In Heather Dawson's world, leaves can sprout anytime she wishes, they can change colour on a whim and never fall to the ground when autumn arrives.
They don't even need trees.
Dawson is a glassmaker; creating glass leaves in a variety of shapes, sizes and colours is one of her specialties.
She has worked on several custom projects before, but her fragile creations led to her being one of the few Canadian artists to have new work displayed in the United States, or anywhere internationally, during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"It's something I enjoy doing, working with people to help make something they have in their mind come to reality," Dawson says.
She caught the glass-making bug about 15 years ago while learning how to make stained glass at Prairie Studio Glass in Winnipeg. Dawson has since built a new studio next to her home in Teulon, about 55 kilometres north of Winnipeg, where she transforms varying sizes and colours of glass — using three high-temperature kilns, ceramic moulds and her creativity — into decorative and functional items.
"I started with stained glass, took a class and it snowballed from there, she says. "I really fell in love with all the different colours that were available, all the different textures of glass. Just the beauty and the colour were what I was really drawn to."
Dawson began making everyday items, such as bowls and coasters, and has branched out into jewelry, picture frames, and Christmas ornaments and decorations, before letting her artistic imagination team up with her glass-making skills. Last year, she began making glass daffodils to help raise money for the Canadian Cancer Society's annual spring campaign.
Her technique is different from the romantic images of Venetian glass-blowers, who make intricate sculptures from thin bubbles of molten glass, or vase-makers on the Canadian-made Netflix competition show Blown Away.
Dawson takes various sizes of glass, from large sheets to the tiniest pebbles called glass frits, and uses her three kilns to melt the glass in moulds to create the pieces she wants.
"Everything I do is flat work in the kiln," she says, differentiating the two styles of glass art. "It's heated up on a kiln shelf flat, and then I can put it in the kiln a second time over a ceramic mould and then it'll slump into the shape of the mould. That's how I get 3D effects with the glass that I work with."
What separates the artists like Dawson from everyone else is how she's able to create the colours the way she wants while the kilns heat up and melt the glass. Glass begins to melt and move at about 600 C and Dawson begins her casts when the kiln's bricks rise to 700 C.
She has found out through trial-and-error that glass of different colours doesn't always mix well.
"When it heats up, the glass flows and melts back together, so you end up with one glass piece from all these little individual pieces," she says. "If you're not paying attention to the colours you're using side by side, sometimes you'll end up with a big black piece because they reacted together."
"The different sizes (of glass), when you're casting them, when they melt back together, they give different effects, so I experimented with what would look best when it was the finished product."
Dawson started making large aspen leaves from a commercially made mould. The results, which she posted for sale on her website, glassbyheather.com, caught the eye of Karla Rikansrud, vice-president of philanthropy and social responsibility at the Frasier Retirement Community in Boulder, Colo.
Rikansrud was seeking a way to thank and recognize donors to the community, and Dawson's glass leaves gave her the idea of an art installation, with each leaf representing a donor and mounted on a metal decorative panel.
The only problem was Dawson's leaves were too big, and she had no mould handy to make a smaller one.
So she turned to Alan Lacovetsky, a potter and fellow member of the Interlake-based Wave artists' co-operative. Together they designed and Lacovetsky fired moulds for smaller aspen leaves, and Dawson set about making 200 of them for the Colorado community's donor-appreciation wall.
"It's why this project is so much fun. There really are a lot of similarities between glasswork and pottery. He was learning from me about different glass aspects and I was learning from him about the pottery aspects," Dawson says. "That's what's neat about our co-operative; people are so willing to share the information that they have and help you grow as an artist."
After a couple of tests, Dawson went about the process of filling the moulds with glass, placing them in the electric kilns, setting the computers that regulate their temperatures and letting the heat do its job.
Temperatures are also regulated for slowly cooling the freshly melted glass, which Dawson says releases the internal stresses from the glass.
After a couple of hours, the kilns are turned off and the glass cools overnight, along with the kilns. The next day, she would start again with another batch, firing about 30 moulds at a time. After emptying them, she would make sure they were clean and start the next bunch.
Once all 200 leaves were done — not counting the ones that broke, a fact of life for anyone making glass art — Dawson carefully packed them up and sent them to Boulder.
Photographs of the final product were reassuring, because the pandemic prevented Dawson from travelling to Colorado to help out with setting up the installation.
"I thought it looked great," she says. "It was a little bit nerve-racking because I couldn't go there and help with the installation and smooth over any issues that might have come up, but they did a really great job with it."
Alan Small has been a journalist at the Free Press for more than 22 years in a variety of roles, the latest being a reporter in the Arts and Life section.