Gavin Heath was a competition surfer making his way from his native South Africa to Hawaii — and planning to end up in Australia — when he landed in Laguna Beach and found work in the surf clothing industry.
It was the mid-1980s. Heath had always concentrated on sports and never thought of himself as an artist, but when he was exposed to the art of glassblowing, something clicked.
Glass is a liquid — a slow-moving liquid — and maybe that's what drew the surfer to the medium, which requires skill, strength and scientific knowledge to master.
Growing serious about the field, he studied at various schools, including Pilchuck Glass School in Seattle and at Cal State Fullerton's glass-blowing program. He worked for a time for noted Laguna glassblower John Barber, all the while creating his own designs and selling them. His work began appearing in prestigious shows.
By 1991, he had purchased a property on Laguna Canyon Road next to Barber's studio, making what he calls Tribal Dolls, inspired by folk art from his native land.
The dolls, which can be as tall as six feet, have a raw, primitive quality that he says evokes the spirit of the South Africans who were displaced from their homeland under apartheid, in which native people were officially barred from the white-dominated society.
"That [apartheid] was what drove me away from South Africa," he said. "They took everything away from the tribal people, and these dolls show the spirit of the people."
As soon as he started making the colorful dolls, his career was set.
"The African dolls took off," he said. "Neiman Marcus bought 50. Twenty years later, I'm still making them."
He says his secret is to remain playful.
"I use clashing colors, zig-zags, spirals. If I try too hard, I'll blow it." (Pun not intended.)
He also makes life-sized African animals, giraffes, gazelles, zebras and masks, formed in glass using a pair of furnaces that he made himself. The glass is created by melting huge bags of silica sand at temperatures higher than 2,000 degrees.
It is an intensive process of picking up the glass from the red-hot furnace on a steel rod, cooling it enough to be malleable, then gently blowing through a hole in the rod to form a bubble. The glass can be twisted, pulled, and formed into any shape imaginable.
He also creates custom work on commission. For his hero, Nelson Mandela, he made an ocean-inspired piece called "Tsunami." Actor Johnny Depp asked him to make a replica of the Statue of Liberty flame for his home. Candy Spelling, wife of the late TV producer Aaron Spelling, has also purchased his work.
One of his favorite early jobs, obtained through the American Craft Council, was to make glass ornaments for the Clintons' White House Christmas tree.
He has just had his first success in the field of public art: He and metal artist Larry Gill collaborated on a bench to be placed at South Coast Highway and Mountain Street. The bench, "Streamline," was approved by the Laguna Beach Arts Commission and now faces scrutiny by the Design Review Board and City Council.
"There's money out there for architectural stuff," he said. "I've made sinks for bathrooms and chandeliers."
Heath says his work used to be represented in 35 galleries around the country, but many galleries have gone under in the sour economy, and besides, he finds that people are now more interested in buying directly from the source — the artist.
"They want to come to the studio and see how the work is made," he said. "Then they buy."
So Heath, along with 23 other Laguna Beach artists, is opening his studio to the public from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. In addition to glass-blowers, there are fused glass artists, painters, print-makers, ceramicists, and sculptors. Some will demonstrate their work, others will hold hands-on workshops for participants. And their artwork will be for sale.
Heath has been an exhibitor at the Festival of Arts and the Sawdust Festival for 20 years, and has served on the Sawdust board for three years. He helped found the popular Sawdust Studio Classes, year-round arts and crafts classes taught by Sawdust artists, including himself.
Next, he says he'd like to return to South African to teach the art of glass-blowing to those who inspired his career.
To find out more about Heath and his work, or to sign up for a class, visit http://www.artglass.tv.
If You Go
What: Artist Open Studios
When: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday; then the first Saturday of the month through March 3
Where: Free trolley service from ACT V parking lot, 1900 Laguna Canyon Road
Information: Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (949) 497-0722.