Blowing Up

Laurie Thal and Dan Altwies collaborate to create sculptural and architectural glass pieces.

By Samantha Simma / Photography by Cole Buckhart

Just off Moose-Wilson Road, a colorful glass sign marks Thal Glass Studio. The sign foreshadows what’s to come: the home and studio of the glass art duo of Laurie Thal and Daniel Altwies. Together, they create functional, sculptural, and architectural glass pieces that have been exhibited and collected internationally. Thal does the glass blowing; Altwies creates designs on the pieces by careful sandblasting. The two also collaborate on architectural glass projects like lighting fixtures, windows, panels, and wall art. 

Thal first blew glass at age 18 as a freshman at Alfred University, about 80 miles south of Rochester, New York, and immediately fell in love with it. “I chose Alfred University because of their art and ceramic department,” says Thal, who built her West Bank studio in 1998. Although she started studying ceramics, Thal says, “Once I tried glass, I was captivated by the intensity of the heat, the seductive quality of the molten glass, and with the immediacy of working with this gorgeous material.” After two years at Alfred, she transferred to the Art Institute of Chicago, from which she graduated with a Bachelor Degree in Fine Arts in 1975.

Altwies, a graphic artist who has designed album covers, taught himself how to etch and sandblast glass. The two have been art partners for six years and life partners since 2007. “Because of our love for each other, we have a connection with our pieces that most artists will never experience,” says Altwies.

The pair’s work has been exhibited at the 2018 Smithsonian Craft Show, the 2020 Governor’s Capitol Art Exhibition, the Wyoming State Art Museum, and the 2016 Scottsdale Arts Festival, where it won Best of Glass. A hand-blown glass ornament by Thal adorned the White House Christmas tree during the Obama presidency, and Obama gifted one of Thal’s vases to the prime minister of India during his 2009 visit to the U.S.  

“Once I tried glass, I was captivated by the intensity of the heat, the seductive quality of the molten glass, and with the immediacy of working with this gorgeous material”

[ Laurie Thal ]

As delicate as these glass pieces are, they require brute strength and bulky, specialized equipment to make. Thal built most of her equipment herself. There’s the glassblowing furnace, which, because it takes three days to heat up to the necessary 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, Thal keeps on for one to three months at a time. The studio is also home to two “glory holes” and annealing ovens. The former are used for reheating glass during the blowing process. The latter allow blown glass to slowly cool to room temperature, which takes between eight and sixteen hours, depending on the piece’s thickness. If blown glass cools too quickly, it can crack or break. When working, Thal—who is only 5-foot-1 but has hands and forearms that look like they could crush bricks—does a carefully choreographed dance between these pieces of equipment. Once the furnace is on and up to temperature, she melts approximately 100 pounds of glass each week. 

After the glass has been blown and cooled, preferably for several days, it is Altwies’s turn. “Most pieces are a collaboration,” he says, “but I do all of the drawings and prep work after we discuss the outcome we would like.” After a design is decided on, Altwies applies rubberized vinyl to a piece’s surface and then hand-draws the design onto it. (The rubberized vinyl protects the glass form.) The design drawn, he then uses an X-ACTO blade to cut out around the design. “When I pull the vinyl material off, that’s where I sandblast,” he says. Altwies says drawing can take days depending on the design’s complexity. Many of the couple’s projects are glass bowls with carved edges. These can take Altwies up to 100 hours from design to completion. As fragile as glass is, Altwies says, “I am never nervous about anything I do—I am a master glass fabricator and everything is well thought out and planned for.”  

Glass art is generally considered to be contemporary in style, although Thal describes her and Altwies’s work as having a “simple elegance.” “Art with elegant style is more appealing than a busy piece that can hide the basic form and design,” she says. Altwies’s etchings are often of aspen leaves or flowers, but no two designs are ever the same. “I want every [collector] to have a one-of-a-kind piece,”
he says.

The first large-scale architectural piece the two collaborated on was a commission for a home in Teton Village: a 26-by-72-inch tryptich of fused glass with the Teton Range in it. 

Thal and Altwies host open studios several times throughout the year, and in the winter Thal invites groups to the studio and coaches participants as they make their own glass ornaments. “I like giving people the opportunity to see where we make the magic happen,” she says. “It’s a relaxed, beautiful atmosphere where you can see the whole variety of work we do, and we can show you the sandblasting equipment and the fusing kilns and really explain how things are made.”  

To make an appointment to visit Thal Glass Studio, call 307/690-2491 or email thallaurie@gmail.com; Thalglass.com  

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