles from my home in California and a pilgrimage I have made many times by car, but more recently, I’ve been flying the friendly skies with United.

Meet the Artists

Design Lite Studio glass artists

There was lots of time to hang out in the studio and admire the elegant pieces of art glass. With time on my hands one day, I started taking pictures, asking questions and writing notes to highlight some human interest stories about the studio.

Moments later, resident artist and studio owner, Cheryl, walked into the gallery and gathered us around her while she pondered a unique occurrence.

Dale Chihuly’s Dazzling Deed

When Cheryl walked into the studio during the art show around 2:30 on Saturday afternoon she was holding a book that had just arrived in the mail. She was wondering, incredulously, how it came to be that legendary glass blower Dale Chihuly would, out of the blue, send her an autographed copy of his latest book.

Design LIte Studio Cheryl McGaffey

As it turns out, cousin DC recently reconnected with a woman he knew years ago in Florida who happens to also be the owner of an art museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, dedicated to Chihuly’s work.

When she found out about his sister being a glass artist DC’s friend, Beth Morean, arranged with Chihuly to send Cheryl the book. Talk about connections

It sure paved the way for a welcome reception into their Portland home when Beth flew in from Florida on Sunday night after the show to stay with DC and meet Cousin Cheryl for the first time.

Rogue’s Gallery

As we were winding out the weekend, I interviewed a few artists who were selling their glass at the show.

Angie Eamons of Portland has been coming to Cheryl’s studio for 14 years after finding Cheryl’s classes through an ad in the local paper. Angie has been teaching the Tuesday night classes for nearly nine years as well as attending classes on Thursday night.

Portland Glass artist Angie Eamons

Noting the differences between stained and fused glass while teaching beginning and intermediate students in both disciplines during her classes, Angie explained that stained glass denotes more instruction and a longer stretch of time to complete the project.

Citing complexity as the defining difference, Angie listed the various steps involved in stained glass such as picking and making a pattern, cutting out the pattern, picking the glass, marking, cutting, grinding, wrapping, assembling, soldering, wiring, leading, applying patina & polishing the item, versus picking the glass, cutting, cleaning, assembling, firing and slumping, such as we do in fused glass.

Along with the popular fishes mentioned above, Angie was also selling turkey platters, Christmas ornaments, pendants, and this beautiful sunflower plate with pearl center that resonated with me so much I contemplated making my own version.

Much to my happy surprise, Angie presented me with the plate as a gift at the end of the show. It hangs in my yoga studio gracing the space with the auspicious energy of its creator.

Angie spoke fondly of Design Lite Studio’s late proprietor, Aunt Pat, stating that when she found the classes she had a young son at home and a career but needed a creative outlet. The studio and its supportive group led by merry mavens and majestic matriarchs offered spiritual nourishment and a safe environment for Angie to uncover and develop her artistic talent.

Glass artist Theresa Wilkerson attends classes here from her home in Vancouver. She has been coming here for two years after working with Cheryl at US Bank. Theresa said she had to wait for a new term and an opening before she could start attending as classes fill up fast.

Theresa brought several of her pieces to sell in the show including both fused and stained glass objects. One of her plates was a dancing girl whose intricate detail captured the hearts of many.

Portland glass artist Teresa Wilkerson

When asked to describe her process, Theresa noted, “I do what inspires me. I never hold back. I utilize scraps which makes me be creative such as in my gingerbread houses.”

Denoting the steps to make her dancer, Theresa first cuts and assembles pieces on a base piece of glass and full fuses the landscape elements.  Then she tack fuses the dancer which she makes by working from a picture. “When I see things I like, I take a picture and say, ‘how can I do this’?”

Glass artist Cheryl, proprietor and owner of Design Lite Studio, made many of the pieces on display at the show that day including stained and fused glass items. Ranging from large architectural leaded glass windows to functional fused glass housewares like bowls, vases, plates, candleholders, coasters, and ornaments, Cheryl also creates pendants, earrings, barrettes and brooches for personal adornment.

fused glass gnome sconce

Cheryl started teaching stained glass years ago through classes hosted by Parks and Recreation before starting her own studio in the present site. She has been the driving force behind the glass studio from the beginning and encouraged her mother to invest in the home based business.

Retired from her bank job, Cheryl runs the glass studio as her full time job. As a member of the Oregon Glass guild, Cheryl offers open studio tours and participates in guild activities such as art shows and exhibits.

Known for her laid back teaching style, Cheryl has never had a student get injured in her studio. Only she and her mom ever suffered cuts deep enough to need medical attention. But lots of us have found our way to her stash of bandaids to cover minor cuts sustained while working with glass.

Portland resident and glass artist, Greg Hamilton, has been studying glass art with Cheryl for at least 11 years after meeting her and Aunt Pat at a birthday party. Without knowing any one at the party, Greg and his friend sat down at Cheryl and Pat’s table and during the conversation both were invited to the glass art studio.

Glass artist Greg at Design Lite Studio

Starting out when the classes were still held in the basement, Greg is a prolific artist who prefers to work with stained glass because he doesn’t have to wait for the kiln to complete the piece.

The biggest piece Greg has made was a window 4 ½ feet tall by 2 feet wide. He puts his windows in old Portland windows and says he makes 9-15 smaller windows a year which he sells to help pay for materials for his next piece.

Greg acknowledges the camaraderie he enjoys with his Thursday night classmates. “I can probably do all this at home but it feels good to come here. The Thursday night group has been around as long as I have. It’s like a support group and this is therapy.”

The Golden Goose

By the end of the weekend Cheryl’s bank deposit from the art show sale was nearly $3000. She still had to divide the earnings up between the various artists who sold their wares and distribute those funds.

But it wasn’t time to rest yet. Cheryl was offering a class the following week on making ornaments. And for her regular students, whose term has closed for the season, she was offering a two day open studio to finish projects they may still be working on.

But for me, my trip to Portland was coming to a close and I had to start packing all the projects I had made in a box big enough to contain enough bubble wrap to protect the art so it would survive being checked at the airport.

Winter Wonderland

Portland rainy day

By Monday morning I was packing and wrapping my fragile pieces in a large box weighing in, when fully loaded, at 40 pounds. Cheryl was also fortifying my home studio with extra sheet glass, colored frits, stringers and tools, hoping to assist my efforts to recreate the happy times spent doing glass with her.

The day dawned stormy and rained all day. Residents south of Portland were experiencing flooding and the weather even made the national news.

The phenomenon of the weather gives this story its final thought. When Mother Nature keeps you inside throughout the winter due to precarious weather, it’s no wonder that the interior environments like glass fusing studios get so much attention.

Staying warm in a glass fusing studio is easy due to the ongoing presence of large kilns cooking glass on a regular basis.

My time was at an end and Cousin Cheryl drove me through the rain down to Portland airport so I could return home. It was hard to say goodbye as I don’t see my beloved cousins enough.

Hopefully, I can return again this year and enjoy another week packed with creative art glass design as taught by my favorite glass artist, Cheryl McGaffey, at her well-stocked and opulent Design Lite Studio in North Portland.

I called my cousin after arriving home to tell her my art glass had survived the airline trip without breaking. While talking to her, I reflected on how happy I am while creating art through the beautiful medium of fused glass.

It is a privilege to present this jewel of a glass studio dwelling deep in the heart of the lotus bloom that is Portland. May you enjoy the immeasurable inspiration afforded by the medium and conjure your dreams within the supportive environmental milieu of both the community and glass classes at Design Lite Studio.

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