Alaska Home Magazine
March 2012 ~ Artist Feature
"Today's a fish eye day," says multi-media artist Tam Johannes, by way of
introduction. A tour of her studio clears up the confusion: Johannes lifts the
lid of her kiln to reveal several rectangular glass plates – part of her
"Aurora" series. Each plate features the profile of a salmon, set against a
background of blues, greens and purples that recall the northern lights.
Each salmon's eye is a smooth glass bead, made using a fusing method Johannes
devised to imitate millefiori, an Italian glasswork technique that creates
vividly patterned discs of glass.
Johannes' studio has the playful atmosphere that hints of someone who isn't
afraid to experiment. Tools and materials are organized on shelves, with
multiple projects being in various stages of completion. "I love seeing all my
materials and supplies," says Johannes. "Seeing everything inspires me to go
where I probably wouldn't otherwise."
Making use of what's available is a source of inspiration for the former
owner of Killer Designs. When she closed her downtown Anchorage studio almost
four years ago, Johannes found herself left with a large supply of powdered
glass. "I thought: What am I going to do with all this? I started using the
powders in a way that creates a watercolor wash. Glass is a liquid medium; as
the powdered glass melts in the kiln, it moves around and flows together,
creating the aurora effect."
The popularity of the Aurora series has created a new, albeit good, problem:
"It backfired on me because eventually I ran out of powder, but people still
want the Aurora pieces."
That Alaska-themed series (other pieces feature ravens and moose) is just one
part of a thriving wholesale business that allows Johannes to work from her home
studio, freeing her from the obligations of operating an open-to-the-public
Although she values her new freedom – which allows her to spend time with
her 8-year-old son and to start each day playing her accordion for an hour –
Johannes makes it clear that working at home doesn't mean she spends her days
doing whatever she wants. "It's rare that I get to work on exactly what I'd like
to," she says. "I have orders, I have deadlines. It's a business."
Her customers find her work at 200 galleries across all 50 states (plus
Canada and Europe) and are attracted to both its functionality and the playful
shapes and eye-popping colors Johannes employs. Picking up a tray fused with
copper, Johannes explains how this piece can be displayed on a kitchen wall, but
"I use them as chilling plates, too. You put it in the freezer, then when you're
ready to put out some cheese or appetizers, the plate keeps the food cool."
Johannes likens her glass creations to the quilts her mother made. "What I do
now is very much like quilting: making all the component parts, re-cutting and
combining to make more complex pieces." She has worked in clay, fiber and metal
– she's a silversmith whose glass-and-silver jewelry can be both intricate and
delightfully chunky – but developed a fascination with glass blowing that led to
a summer fellowship in California. She quickly learned that "hot" glass, in
which glass is heated up to 2000 degrees, was not for her.
"It's heavy, hard work. And it's constantly hot," Johannes explains. "But
more than anything, I liked working alone. Working on a team in that
environment, you have to depend on someone else to do their part. Fusing glass
using a kiln became a way for me to experiment and work on my own."
Her experiments have resulted in delicate-looking wall sconces, a whimsical
cake topper for a wedding, and panels of glass and copper, fused together and
built into a wooden fence, where the warm metal can catch the fading Alaska
Her desire not to let anything go to waste has also inspired her to melt
down wine bottles – like the ones that fill a sink in her studio. "Those aren't
all mine, I swear," Johannes says. Friends and family drop the bottles off
outside her fence, knowing that Johannes will recycle them by firing the glass
in a mold to create simple but practical "boats," which can be used as
functional serving dishes and are a popular gift among her customers.
Still, she wonders what her neighbors think of the bags full of wine bottles
that regularly appear outside her fence. "I hope they understand – it's all in
the name of art."