Metro-East Living

Couple’s colorful glass will turn heads at Art on the Square in Belleville

Glass artist Sam Stang at work

The Augusta, Mo., artist and his wife, Kaeko Maehata, will show their work at Belleville's Art on the Square May 13-15.
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The Augusta, Mo., artist and his wife, Kaeko Maehata, will show their work at Belleville's Art on the Square May 13-15.

Glass artists Sam Stang and Kaeko Maehata lead a colorful life.

Their Augusta Glass Studio, housed in a converted Standard Gas station, is on a tiny main strip in Augusta, Mo. Blown glass ornaments hang in a front window. A peek inside a front gallery reveals their eye-catching work — pitchers and platters, vases, tumblers and creamers, arranged by color.

Much of the old station is devoted to their glass-making process. There are two main furnaces for melting, two for reheating, six total. Tables and shelves are full of bars and rods of colored glass.

“We buy color bars from Germany and New Zealand,” Sam said. “They are formulated for glassblowers to use. Their quality is like no one else in the world is making.”

And Sam and Kaeko’s pieces are like no one else’s.

“All of my pieces are made by using traditional European glassblowing techniques,” he says on his website. “With the murrini pieces, I begin by making glass rods which are patterned in cross section. The rods are cooled and cut into thin pieces and arranged on an iron plate which is then heated to fuse the murrini. This is then rolled into a tube on the end of a blowpipe and shaped into the final form.

“Every piece I make is entirely produced hot at the furnace. The banded bowls are blown as separate sections and fused together. This technique, known as incalmo, requires a great deal of skill and cooperation. I work with at least one assistant and often with a team of three experienced glassblowers.”

Just before noon on a recent Wednesday, Sam took a break from creating a delicate lavender bowl with a reticulated design of interlacing lines. At this stage, it’s about a 10-inch tube-shaped piece. His assistant, Aaron Quigley, helped the process along, blowing into a tube to expand the core.

“The core here will be the bottom of the piece,” said Sam, 57, a lean guy with a short gray ponytail. “I want it to look really clear.”

Sam, who grew up in University City, Mo., and attended Washington University, was a founding partner of Ibex Glass Studio in1985. His wife, Kaeko, began blowing glass in 1992 in Toyama, Japan, her hometown.

“Glass is still the most exciting material I have ever worked with,” she said. “I love its unlimited possibilities.”

Together, they have more than 60 years experience in glass.

We do try to do our best with every piece,” said Kaeko. “Every piece is as good as possible. A beautiful object makes people a little bit happier.”

Kaeko Maehata on their glass art

“We do try to do our best with every piece,” Kaeko said. “Every piece is as good as possible. A beautiful object makes people a little bit happier.”

They live 3 miles from their studio in a house full of their work and the work of other artists. Even their dog Haru’s bowl is a work of art.

“I saved some of my earlier work from Ibex glass,” Sam said. “It could end up being more valuable. I’ve been advised to save a few pieces each year. Then in retirement, I will have something really valuable.”

The couple is one of three married pairs who will be part of Belleville’s Art on the Square from May 13-15 in downtown Belleville.

“He was in our very first show when we started back in 2002,” said Patty Gregory, the show’s founding director. “He’s been in it six times. This will be the first time his wife is exhibiting. I have seen her in other art shows. She does beautiful, intricate beading ... Her work is totally different than her husband’s. What got my eye when I saw her at a show was all the glass beading she does on perfume bottles. It’s so intricate and so beautiful. I bought one of her pitchers at another show. I’m thrilled to have both of them in the show.”

The other couples are Chip and Deborah DuPont, who both grew up in central Texas. He does drawing and printmaking, she’s a mixed media artist; and Chris Wheeler, whose specialty is a mixed media arts inspired by time spent in Taiwan, and his wife, Nha Vuu, who also does drawing and printmaking. They live in Houston, Texas.

“A lot of times, a husband and wife are working together on one medium, making art together,” Patty said. “These three couples are actually making their own work ... I think it’s going to be fun for people to see different perspectives that husbands and wives take toward their art.”

Sam and Kaeko took a break from their work to answer a few questions.

Q: How do you begin?

A: “Making a piece starts with a blow pipe,” Sam said. “It’s an ancient technique. It goes back to the time of Christ. ... The basic process hasn’t really changed that much in 2,000 years. You need molten glass, a blow pipe and a blower who understands the material and how the material heats and cools.”

Q: How did you get into glassblowing?

A: “My university had a glassblowing program,” Sam said. “I was studying anthropology. I took glassblowing as an elective and got hooked. ... For me, the material is so beautiful. The colors, the way the light comes through. ... I’m glad I took a left turn. I say this a lot. I love it. I still look forward to getting to work every morning nd looking at what I made the day before. It has to cool slowly. It takes 16 hours to cool down.”

“I was going to art school in Japan,” Kaeko said. “I was a graphic artist. I worked for a corporation as a designer. I was in San Francisco. I saw some hand-blown glass.” The person who made it told her about a school in her hometown of Toyama that was just starting. “I went back to school at 30, at Toyama Institute of Glass.”

Q: How did you meet?

A: “Kaeko was in the U.S. at The Rochester Folk Art Guild,” Sam said. “We met at a shop in Baltimore. We were interested in the same kind of technique and direction. We just started working together, and then we kind of got married.”

Q: How did you end up in Augusta?

A: “I grew up in U. City,” Sam said. “I had a studio in the Cental West End. In 1991, I found a building out here. I was looking to get out of the city. Augusta is close enough to St. Louis.”

Q: How is your artwork different from your spouse’s?

A: “My work is generally larger and louder,” Sam said.

“I cannot make a big piece,” said Kaeko, referring to her petite build. Her pieces start with $5 refrigerator magnets and $30 flowers. His range from $85 to $1,200 or $1,400.

“Kaeko makes delicate, subtle and beautiful pieces,” Sam said. “That’s how I describe her work. She sells more than me usually. Her stuff is charming and very popular, with women especially. She has a feminine aesthetic, I would say.”

Q: What do art fair folks ask you most often?

A: “How long does it take to make this?” Sam said. “I hate that question. If I answer honestly, my answer takes too long. ... We are not very good at sales talk. Our pieces speak for themselves. Having conversations with good customers is nice.”

Q: Do you like doing shows?

A: “There are things about shows that I love,” Sam said. “We have made great friends at shows. We just came back from a show in New Orleans. We have really close friends there now, and in other cities. We really like the Belleville show. It’s a really charming show. I’ve done it a number of times. Shows are great. You get there, set up, live on the street, deal with the elements.”

Q: Do the elements ever cause problems?

A: “In New Orleans, it was the most rain we have ever seen and we have been doing shows for 30 years,” Sam said. “We were up to our ankles in water.” Then there was the Art on the Square show that included a tornado warning. “We are packing up pieces, trying to get stuff in bubble wrap. Police are telling us to leave now. There’s a tornado coming.”

Q: Do you take a break from your glass making?

A: “We get away for three months in the summer,” Sam said. “It’s too hot to work on glass. We do some shows. Design work. We do some traveling. Kaeko has been going back to Japan to see her mother.”

At a glance

  • What: 15th annual Art on the Square with more than 100 artists in a juried competition displaying and selling their artwork.
  • Where: Downtown Belleville Public Square
  • When: 5-10 p.m. Friday; 10-8 p.m. Saturday; 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday.
  • Cafe on the Square: 13 restaurant and caterer vendors serving everything from barbecue to toasted ravioli; brats and chili to chicken sandwiches; European pastries to cheesecakes; crab cake sandwiches to fresh fruit smoothies; ribeye steak to ice cream; German apple strudel to beef tacos.
  • Shuttle: St. Clair County Transit will run a free shuttle every 15 minutes between Scheel Street MetroLink station (starting 10 minutes before the festival opens) to East Main and Jackson (ending 20 minutes after the festival closes).
  • Don’t bring: pets, bicycles, skateboards, roller blades or scooters.
  • Information: www.artonthesquare.com
  • Artist couples: Sam Stang and Kaeko will share adjoining booths 47 and 48, on the northeast corner of the square. The DuPonts, booths 50 and 51, are just west of Sam and Kaeko. Chris Wheeler and wife Nha Vuu are in booths 98 and 99 on the southwest corner of the square.
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