If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen." That's an apt saying for many people, but not for Christian Thirion. He left the kitchen, and a career as a master pastry chef, for the hot shop and a new career as a glassblower. "Chocolate," he explains, "is liquid and then becomes hard. Glass is a similar concept.
"But the family business dictated that Thirion follow in the steps of his grandmother and father, both bakers. So, at the age of 14, Thirion began an intensive three-year apprenticeship in Belfort, France, to become a pastry chef. Up at 5 a.m. every day, he took inspiration from a huge stone lion several stories high built by Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, sculptor of the Statue of Liberty, to commemorate French resistance fighters who fought so tenaciously for the town. Only 17 in his class of 36 graduated.
The loss of his mother in 1978 made him realize how important it is to take a chance and follow your heart. So when he saw an advertisement in the local newspaper for a pastry chef in Chicago, he thought he would go see what it was all about. "The address in the paper was in the next town, which only had about 15 houses," remembers Thirion. He couldn't miss it, he says, because the American flag was hanging on the front. To him, the man who answered the door "looked like Davy Crockett in a suede jacket and red hair." He handed Thirion a business card to call the States. Thirion didn't speak English but somehow managed and two months later he had his immigration papers as part of an international exchange between two chambers of commerce.
Thirion moved to California in 1980. He started a restaurant, then worked in construction, plumbing and landscaping but never lost his interest in glass.
"I started to work with stained glass in 1984 and found myself spending hours watching a well-known glassblower in his neighboring studio," says Thirion. In 1987, he decided to sign up for a course in glassmaking advertised at the city college in Santa Barbara. "The moment I handled the pipe with molten glass and placed the glass on my block," says Thirion, "I said 'This is it. This is what I want to do.'" He left pastry to pursue glass-blowing full time. He convinced the teacher to let him attend extra sessions, then became a teaching assistant so he could have studio time.
After blowing glass for two years in Seattle, Wash., where he refined his technique and learned as much as he could by watching and helping other artists, such as Martin Blank and Dante Marioni, he relocated to the Finger Lakes region of New York in 1992. That year he received at commission to create several large pieces for a restaurant in Toyko. When one piece broke in packing on the way to a show, a friend in Corning offered his studio to remake the piece. For the first time, Thirion visited the Corning Museum of Glass, and he decided to stay in the area.
"Glass is a learning process. I continue to discover new ways to apply color, textures and techniques to enhance my work," says Thirion. "I'm always learning." So it's no coincidence that his studio and hot shop are located in a 1930s brick building, formerly the village elementary school, on the banks of Catherine Creek in Millport, N.Y.
If there's a thread to his life and his work, it's movement. His friends call him the "gypsy glassblower," he says, because he has moved around so much. His art glass is a blend of classic elegance and fluid forms. Early vessels were enhanced with wings, spirals of color or flame-shaped stoppers flicked to one side as though blown by the wind. Then he began moving toward larger pieces.
In his most recent work, long stoppers gently rock back and forth inside large, curved two-tone vessels he calls the Wave Series. Topped with an extra dot of color, "the fun pieces on top add another element of color and movement," says Thirion. Where will he be moving next? Thirion's newest idea is to create small glass vessels filled with his own chocolate truffles