Heart of Glass

A colorful assortment of glass concoctions resembling jungle flowers peeks out of a place where you'd least expect them: the large, industrial-sized windows of a former warehouse fronting Superior Avenue, now the home of Burning River Glass.

"Is that plastic?" a passerby asks Burning River Glass owner Brian Benchek. He quickly dispels that misconception, inviting the inquisitive to peer into his ground-level studio gallery or watch him create works of art from a vantage point on the sidewalk.

"People are curious and having the windows open encourages them to pop their heads in to see what we are doing," notes Benchek, 28, who opened the studio in February.

The sidewalk show stands out on the developing Quadrangle block, littered with orange construction cones this summer afternoon. But Benchek hopes his glass studio's open-door policy will lure in suburbanites who travel the main artery downtown and encourage them to explore Cleveland's urban neighborhoods and grass-roots art scene.

Inside the revamped space, a mix of mellow Van Morrison and trippy reggae sounds meld with eclectic glasswork displays created by Benchek and other local artists. Pillars painted gold and purple prop up raftered ceilings that reflect Cleveland's industrial past.

"I feel like this studio can be an anchor to create interest in urban revitalization and art from [people who live in] the suburbs," the Cleveland Heights resident says.

The environment mesmerizes those who stop in for what Benchek refers to as an "alternative Hale Farm experience." The studio's electric furnace, the centerpiece of the modest 3,000- square-foot space, casts a campfire-like spell on the diverse clientele, ranging from seasoned glass artists, who rent studio time for $35 an hour, to novice glassblowers painstakingly turning out their first wobbly shot glasses and paperweights. Although the day outside is pleasant, the temperature inside hovers around 90 degrees, too much for the overworked box fan in the corner to handle.

Perspiration rolls down Cleveland Heights artist Jimmy Swyt's forehead as he fashions a goblet, methodically shifting and rolling the stem, and inspecting the glass glob for a ripe, orange color before easing it out of the furnace. Next, he launches into an acrobatic jive, twirling the rod like a firelit baton to stretch the material.

The final product is far from Crate and Barrel fare.

"You can buy a $60 mass-produced vase, but we want to show that the revitalization effort is going to be carried on the backs of small businesses," Benchek says. "Yes, we need the large Cleveland Clinics. Yes, we need the biotech coming into Cleveland. -- But there aren't going to be big corporations moving into these old buildings."

Burning River Glass is located at 2218 Superior Ave. Call (216) 214-2120 or visit www.burningriverglass.com for information about hours and classes.

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