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CRAFTS : Glasswork That's Clearly Playful

April 29, 1993|ZAN DUBIN | Zan Dubin covers the arts for The Times Orange County Edition.

With two young daughters and another child on the way, glass artist Gavin Heath slaves over a hot furnace day after day to support his growing family. He doesn't want a speck of effort evident in his finished product, however.

"Hopefully," says the Laguna Beach resident, "people will be able to have some fun, have a laugh with my work."

Indeed, Heath often comes up with design ideas while crayon-drawing with with his daughters, Czara and Zoe.

A fellow artist recently told him, " 'You can see you hang around a 5- and a 2-year-old,' " he said. "That probably says it all right there."

Heath's work can be seen at the Eileen Kremin Gallery, which will be open during Friday's "A Night in Fullerton." The annual arts festival has free music, drama, dance and visual art events at 14 sites throughout the city.

Actually, his latest series didn't spring from quality time with Crayola. The glass sculptures he fashioned after African dolls hark back to his upbringing. Born in South Africa, he grew up in Cape Town, where colorful beaded fabric dolls made by the Ndebele tribe were ubiquitous, he said.

The dolls, often used at weddings and other ceremonies, "are really festive and fun and whimsical," he said. "That's kind of what I'm looking for amid all this confusion" of life in the '90s.

The figurines, about 18 inches tall, resemble the African Ndebele dolls carried by many import shops in this country. They feature bold primary colors, long tubular bodies, opaque golden neck rings (a common African personal adornment) and curly ringlets that stick straight out.

He blows a 2-by-2-inch "bubble" for the dolls' heads and "paints" on Picasso-esque facial features with an emulsion that he likened to a ceramic glaze.

"Africans paint their houses with things like drum designs and zigzags," he said, "so I decided to paint on glass."

He then encases the painted faces under a layer of clear glass, "dipping them in melted glass--heated to 2,000 degrees--like dipping something in honey."

His dolls range from $760 for a mid-size figure about 20 inches tall to $3,600 for one about 36 inches tall. On request, Heath will make smaller dolls, also $760.

After trying out different careers, including jewelry-making, aerobics instruction and a stint in the military, Heath studied glass-making in the late '80s at Palomar College in San Diego. There, he came to prefer glass-blowing above other such techniques as casting and fusing.

"It's probably the most instantaneous and spontaneous method, and you can design everything from a goblet to a paperweight to sculpture to dolls," said the artist, who also makes whimsical teapots (non-functional) and jars (functional).

He settled in Laguna Beach about eight years ago, drawn by the hilly, coastal terrain. He loves to surf and says the area reminded him of Cape Town.

"I had been traveling in the Middle East and Western Europe," he said, "and I probably would have moved on, but I met my wife-to-be (Shelley Ariel Heath), and one thing led to another."

Heath has also studied at the internationally renowned Pilchuck Glass School in Seattle but said he owes his greatest debt to Jon Stokesbary, a Cal State Fullerton associate professor of art who teaches glass and ceramics.

"He got me to let go of technique and just play with the medium," he said. "He wanted me to combine colors and forms, and he'd take my pieces and turn them upside-down. It opened my mind.

"My pieces don't always start out that good; they evolve," he added. "You keep playing and looking for a better form until you get your ultimate sculpted form. Sometimes you end up with something completely different from what you started with. That's what's really exciting."

The Eileen Kremin Gallery is at 619 N. Harbor Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 879-1391. For more information on "A Night in Fullerton," call (714) 738-6575.

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