City Lights: Physical therapy gets hot

I've gotten used to the concept of art as therapy. I have friends who have led poetry workshops in homeless and battered women's shelters, and I once attended a reading in England by a woman who had been abused as a child and passed out poetry pamphlets with a hotline to report domestic abuse.

Making art can definitely heal emotional wounds. What's rarer is using it to heal the body — especially since tapping at a keyboard or stooping over an easel don't typically qualify as forms of exercise.

But for Long Beach resident Paula Josef, whose work will be for sale this weekend at the Coastline Art Gallery in Huntington Beach, creating art did serve as physical rehabilitation. The Philippines native began creating blown-glass sculptures more than a decade ago while suffering from the aftereffects of lupus, a disease that severely weakened her muscles, and she credits her creations with helping her to walk up stairs and open bottles again, among other things.

None of the pieces that Josef made during her six months of rehabilitation will be available at the gallery's Holiday Art Sale Thursday through Sunday. She has spent years honing her craft, and she considers the work she did back then, by her own admission, "really ugly."

But she's grateful for the healing she received in the process. I met Josef and her longtime partner, Brian Dean, at the gallery Tuesday, and was struck by the vibrancy and beauty of their works on display. That they have a moving story behind them is a bonus — and hopefully one that will move a few sales, as Josef is undergoing treatment for lupus again.

When Josef contracted lupus the first time, she said, her doctor recommended that she walk up and down her apartment stairs to build muscle tone. She tried that and found that it didn't make much of a difference, but she got another idea from watching Dean, who had blown glass for years and owned a studio near the San Diego Zoo.

Under Dean's tutelage, Josef learned the physical ropes of blowing glass, an arrangement Dean calls the dance floor, in which the artisan stands before a furnace and shapes the glass in a hot tank by blowing into a 4-foot pipe, then rolls the glass on a steel table to cool it. Josef got a full-body workout in the process, using her fingers to work the blow pipe and metal rod and working her lower half by sitting and standing repeatedly.

Her first pieces were simple designs, but the ones on sale this weekend run the gamut from flowers to birds to a statue of a mother swaddling a baby. Dean and Josef, who take a ceramics class at Coastline and were invited to participate in the art sale by Assistant Gallery Curator Anita Sinclair, worked until a few years ago at a furnace at Escondido. The costs proved too high, though, so now they're on the lookout for a workspace that's cheaper and doesn't require them to be students.

While going back into business would be fun, Dean said, making artwork together is also a bonding experience.

"It's like being with your best friend doing the funnest thing you can," he said. "My idea of the perfect day is Paula and I sitting for six hours straight blowing Christmas ornaments."

The Holiday Art Sale takes place from 1 to 7 p.m. Thursday and Friday, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday at the Coastline Art Gallery, 10156 Adams Ave. For more information, call (714) 963-8475.

City Editor MICHAEL MILLER can be reached at (714) 966-4617 or at

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