MCC sat down with Brian Owoc, owner of KGB Glass in Portland, to talk glass, donuts and, of course, glass donuts.
MCC: How long have you been blowing glass?
Brian: I think I started around 2002. I’m not totally certain. Right after the Phish hiatus I had more time on my hands as life calmed down and had to find something to do. So I started spending time with friends from Phish a lot that lived in Vermont and were blowing glass, and I would just go there and just watch. I never planned on doing it myself but I would learn while watching and thought it was amazing to see.
I don’t have any art schooling or artistic background. I didn’t spend time when I was younger drawing or anything like that. There was something about the flame and making items from glass. When they offered to teach me, I just jumped at it. I wasn’t sure it would turn into a career, but at the same time I enjoyed it so much I thought this could be my jam.
At the time I was younger and working as a baker at a few donut shops and enjoyed doing that. I was considering becoming a baker as a career, and then I discovered glass blowing. It seems the more you put into it the more you get back.
At first, I was putting like 3000% percent effort into it and just hoping to get 100% satisfaction back. At first it was tough, it was super tough; I would trade for my meals at the Wake and Bakery. I would trade onies for food and drink. Or I would go to Awear and trade for a pair of pants. I got by, but it was tough. Thankfully, the Portland, Southern Maine area shop owners were always there to help out, and the Ace. It was a very cool scene.
I think for beginning glass blowers you might think it will be really easy or that you will coast into it because you see people that are successful doing it, but there is so much that goes into it, so much hard work and failure. Not being able to afford the electric bill, phone getting shut off, but finding money for color and oxygen and just trying to keep it moving.
I think it’s a mix of luck and determination that have got me to where I am now. There are a lot of hard workers that still struggle. I feel very lucky and fortunate to be where I am now, but I also know I work almost everyday. I’ve worked every Christmas for the past 10 years, I’ll work on Thanksgiving. Sometimes I’ll take a month off to gather my shit, but I just love working. It’s a life, not a job. You have to work at it a lot. For some people, they don’t want this as a life, they want to come in for a few hours, work on it and leave the work there. The donuts have given so much to me, I feel like I should be giving back. It’s amazing, who would have thought it would have gone this way?
MCC: Where did you first start working blowing glass?
Brian: When I was renting a house from Steve-O. That’s when one of the guys from Vermont, Jim Bigs, told me his girlfriend was going to MECA and I’m going to move up there too, but I need somewhere to blow glass, can I set up in your garage? So I asked Steve-O if I could blow glass at the house.
The baker that taught me how to make donuts came over with a sawzall, and we found a window by the side of the road that we cut a hole in and installed it into the garage with a fan and insulation made of old Dunkin’ Donuts bagel boxes. It was pretty insane but that’s how it all started. I worked there for a year or so.
Jim Bigs moved out and got a studio elsewhere. Later on, I ended up working with Jim and W.C. Stearns, but I still didn’t have a permanent spot. At this point, I’m still working at Domino’s in an effort to keep up with the bills and keep blowing glass. I still wasn’t making a lot of profit blowing glass; I was still learning the craft, breaking items, and growing as a glassblower.
The guy working with me at Domino’s was a photographer, and one day he offered me a space over off Persumscott in a big bay area in the back of the shop. I ended up quitting Domino’s that day. That was the last job I had working for somebody else. I was like, I’m just going to see what the fuck happens. I worked so hard at Domino’s and so much, and they didn’t really appreciate shit. I couldn’t thank them more for not appreciating me, because I would have stayed there.
I realized my value when I wasn’t given the respect. I enjoy work, I’m not afraid of work. I decided I’m going to do something I love for work and that should be a formula for success. So I jumped in, and it was scary. I knew my next paycheck had to come from selling pipes. No matter what else was going on, I had to sell some pipes to make the rent and keep the ball rolling, and I did. It was sink or swim, and thankfully I swam. I did that in that studio for two years.
I started working out of Mr. Gray’s garage in Cumberland, which was pretty sweet. I was on the waiting list for Royal River in Yarmouth, which was my end goal. But the waiting list was long; it was the premier studio. I did finally get in part-time at first and then ended up working there full-time. That’s when things really kicked into overdrive. I learned so much working there about glass, the glass industry, just everything.
So many talented artists were working there, that was when the ball really started rolling. It was my huge “aha” moment. I worked at Royal River in Yarmouth and Portland for somewhere around seven years. I worked there until we opened up this shop four or five years ago. It was a tough decision to leave, but I had to grow, and I needed much more space. Thankfully this spot was close by, and it all worked out really well.
MCC: You were talking about when you were at Royal River, that was such a big hub at the time. That’s where I met all you guys as well. Can you speak about some of your influences and who was teaching you new stuff at that time?
Brian: Mr. Gray really took me under his wing. In earlier years, he would give me his materials for his prep and show me how to do it, I would punch out the prep work, and we would split the prep materials. In exchange, I was learning how to do a lot of prep and huge pieces of glass work, and do it right. I would try harder for him that I would even for my own work, and it ended up paying off and transferring as learning experiences in my craft. He was definitely a huge influence on me.
Everyone that was working at Royal River had an impact on me; people were always cycling through. I learned fuming from Bobby-O, for example. I used to do a lot of fume work and Bobby was kind enough to show me, “hey this is how you do that, this is how you get this kind of purple and green to show up.” That was pretty amazing. But even some of the technical side of business I learned from others as well. Johanna was working Quickbooks, and that’s how I learned how to work a desk.
With glassblowing, you end up with so many different situations that you have to learn and really retain each day. That’s how I came away with so much knowledge on this trade. I’ve heard people say that glassblowing leads to carpentry, because you’re always building something for the studio. It’s fun, it changes the pace of things.
MCC: Who officially taught you how to blow glass?
Brian: Jim Biggs. Jim Biggs was the first person to show me the ropes. I was self-taught really in the beginning until Jim showed me some things. It was working at Royal River that really taught me the most. Although, great story, I did learn how to make the glass donut in the Melting Pot, the online glassblowers forum. He sent me a doodle and instructions, and I made a donut. Also shout out to Steve Bates who taught me how to do a blow in, and he taught me how to do a monster blow in. I can’t even imagine the millions of things he has shown me along the way. The dude is just a fucking genius. I remember the first time I met him, he was just a legend, it was the folklore of Steve Bates before I met him. He was so humble and so talented, but his name was definitely one of legends. Steve has changed Maine glass pipe blowing forever.
MCC: When did you have that moment when you kinda switched over from just making pipes into just making glass donuts?
Brian: I think it was right around 2012 was the first year I was able to go just making donuts, that was the first year of the donut bag too. The first donut was made in 2007; it was pretty janky. I’m pumped that people even bought them because they were so bad. When I see them now, I try to buy them back for my own personal collection so I can show people, this was back then. I believe it was right around 2011, 2012 when the fine-tuning happened. When they went on display in the front case at the Blazin’ Ace, that definitely elevated it. It was great exposure, and I am thankful to them for displaying them in the forefront. It brought a lot of people in. Some people were covering their kids eyes and running out, and others would think they were awesome that you could smoke out of them and buy them. I like that, over the course of time, the more people I talk to, the more I find my pieces are their first artistic glass pieces. I think it’s beautiful to be a part of that. When people compliment me and say the donuts look so realistic, I really appreciate that.
MCC: Do you have any other influences outside of glass?
Brian: Being a baker was a big influence. The repetition of making a quarter million edible donuts really prepared me as well. It wasn’t tedious for me, it was training of getting the donuts right and working with your hands. In glass blowing, I think there really are influences everywhere, I feel influenced by everything. When Sarah came into my life, she influenced me a lot in matters of the business side, keeping everything together in a more tight-knit, organized way. I’m so fortunate she came into my life, her influence on the business has been very helpful. It goes a long way to have a partner who has your back and can support you in your business. There are so many influences. I think struggling and being broke for so many years has also been a big influence.
MCC: Can you elaborate a little more on the struggles you had as an artist?
Brian: Struggling and starting out being broke for so many years can make you motivated to say, “I don’t want that ever again.” If it’s working harder to avoid ever having to go through that again, then so be it. The struggle is inspiration.
MCC: Which other artists are influencing you?
Brian: Gateson has always been influential because his space scenes and the marbles and the planets are so realistic. I’ve always strived for that realism with my donuts. Same thing with Salt. Salt’s creatures and his eyes, they speak to me. Although, I could probably name 30 glass blowers right now that influence me where I’m like, that’s beautiful work, I wanna make beautiful work. So, I think just glass pipes, in general, influence me.
MCC: How was it working with Salt?
Brian: We’ve only done mail collaborations for the most part. We’ve hung out a few times in person but haven’t had a chance to work together in person. The mail collaborations were about five years ago and then two Donutfests ago.
MCC: Who are some of your favorite artists to collaborate with?
Brian: I love working with Danny Camp. Obviously it’s close, but he is just such a pleasure to work with. The way he plans everything out so meticulously and the picture he draws of the piece we are going to make, the piece always looks just like the picture. I tell him, the drawing should come with the piece because it’s so frickin’ dope. He’s very encouraging, I’ll be like, “I don’t know if we can do this,” and he’s like, “Nah, we can do it.” When I was working with Steve Sizelove, it was a blast. I was out at his place this past summer, we really clicked. I think Muller might be one of my favorites. It’s really fun working with him, and the pieces we’ve made are some of my favorite pieces I’ve ever made. I love his style so much. He inspires me just by what he does. His pieces speak to me with their realism. Shout out to Muller.
MCC: How do you design your stuff?
Brian: A lot of times I start with a crude drawing and just jump in and try to make the piece and see where it goes. Sometimes, the pieces find their own shape, and I’m just playing around and seeing where roads lead me. Other times, I think about function and how I could improve function and by trying to achieve the function that I want will naturally determine the design. If this donut here is gonna stop splash, and this is gonna help it perc, and this makes it so it’s a good angle, then maybe this shape is good.
MCC: Form or function?
Brian: I think function is first. If you’re getting water in your mouth, I don’t care how pretty it is. So function is first, but art and form is right after it.
MCC: Talk to me about the upcoming Donutfest and who you are excited to work with?
Brian: It’s going to be another good year. Great time of year, I don’t really do too many collaborations throughout the year, and I really hammer them all out this month and next month. Pumped to say Steve Sizelove is coming in, and we’re going to have an extensive collection. I’ve recently purchased a lathe, which is sitting behind us, and I’m hoping to get over the learning curve quickly and add the lathe into the donut repertoire. Steve Sizelove is a nasty with the lathe so he should help me learn and perhaps even open up a class on the lathe here. I’m so excited to learn from him, great guy making great glass.
MCC: Have you guys done many classes here?
Brian: We’ve done one group class and a few smaller individual classes. But we’ve only done one major group class with Acadian Glass and that went really well. Benji is a great teacher, he’s a great guy. That’s Maine for you, helpful guy and known him for many years. He’s the man. During that class, the focus was opal. I did a blow in demo and Sarah did a marble demo, so you got three different concepts in a 13-hour class. That will be something that we focus on more in the future, one-on-one classes, smaller classes, beginner classes, and then bringing in guests for larger classes. We have the space, and this is a direction we are going. Sarah and I will probably both teach classes.
MCC: What else do you have planned for the rest of the year?
Brian: I’m excited to learn what I can do with this lathe and trying to figure out some new products and mixing them in. I expect a learning curve, but I’m focused on expanding. I’ve always done benchwork but it would be nice to try to learn new techniques.
MCC: Do you get to take much time off?
Brian: Yes and no. I could take off way more time than I do. I take time off when I really need to. Years ago, I used to take off the months of July and August and not work at all and reset and enjoy life. But I do enjoy life doing what I do, so I enjoy my work. Some days, I’ll only work three hours, maybe I’ll get those three hours in, and then go golf. I like to mix work and play, the productivity adds up. I don’t do good sitting around doing nothing, I enjoy spending time getting stuff done.
MCC: Any shout outs?
Brian: Donutfest! Thank you to all the collectors, Blazin’ Ace, shop owners, thank you all for the support over the years. Maine has been so supportive of me and my passion, I really appreciate it. I’m trying to give back when I can to places in Maine, such as Good Shepherd Food Bank. I do charity auctions for them. I feel very thankful of where I am now, and I know a lot of that has to do with the support of the local people in Maine and other parts of the country that I’ve met along the way and who have bought my artwork. Everyone came through to help everyone else, a big thank you to you all.
MCC: Talk a little more about the fundraisers you have done over the years?
Brian: Probably for the past eight years I have done auctions on my Instagram page where I’ll make pendants and donate 100% of the proceeds to a good cause. Good Shepherd is who I do the most with, but there was a woman bowler who was injured in an accident, so I did a GoFundMe to help out. We made two pendants to go towards that GoFundMe. Certain things come up during the year, there was a reptile facility that takes in animals for rehabilitation. If I can make a pendant or two to help out, I’ll do it. I feel like everyone wins. I think it’s a great thing to do something I enjoy and can generate some help for people in need.
MCC: Have you traveled recently?
Brian: It was great to go out to Chicago for my clothing drop with Grassroots California. Got to spend a few days in Chicago, that was beautiful. We go down to New York City any time Phish is in town. That is my favorite place to go, New York City. I fucking love it. It’s amazing where glass blowing has taken me over the years. Out to Cali, here and there. I was recently able to blow glass in Syracuse, NY with Hollinger. I’ve never blown glass in New York, let alone near my home town. Glass is amazing in what it gives back if you allow it.
MCC: Favorite glass color?
Brian: Chocolate Crayon
MCC: What do you use when you’re not using glass?
Brian: I like joints, I grew up on blunts, but joints.
MCC: What kind of papers?
MCC: Who’s your favorite artist outside of glass?
Brian: Jae Yong Kim, he’s amazing, he makes these donuts all over the world, and they’re huge, and they’re ceramic, and he just does walls of them, and they’re all different. He’s in museums all over the country and does shows in New York City. He’s baller as fuck, I’m a huge fan.
MCC: What’s in your personal glass collection?
Brian: Sarah Marblesbee dry pieces, Voorhees, Toro. A lot of donut pieces I don’t use. A Mr. Gray nugget piece I like to use. The Will Condon tube is my daily driver.
MCC: What are you smoking on right now?
Brian: High Seas Provisions, their Super Lemon Haze and their Cheese, depending on the time of day. They’re my go-tos right now for the past month and a half, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. They really enhance my quality of life.
MCC: Do you prefer flower over concentrates?
Brian: Yeah, I’m a flower guy.
MCC: Indica versus sativa?
Brian: I’m a sativa guy.
MCC: Do you vape at all?
Brian: When on vacation.
MCC: What’s your favorite sound?
Brian: The sound of a strike.