Glass artist Nancy Gong is committed to her research.
Every piece she makes is created for a person. So when she was designing a piece for a couple who loved to fly, she new she had to try to understand that feeling.
Her husband's birthday was coming up; he'd always wanted to go gliding. She wasn't going to go up herself. "I came up with all these excuses," she says. But she also needed to complete her research.
"Ultimately the two reasons I went up were: It was the opportunity for an experience of a lifetime I'd never have again," she says. "The second reason was I needed to see what these people were seeing when they're up in their plane."
She can usually keep her feet on terra firma. To design a series of glass panels for a tomato sauce company's conference room, for example, she spent time in grocery stores and vegetable gardens. For residential clients, she'll often spend time talking and thinking.
"I have lots and lots of questions," she says. "I like to find out what's really meaningful to them. There may not be any obvious imagery to go with that. What I'll do is sort of let it stew. So when I am ready to sit down to create the design I still may not know where it is, but it's up there someplace."
Though all of Gong's art can be identified by its bold, energetic, musical style, she makes every piece suit its owner.
All the work that goes into commission pieces has a reward. "They're saying I love your work and I want to live with it," she says.
So she takes hobbies, life events (a window for a couple married in Jamaica featured tropical flowers), and personal traits (she designed a playful, quirky shower enclosure for a couple with a great sense of fun) into account when she's creating a design. And as an architectural artist, environmental concerns play into the decisions about material and scale.
"It's very much interactive with the built environment," she says.
She invests so much time in the planning stage because she has to have the concept nailed before she sets hands to glass.
"Glass is such a beautiful material," she says. "It's reflective, it transmits light, it's such an interactive material that you can get lost in the glitz of the material. It's always been really important to me that the design stand on its own."
And, of course, with glass "there's no going back. It's a very, very unforgiving medium."
Her commissions --- anything from a set of windows to a textured industrial glass countertop --- typically take six to 12 weeks to complete. Her assistants sometimes ask if there's an easier way to do all the finishing instead of by hand.
"If it were easy," she says, "everyone else would be doing it."
Gong Glass Works, www.nancygong.com
Sitting on a bench of his own design, with wild, bright, metal shapes framing his head, Paul Knoblauch tries to remember when he decided to be a metal artist.
"There was a metal shop in high school and I decided to take a class," he says. "I knew at some point there was no turning back."
He came to Rochester for RIT's School of American Crafts and after school spent a decade working in Albert Paley's studio.
"Steel is a great medium," he says. "You can easily cut shapes and bend lines and they're pretty solid. It fits well with the way I like to think."
He likes to think outside of boundaries. Knoblauch is probably best known for his benches and chairs. You may have seen his benches along University Avenue ArtWalk, or his tiny, dramatic "angel wing chairs" through the windows of his display space (also on University).
And while these are functional, durable pieces of furniture, they are also whimsical and powerful pieces of art. Strong lines and fanciful ideas --- a bench back made entirely of huge metal scrolls; big, bright insects crawling over the corner of a bench; a child's chair with metal wings --- stretch the idea of what furniture can be.
"We've made a lot of benches," he says. "We've gotten good at it, I'd like to think." Every single one, and there are hundreds out there, is different.
In addition to his public art pieces, Knoblauch also does commission work for private homes. These jobs have included refrigerator door handles, railings, fences, gates, and garden furniture.
"I like to be selective," he says. "When I'm commissioned to build something I want it to be my own." Some people try to commission him to do metal work of their or someone else's design, he says, which he won't do. But most commissions are for people who want artwork.
"They want to live with something that's not the norm," he says. "Some people really do surround themselves with art."
Ultimately, he prefers to design and create his own work, letting his design sense evolve on its own over time, and then sell the pieces. He's always working on something, never waiting for a commission.
"I don't really think about the stuff that's out there," he says. "I think people who have them enjoy them."
Paul Knoblauch will open a new studio space at 728 University Avenue this fall.www.paulknoblauch.com