Glass artist’s celebrated career circles around birds
When Shane Fero was not quite 14, his family left Chicago, Illinois for Winter Haven, Florida — a move significant not just for a dramatic change in size, climate, and demographics, but for a discovery that would ignite the flame for his life as a working artist.
“About a half mile away from where we lived there was a flameworking studio and shop on Ned Lake,” Fero recalls. “I would ride my bike there to watch this guy work and do demonstrations. I was fascinated by the use of the flame, the glass and the colors.”
That fascination was nurtured when the young couple who bought the studio hired him to do odd jobs and began training him in the craft. “They considered me an apprentice, and I would be there after school and on weekends.” When they sold and moved to upstate New York, he continued learning under the new owners, who received a contract to demonstrate glassblowing at Cypress Gardens; they brought their 19-year-old apprentice with them. Modestly, he says, “I guess I was pretty talented, because the owners had the other employees making simple production things, but they gave me a lot of latitude to experiment.”
After a year of community college in Florida he transferred to State University of New York (SUNY) in Plattsburgh to study philosophy, but more importantly, he reunited with his original teachers there and continued developing his techniques and artistic vision. After graduating, he opened a gallery with two friends. “We were all philosophy majors, and we all did glass,” he says with a laugh. “With our own gallery, we no longer had to make what we were told to make, so we could make what we wanted. I was interested in incorporating surrealism, philosophy, and mythology. I thought I could use those concepts to come up with something other than a bell or a bluebird.”
And yet, he was drawn to birds, becoming a member of the Audubon Society and poring through field guides. He first explored the subject making solid glass sculptures in that gallery, about 2” in length, creating about 60 to 70 in all and mounting them on pieces of wood.
After eight years of frigid winters, he moved back to Florida, where he met and married his wife. Their honeymoon brought them to Western North Carolina for the first time in 1983, and through a Tampa gallery that represented him, he was introduced to John Cram, owner of New Morning Gallery in Biltmore Village and producer of the annual Village Art and Craft Fair. “I showed him my slide and he said yes,” Fero remembers. “He represents me still, 36 years later.”
Fero fell in love with Penland School of Craft when he took a couple of classes there in the late ’80s, then taught one himself in 1990, which led to a proposal by the director to help develop a full flameworking program. The couple packed up their Florida home and moved to Penland, where his wife ran the Penland Supply Store for 30 years and he continues to teach. “I decided not to be a philosopher because it seemed the only thing professional path was teaching, and I wasn’t interested. I didn’t know I would become a teacher of glass.”
As flameworking grew in popularity and became more respected in the art world, his program at Penland opened opportunities for exhibitions, teaching, and placement in permanent collections all over the world. The artist has participated in hundreds of group exhibits, been the subject of multiple retrospectives, and was honored in 2009 for “Extraordinary Contribution to the Glass Art World.”
Fero crafts exquisite glass goblets, shadow boxes, spirit vessels, teapots, and other sculptural forms. He also paints vibrant abstracts and serene watercolors. Not surprisingly, birds figure in many of the canvases, looking at various times surreal, folkloric, and pastoral.
But his flock of bright, standing birds continue to carry his name. Shortly after the cataclysmic events of 9/11 in 2001, Cram invited Fero to be in a bird-themed show at the downtown gallery he opened in 1990, Blue Spiral 1. “I did some drawings and a shadowbox and decided to make some birds that would stand,” he explains. “When I was younger, I learned to blow glass birds, but they were pretty simple and kind of kitschy.”
For this show, he took a different approach. “There was such a malaise in the world, I thought I should come up with something bright and colorful, with gesture, to symbolize happiness and spirit.” The six birds he submitted sold immediately, and Cram asked for more. The gallery owner was prescient in foreseeing the demand for the colorful creatures. “I know at least 12 people who have 30 or more,” says Fero, who sometimes finds inspiration from Miró and Paul Klee.
“Every one of them is different, which is why people collect them. It’s like holding a small songbird with the most striking colors in the palm of your hand.”