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Photo by John ConnellI first met Caleb Siemon in January 2000 at his six-month-old studio, United Glass Blowing, a converted car mechanic's garage in the industrial part of Costa Mesa. The place was filled with racks of 30- and 40-pound chunks of clear glass that could easily be mistaken for blocks of party ice—so much faux ice, in fact, that if it weren't for the unbearable heat emitted by the Hyundai-sized furnace glowing in the corner, you'd think you had just entered Superman's Fortress of Solitude.
Now, a year later, Siemon's Fortress of Solitude has seemingly dissolved. In place of the dense, Italian-inspired sculptures are large, delicate orbs. Loopy curves have replaced hard lines. Siemon's older work used to give off a monochromatic glare; the light that shines through his newer work radiates with the multihued glow of a Bangkok whorehouse lobby.
"It sells," Siemon says. "People started requesting the colored pieces, and they sold well. It's not my favorite stuff, but it's expensive to keep a 2,000-degree furnace running all day."
The money he spends on his gas bill could easily purchase a sexy beachfront duplex for him and his girlfriend, Carmen Salazar; she's a sculptor herself, recently welding large metal structures for a commissioned series of Siemon's fitted glass plates. Instead, the couple live in a weathered, 40-year-old trailer in the wrecking yard behind the studio. Potential customers "eat it up when they learn I live in the old trailer," Siemon says. "They'll buy a piece of glass and expect me to become really enthusiastic because they're supporting 'the struggling artists.' They like their artists to resemble bohemians."
But they like their art conventional. When I met him, Siemon had been perfecting what has now become his signature series: cubed vases, deep bowls and blocky sculptures, all clear, chunky and inspired by the Italians from whom he learned glass blowing.
But Italians don't take kindly to American upstarts coming in, snapping up their secrets and taking the techniques back to the States. Indeed, the art of Italian glass was so guarded in the 14th and 15th centuries that Italian blowers would send assassins after colleagues who produced work outside of Italy.
Knowing that old-school Italianos are still a little hard-assed about sharing, Siemon learned as much about Italian culture as he could to distinguish himself from every other American punk headed for Italy. "I restricted myself from the radio or TV unless it was in Italian," Siemon says with a laugh. "I'd spend hours at a time in traffic listening to Italian-language tapes."
Four months later, in early 1996, Siemon was knocking on the door of Pino Signoretto's workshop. "There wasn't any doubt about it when I went to Italy: I was going to learn from him—I mean, everyone knows this guy," Siemon says. "He's the greatest glass blower, living or dead."
An apocryphal story has our young artist waiting for three days on Signoretto's porch—fasting, Zenlike, outside the door of the obdurate master before Signoretto, impressed by Siemon's passion and determination, relented and let him in.
In truth, one of Signoretto's assistants answered the door and took Siemon's hand-written note in broken Italian to the master, who passed back a message: Siemon could observe—as long as he stayed the hell out of the way.
"[Signoretto] just ignored me—wouldn't even look at me. I was nothing to him," Siemon says. "I would show up when they opened and went home when the last person left. I'd ask if I could help clean up at the end of the day, and he wouldn't even let me do that. It was depressing, but I figured I was lucky because master glass blowers are like rock stars in Italy. Every week, other students were asking if they could observe, and they were all turned down."
Weeks after the silent treatment began, the stocky, 56-year-old artist invited Siemon to a family dinner and asked him why he was in Italy. "Before that dinner, all I did was take notes," Siemon recalls of his first months in Italy. "I sketched everything around me."
Those sketches were the blueprints for his first works in Orange County. Siemon even designed United Glass to the specs of a traditional Italian workshop, right down to the wooden workbench that looks like a well-worn relic from the Marquis de Sade's yard sale.
But the minimalism of his clear, cubed work—his hallmark—has been momentarily pushed aside for the more commercial designs. If Siemon were a band, he'd be R.E.M., grinding out "Shiny Happy People" for the 879th time at the Enormodome right now. Does it bother him?
He says it doesn't. But he also doesn't want to be that old guy at the Ports o' Call boardwalk in San Pedro twisting plastic-looking glass into tiny, effeminate zoo animals for tourists. "The goal is to create a line or two where someone will say, 'Hey, look at that glass! That looks like a Caleb Siemon,'" he says. For now, he's okay with producing the kind of round, candy-colored glass that IKEA would love to spit out like gumballs; they keep the heat on.
United Glass Blowing, 1630 Superior Ave., Costa Mesa, (949) 548-6606. Open to the public Mon.-Sat., 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Free.