Gina Karaba walks our team through the process of making a glass marble in her Seattle studio, with a mastery that comes from years of teaching and decades of glass experience. She loved instructing students but couldn’t stomach the bureaucracy and paperwork, opting instead to open her own shop, Karaba Art Glass, its wares now a staple of iconic Pike Place Market.
There’s a mom-and-pop shop feeling to the place, with a poster of edible mushrooms on the wall, as well as whiteboards that serve as a checklist for orders, supplies and various equations dotted with sketches of ghosts, aliens and what looks like Inspector Gadget. The studio is narrow, almost like a galley kitchen. Almost all the glass she uses is recycled, as folks in the glass community know her penchant for sustainable materials and send her their old or ruined glass.
After cutting her teeth at Seattle’s Pilchuck Glass School, Karaba ventured to New York to pursue her master’s degree in glass and metalworking but always knew she’d return to the Emerald City, citing her love of the city’s artistic community. She tells me she got into glassblowing “accidentally” – she began as a painter, focusing on trompe-l’œil murals and hyper-realistic images, and took a glass blowing class on a whim to fill out her college course load. “I started having dreams about things that I could make,” she recalls fondly. “They say that once you start dreaming about it, you’re done, you’re hooked – and that was pretty much it.”
Karaba shows us one of the furnaces she designed and built, a mammoth of a machine that steadily hums along at 2000 degrees Fahrenheit day in and day out; as she opens the mouth of the custom furnace, the already sweltering room temperature swells. Laughing, she recalls how the heat was almost unbearable in the New York studio with the Jerome Baker crew. The mouth of the furnace in her studio is mesmerizing, like gazing into a pit of lava. Although most ovens don’t last long, Karaba’s has been running for about three years straight; she designed it with a compartmentalized flair to make repairs easier. “I don’t mind getting burly,” she grins, “but if I don’t have to, I don’t want to.”
Even getting her glass pieces to Pike Place Market requires her creativity. She puts her glass in apple boxes for storage and transport, or else they clack into one another and chip before they make it to market. To be considered as a vendor at Pike Place, Karaba explains, you must prove your pieces are handmade, and smiles warmly as she recalls all the friends and memories she’s made at the famous market over the years. “I’ve seen people fall in love and get married and have babies, you know – watch[ed] their kids grow up in the 13 years that I’ve been there – and there’s people that have been there for 30 years, 40 years.” It’s also ideal people-watching: “You’ll see people from all over the world come through there … you’ve got the whole mix of humanity coming past your booth every day on a Saturday.”
The booth has helped her as an artist — interacting one-on-one with customers allows her to hear firsthand exactly what they’re looking for, and she sees which merchandise flies off the shelves and which ones linger a bit longer. Her favorite pieces to make are pine tree paperweights and her famous marbles — “Sculptural stuff is my favorite,” she says.
“I started having dreams about things that I could make … They say that once you start dreaming about it, you’re done, you’re hooked …”
Her number one product for nearly 15 years, though has been her nug jugs. After this long, she thinks she could make them with her eyes closed. “Maybe not,” she laughs, “but I do always say, ‘Use the force,’ you know, when we’re in here [making them],” closing her eyes and miming glassblowing with a Yoda-esque expression.
Female glassblowers are unfortunately few and far between, let alone ones with their own studios. When ask about the gender disparity in the industry, Karaba optimistically states it’s finally becoming more balanced. “But when I was in school twenty years ago,” she recalls, “it was seven guys and me [in class]. It was definitely tipped toward the male end of things.” She remembers finding out male students of hers were being paid more than her, and being told it was because they could lift more weight than her. “They weren’t lifting more than me!” Karaba counters. “So, I let them do it on their own, and it came out that they didn’t really know how to weld.” Those experiences made her realize she needed to have her own studio.
“Men are just given the benefit of the doubt, you know, in general,” she argues. “People will see my husband and I and be like, ‘Oh, he built [that machine]’ – well, no, no, I built that. He helped me, but he didn’t know how to do it. I’ve been doing it for years.” Karaba also notes the power struggle of hiring mostly men in her studio; although there are more female glassblowers these days, the majority of applicants still tend to be male. “It’s [taken] a while for me to find people that I can feel like are gonna listen to me, understand what I say … and not argue with me about it, or try to teach me to blow glass, you know—nope, nope. There’s only one captain of this here ship, and it’s me!”