Up In Flames

February 1, 2013 |

The Sonoran Glass School’s Flame Off Competition

The Flame Off had fairly simple beginnings, explains Tom Philabaum. It was during the 1997 Glass Arts Society Conference – the same year the society became an international organization – when the Philabaum Gallery showed over 30 artists’ work. “Since we had so many great artists in town, it occurred to me that we had to do something fun to further promote the Flame Arts. So, I issued a challenge to everyone, bought five cases of beer, and from six to ten on a Friday night we made collaborative stuff.” It was a spark to an event that not only continued through the years, but also spread a wildfire of similar exhibitions to cities across the world.

“The fire, the flame, the manipulation of molten glass has always kept audiences’ attention, and inspired many to try it themselves,” Philabaum writes about the draw for the Flame Off. “It’s dangerous, scary, and demanding, commanding complete focus. And, through the nature of flameworking, one can create a complete sculpture in one two hour session.” Which is what 24 artists will do on the Rialto stage Friday, February 8th, in an event that has become a highlight of the Gem and Mineral Show.

The Rialto is in its second year hosting the event, which has moved venues several times since its inception. As the audience grew, they attempted to match it. From its humble start in the Philabaum Gallery, the Flame-Off had a few successful years in the Sonoran Glass School when it opened in 2001. Then it took place in a warehouse (too flat), Barrio Brewery (too small), and finally found its home with a crowd to fill the Rialto. “The ‘Flame-Off’ has taken on a life of its own, appearing all over America, and even in some other countries,” Philabaum writes. “Since that time the Flame Arts have flourished and expanded their influence throughout the Glass World.”

And the pressure is on, notes William Justiniano, the Facilities Director of Sonoran Glass School. “At any moment one false move could destroy their art work,” he clarifies, describing the intensity of creating work – which most artists do in the solitude of their studios – under the heat of stage lights and with the acclaim of a crowd at least 500 strong. “The competition is very climactic because the pieces of glass art get more involved as the night goes on,” Justiniano adds. “We have seen glass roller coasters, three-foot-tall vases, giant marbles, glass fairy wings, goblets with winged horse stems, and other wild creations made at these events.” Artists work solo or in tandem with partners, creating spontaneous collaborations that can be viewed both up close and personal and on video. For an art form that hinges on the details, several high definition screens will be mounted around the auditorium to give the audience a look at the growing facets of the work.

As the clock ticks on the artists’ creations, patrons will nosh on barbecue from Mr. K’s, swig from the cash bar, and bid on the pieces taking shape onstage. At intermission, onlookers have a chance to mingle with the artists. Live music from the Satellite Freakout will rock out the night. And when the clock stops and the night is over, artists will have an opportunity to put finishing touches on their work, such as a kiln firing, before they’re shipped off to the Best Bead Show at the Kino Center – where the pieces will feature in competition judging and a silent auction, beginning at 11:30 a.m. that will continue through 4:30 p.m. The pieces are donated by the artists to Sonoran Glass School, and in past years the proceeds have raised over $6,000, a sum that funds the school’s youth development program and its outreach to the community for education in the glass arts. And it just sounds like a flamin’ good time.


The Flame Off, February 8th, 6:30 p.m. – 1:30 a.m. at the Rialto Theater, 318 E. Congress St.Tickets $10/pre-event, $15/door. To purchase tickets by phone, call 740-1000. Silent auction for Flame Off pieces continues at the Best Bead Show in the Kino Center, 2805 E. Ajo Way, on February 9th. SonoranGlass.org, 520-884-7814