DANVILLE — It's a long way from the Italian island of Murano — the center of Venetian glassblowing for 1,000 years — to the converted railroad shed beside the tracks at the edge of Centre College's campus.
But that shed has been producing some fine art glass for two decades — and especially for the past week.
That's because this month, Lino Tagliapietra, one of the world's greatest glassblowers, is making his fourth trip to Danville to pass along six decades of expertise to art students at Centre.
If you want to watch, he will have public demonstrations Monday and Tuesday.
It was cold and rainy outside last Tuesday, but it was toasty in the glass studio of Centre's Jones Visual Arts Center — better known as the Art Barn. The glass furnaces were glowing 2,200-degree orange as students watched Tagliapietra turn rods of colored glass into intricately patterned vessels.
With a calm demeanor and a deft touch, the 74-year-old master made a blob of molten glass almost dance at the end of his hollow steel rod. The glass was blown, rolled, pinched, twisted and snipped as Tagliapietra padded around the studio in Venetian slippers. All the while, he and his assistants kept the glass pliable with quick dips into the furnace or a skillfully applied blowtorch.
"Glass is an all-natural material ... fire, sand and water combined together," Tagliapietra said during an interview between classes. "I feel it is a very big medium. I think it is probably one of the most beautiful mediums in our life."
Tagliapietra was born on Murano, near Venice, and apprenticed to a famous glass studio when he was 11. By 21, he had achieved the rank of maestro. He worked as a master glassblower and designer for some of Italy's best studios. But he wanted more.
In the 1960s, he began adding his own concepts to the centuries-old methods of Venetian glassmaking. By the 1970s, he was collaborating with other artists, creating techniques, patterns and designs, and passing his knowledge on to students around the world.
One of them was Stephen Rolfe Powell, a 1974 Centre alum who discovered hot glass as a graduate student in ceramics. Powell returned to Centre to teach in 1983 and built the hot-glass studio two years later with help from Corning Glass in Harrodsburg and Philips Lighting in Danville. Powell has since become one of Kentucky's most-honored teachers — and artists. His large, colorful glass vessels have earned him an international reputation.
Tagliapietra and Powell became close friends, and they have worked together all over the world. Powell persuaded the master to visit Danville for the first time in 2000 by promising to take him to the Kentucky Derby. "I pulled out every stop I knew to get good seats," Powell said.
Tagliapietra returned to Centre in 2004, when he received an honorary degree along with then-U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. "He started working in a factory at 11 and never studied, never got his degrees," Powell said. "So him getting the doctoral degree was really cool. It was a pretty touching moment."
The master returned to Danville in 2006, and he is spending nine days here this month. Powell planned Saturday to take him to his first American football game: Kentucky vs. Vanderbilt.
"I feel very grateful to Centre College," Tagliapietra said. "For me it is very important to come back here to spend time with Stephen and the kids. I respect Stephen as a teacher and a man. I feel he is a true gentleman."
Sitting on temporary bleachers in the small studio, Centre students watched closely as Tagliapietra and his assistants worked. A few advanced students helped here and there.
"I don't think I could have imagined when I came to Centre that the best glassblower in the world would be here," said Michael Garton, a junior art major from Louisville, who took careful notes.
Garton is primarily a painter, but he's attracted to hot glass. "There's so much you can do with color and transparency that you can't do with any other medium," he said. What is he learning by watching the master? "Mostly that there's a long way to go," he said, smiling.
Tagliapietra lives on Murano but works at a studio near Seattle for three months each year. He has a dozen assistants there — each an accomplished artist in his or her own right.
One of the four assistants who accompanied him to Danville was 2002 Centre graduate D.H. McNabb, 28. He met Tagliapietra during his first visit here. Working for the master for the past five years has been "absolutely amazing," McNabb said.
"Lino understands the history of where he came from ... all of the tradition of glass," McNabb said. "Then he came over here and was able to see the innovative approach of the Americans ... and that opened him up to more exploration. That stopped him from being restrained by his techniques and helped him to invent new ones."
When Tagliapietra is working in Seattle, he goes at it hard, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. every day. "It's hard work, but a lot of love," McNabb said. "I'm just in awe of him."
After 63 years of glassblowing, Tagliapietra said he is still learning, experimenting and growing as an artist.
"Every time I do one piece, or one series, I try to test myself," he said. "It doesn't matter what you did yesterday. It's important what you do today and tomorrow."