A craftsman melds art and business

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Steven Maslach, a California glass artist, is part of that new breed of craftsman in the United States who have achieved financial as well as artistic success. He continues to develop his own unique approach to glass, but has also learned how to manage people and market goods.

``It's hard to be a small business person,'' Mr. Maslach admits, ``because even the craft world has become so sophisticated that there are certain things you cannot ignore - such as computerization. I have installed a computer program that keeps track of all my glass formulas as well as my mailing lists, accounts, and inventory.''

Like many other craftsmen, he explains, ``I had to learn how to foster the entrepreneurial spirit, and to become `business wise.'

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``Not to do so would have been foolish. After all, my gas bill for my studio is in the neighborhood of $4,500 per month. I would not survive long if I did not practice certain business skills.''

After 16 years in business, Maslach has built an enterprise based on a variety of products. His fanciful handmade glass marbles, made in the tradition of turn-of-the-century European marbles, sell in gift shops for $8 to $16 each, with one very large size that retails for $60. His handblown marbleized goblets are sold for $45 up to $60 in several hundred shops and galleries across the country. And his exquisite one-of-a-kind vases and sculptured pieces range generally between $1,000 and $5,000.

In New York recently for the American Crafts show at the Armory, Maslach explained a new area of interest: exploring the optical properties of glass by laminating color filters to the facets of cut glass.

Maslach's first exposure to glass was in 1969 at the California College of Arts and Crafts, where he was studying painting and experimenting with cast acrylic sculpture. After discovering that free-blown glass interested him most, he studied for two years with Marvin Lipofsky, from whom he gained his great appreciation of glass.

Later, he traveled around the US visiting other glass artists whose work influenced him, such as Mark Peiser at Penland, N.C., Joel Myers at Blenko, W.Va., and Dale Chihuly at Rhode Island School of Design. He repeated such travels in France, where he was most impressed by the work of Ren'e Lalique, the prolific French glass artist who, he says, ``was unencumbered by conventional conceptions of what glass could or could not do.''

In July of 1971, Maslach established his own studio in Greenbrae, Calif., north of San Francisco, to pursue his sculptural interests.

``I was totally naive about what was necessary to make a living in the craft field,'' he recalls, ``but I soon learned that in order to support my studio and make a living I had to make saleable pieces - which meant goblets and vases and other useful objects. It took me years to get back to the point of making what I consider to be sculptural pieces.''

Along the way, like many other crafts people, he went from working alone to hiring one or two assistants - up to the 10 assistants he employs at present. ``I realized that the only way to get ahead, and to free up my time to be creative, I had to set up a business organization and learn to manage others. At that time no helpful courses or workshops were available, as they are today, so I learned by trial and error, and I made many mistakes. But I did learn how to build equipment, how to market, and how to motivate assistants toward a common goal - which I discovered was an art unto itself.''

The essence of that art, in his studio, is constant attention to the needs of the individual craftsmen employed there. They work in teams, concentrating on such specialities as glass blowing or polishing.

``Steve has discovered,'' says Carol Sedestrom, president of American Craft Enterprises, the marketing arm of the American Craft Council, ``that to create a well-rounded, successful business is a very creative endeavor. He is one of the talented craftspeople who has helped the craft field mature into an industry of capable artisans who are ready and willing to do business.''

``I have never grown bored with glass,'' says Maslach. ``It continues to fascinate and mystify me. I have to work with this material, so I blow all the bowls myself, do most of the casting, and work with one man who helps me polish.''

His wife, Julia, has taken over many of the business details, giving him time, as she puts it, ``to be more of an artist and less of a manager.''

Maslach is represented in top galleries around the country, and his work is in permanent collections of such major museums as the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the Oakland Museum in California, and the Smithsonian.

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