Depending on the time of day and path of the sun, entering Spokane glass artist Steve Adams' studio is like stepping into a kaleidoscope of shimmering colors and shapes.
Graceful vases, bowls and goblets seem to sway to the movement of afternoon sunlight as it dances off a rainbow of translucent colors.
Part of that dazzling effect is captured in the Art Spirit Gallery in Coeur d'Alene, where Adams' newest elegant and classic glass forms are on display through May 5.
For more than half his life, Adams, 52, has been creating beautiful glass objects. But since he was a kid, he's been "fiddling with things," says his younger sister, Jill Gaines of Lewiston.
"Our dad was an engineer and had a workshop in the basement with all kinds of power tools," says Gaines, an elementary school teacher. "Dad had a knack for building stuff and Steve was always down there putting things together."
Gaines recalls a typical Saturday morning when Adams was 8 years old: "He would get up early, go downstairs and get so lost in what he was doing that he'd have his pajamas on all day long."
These days, Adams still gets up, goes into his studio and gets lost in his work (although not in his pajamas). Over the years, he's crafted thousands of goblets and candlesticks that sell all over the country.
Because of the demand, he could spend all of his time doing that. But continuing to be creative is his passion. "I'm always challenging myself to experiment with new forms and colors," he says.
Art wasn't Adams' first career choice when entering college. After nearly flunking out as an engineering major during an uninspiring freshman year at the University of Idaho, he switched his major to architecture and gravitated to art classes.
Adams stumbled across an abandoned glass furnace during his second year in Moscow. He soon began building his own equipment and tools, and learning the ancient techniques of blowing and forming molten glass.
"At that time I was just experimenting," says Adams. "All I knew is that I wanted to do it and I was being pulled forward by it."
In his third year at UI, Adams discovered that less than 10 miles away, Washington State University sculpture professor George Laisner was running a glass lab.
Laisner allowed Adams to use the WSU furnaces and helped him set up his first small glass studio in Moscow. Among Laisner's other students were Spokane artists Harold Balazs, Bob Snider and Jody Sahlin.
Even though Adams earned his degree in architecture in 1972, it was glass that would mold his life.
Returning to Spokane a year later, Adams set up a shop near Gonzaga University specializing in glass blowing and contemporary stained glass. It was there in the mid-'70s that Adams met Balazs.
"I went over to his shop on Boone to see what he was selling," says Balazs. "My wife Rose and I have eclectic tastes and like to encourage young artists."
Although Adams and Balazs would eventually collaborate on a couple of projects, it was their shared interests beyond the world of art that has shaped their friendship.
"Harold has been a lot of things to me, including father figure, mentor and friend," says Adams. "We've shared many hours camping, fishing, hunting and sailing."
Balazs encouraged him to go to wholesale craft shows in San Francisco and New York, where Adams discovered a national market for his glasswork.
This wider demand enabled him to leave the retail business and move his studio to the Vinegar Flats neighborhood in 1978. There, on the banks of Latah Creek, he concentrated on glass blowing.
A workshop with Venetian glass master Lino Tagliapietra at the Pratt Fine Arts Center in Seattle helped Adams refine his skill and inspired a higher creative focus.
"Lino single-handedly is responsible for teaching American artists how to really blow glass," says Adams.
Based on that weeklong workshop, Adams deepened his reverence for the material and his approach to making glass was forever altered.
Today Adams blends the influences of Tagliapietra with his own sensitivity for design and quality.
"Steve is an incredible craftsman," says Balazs. "I've always admired people who can track on one thing. Me, I'm all over the wall."
Adams' focus has resulted in thousands of his high-quality bowls, goblets and candleholders being shipped to selected galleries across the country.
Three of those galleries are owned by Steve Dennis, an Eastern Washington University alumnus now living on the Oregon Coast.
"I go to trade shows all around the country," says Dennis. "It's my job to know what's out there and what's being done. Steve is among the top 10 percent of glass blowers in the country."
Dennis refers to Adams as a "contemporary Steuben," because his work has the same clarity and brilliance as America's leading maker of fine glass.
"The way light plays with Steve's glass and color sets his work apart from other artists," says Dennis. "He is always concerned with capturing motion, clarity and elegance."
Adams produces his work in a studio with two gas furnaces: one for melting the glass, the other for reheating an object as he works it. When the doors are open, the furnaces glow nearly white hot at a maximum temperature near 2,500 degrees.
"It's always 20 to 30 degrees warmer in the studio than outside," says Adams. (The recent increase in natural gas costs has doubled his operating expenses over the last few months.)
For each piece, Adams gathers a ball of molten glass on a stainless steel blowpipe from the melting furnace. Using heat, gravity and air pressure, he forms the incandescent glass.
While rolling the blowpipe and breathing air into the molten glass, Adams fashions a shape using only a few simple hand tools. Depending on the object, the process of reheating and shaping can be repeated as many as 50 times.
After an object is finished, it is placed in what's called an annealing oven, where it slowly cools overnight. In the morning Adams moves the cooled pieces to the back of the shop for grinding, polishing and shipping.
Neon glass artist Ken Yuhasz remembers meeting Adams about 10 years ago, shortly after moving to Spokane from Moscow.
"I had heard of his work and had this whole image of a factory setup," says Yuhasz. "Instead it's like a `Rube Goldberg and his Glass Gold Mine' in there."
Most hot-glass shops involve several people, says Balazs. " (Dale) Chihuly has scads of guys running around. For Steve to do all that quality work by himself requires a great deal of ingenuity."
Because closing furnace doors is always challenging for an artist working alone, Adams has fashioned a gizmo that automatically does the job by activating a foot switch.
His inventiveness and renaissance spirit also feed his desire to experiment with new forms.
"Each season Steve pushes into a new area," says Steve Gibbs, Art Spirit Gallery director. "This year his new dichroic spiral vessels are dazzling."
Reflecting one color and transmitting another, dichroic glass has a similar iridescent quality as fire opal or dragonfly wings. Fashioned in a variety of platters, bowls and vases, the swirling inlays produce a shimmering cosmic illusion of depth and dimension.
Adams is also introducing sculptural wall lights reminiscent of the 19th-century art nouveau movement, when colored glass was used in resplendent ways.
A third new series involves botanical neon tubes. Inspired by garlic shoots flowering in his garden, these vine-like tendrils radiate in a rich display of color. Some are enhanced by neon.
"The new colored tubes are amazing," says Yuhasz. "Very few people actually blow glass and light it. There's a big difference between a glass blower, like Steve, and a glass bender, like me."
Most neon artists take ready-made production tubes and bend them into something.
"Steve takes a blob of molten glass, turns it into something beautiful, then gives it to me and says, `Lets put some gas into this,"' says Yuhasz. "I'm just a technician helping him light up his fanciful tubes."
Steve Adams' newest glass work is on display through May 5 at Art Spirit Gallery, 908 Sherman in Coeur d'Alene. An artist reception is Friday from 5 to 8 p.m. The gallery is open Tuesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Adams also will speak at the First Friday Salon on May 4 at the Art at Work Gallery in Spokane. His work will be featured in May at Joel in Spokane, and in June at Earthworks Gallery in Lincoln City, Ore.