Alex Brand uses a familiar medium to make objects that delight and surprise.
Often, glass is strictly utilitarian. It lets light into our homes while shielding us from the elements, or forms vessels to hold the water we drink. And then there’s the glass blown by Alex Brand: sculptural, beautiful, and bright. Brand uses glass to make stunning works of art—think colorful bowls, shapely vases, shining tumblers, and elaborately formed urns.
He sells his hand-blown glass at the gallery he owns with his wife at The Art Colony at The Greenbrier. That store, Virtu, is in a cozy little cottage on the historic resort’s grounds, in a row of shops that all belong to an exclusive group of West Virginia artisans. Brand and his wife, a jewelry maker named Susan Chapman Thomas, have been making and selling their work there since 2010. Brand’s glass studio is in a building behind the gallery. “I can’t really imagine a better way to work,” he says. “It’s a pretty idyllic setting to come to every day.”
Stepping into Virtu is like stepping inside a candy shop. You’re surrounded by shining baubles just begging to be picked up and examined, each in a more vibrant hue than the last. Brand’s work includes high-end pieces that would make a stunning centerpiece for any art collection. But he also makes plenty of smaller pieces so that his work is accessible to the general public. He does regular demonstrations, so visitors can learn about the craft of glassblowing.
Brand’s artistic approach to glassblowing is no accident. He knew he wanted to be an artist even before he learned to work with glass. Even when he was still a high school kid in Pennsylvania, Brand knew he’d make his living with art. “There was a really conscious decision that this was what I was going to do and there was not going to be a Plan B,” he says. “It really made me happy to make art and be creative and that’s all what I wanted to do.” He made pottery as a teenager and studied jewelry making in college, before finally settling on glass as his medium. “I didn’t see myself sitting at a bench making small scale things. I liked the scale of glass,” he says. “And I liked playing with fire.”
When he graduated from the Tyler School of Art at Temple University, in Philadelphia, Brand started working for a small glass shop in Massachusetts. After just a few years he decided to venture out on his own. “In the early ’80s when I got into it, the movement of artists doing glass on a smaller scale in a glass studio was still pretty new,” Brand says. “It was easier to break into.” He went to one wholesale craft show in Baltimore, secured just enough orders to get started, and put together a ragtag little glass studio. “It was a risk,” Brand says, but he doesn’t really seem phased by the boldness of the gesture. For him, starting his own studio was the natural thing to do—after all, he didn’t have a Plan B. After a few years he relocated to upstate New York, opened his second studio, and stayed there for 25 years, making and selling glass. He also spent a lot of time traveling to craft shows all over the country—he even met his wife at one of them.
Then, in 2009, a fire destroyed Brand and Thomas’s home in upstate New York. They decided not to rebuild on the spot, and moved to West Virginia instead. Thomas grew up in Bluefield and Brand had always loved the state—plus there was an opening in the Art Colony at The Greenbrier. “We figured we might as well try it,” Brand says. He gained an eager audience of people appreciative of West Virginia-made art, and West Virginia gained a skilled glassmaker. Brand’s work has been shown at museum shows, including the Smithsonian Craft Show, has appeared in several books and magazines, and is included in private collections all over the country. “I think this is really something I’m supposed to be doing—I really had no choice,” he says. “I was blessed to have some talent at it.”
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written by Shay Maunz | photographed by Nikki Bowman