Glassblower: ‘practice is key;’ Black artist finds a way to stand out and develop his own style

LOS ANGELES — Seated on a chair, with the hum of twin furnaces and the Impressions playing in the background, glassblower Cedric Mitchell is lost in his craft as he and assistant Sara Roller turn and sculpt molten glass with steel shears.

After a few blasts of a blow torch and several trips back and forth to the furnace, the red-hot glass on the rod turns cobalt blue and forms what will eventually become a 7-inch vase.

Color is the first thing you notice about the artist’s hand-blown glass vessels.

“I love color,” Mitchell says, “which is weird because I wear black every day.”

Mitchell, 37, was an emerging hip-hop artist in Tulsa, Okla., when he first considered glassblowing. It was 2012, and he was recording a song in a Tulsa music studio when he noticed his friend’s impressive glass bong.

“He told me about a studio in downtown Tulsa where I could take a glass-blowing class as an elective at my community college,” says Mitchell, who was studying business at Tulsa Community College. “I immediately signed up for the class at 1 a.m.”

Inspired by his friend’s bong, Mitchell had his heart set on making glass pipes.

But when he showed up for the first day of class at the Tulsa Glassblowing School, the instructor calmly explained that it was a nonprofit and that “we would not be making bongs,” Mitchell adds wryly.

Six months later, Mitchell was teaching glassblowing at the studio as an intern in exchange for practice time.

He stuck with it because it was difficult. “Glassblowing is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” Mitchell says. “It’s the most rewarding and also the most discouraging. Sometimes impostor syndrome sets in, and I wonder, ‘Am I even good at this?’ You must stay within the process instead of thinking of the outcome.”

When asked what inspires him, Mitchell’s list is endless: “I like graffiti, music, three-dimensional art, digital compositions that I see on Pinterest, furniture, Frank Lloyd Wright architecture, James Turrell sculptures. I also like a lot of fashion in bright colors. I used to be fashionable until I started blowing glass, and then I muted my color palette.”

Mitchell grew up in North Tulsa, a predominantly Black neighborhood where more than 35% of the population lives in poverty. When his mother remarried, his family moved to the South Side, where he attended what he describes as “a rich white school.” It was an experience that taught him how to “maneuver in both worlds.”

“I don’t know how I would have turned out if I had stayed in North Tulsa,” he says quietly. He remembers falling in love with music during his senior year of high school when he first heard Kanye West. “My English teacher told me I would be a great orator because I liked writing poetry and read a lot of Shakespeare,” Mitchell says. “She’s the one who tried to convince me to go to college, but I wanted to learn how to produce music like Kanye. When I learned how hard that would be, I studied business basics in community college.”

While famous glass artists such as Dale Chihuly and Rui Sasaki flocked to art schools like the Rhode Island School of Design, Mitchell’s path was uniquely his own. “I learned by working as an apprentice in the studio,” he says. “I kept showing up until they paid me.”

Mitchell notes that glassblowers are rarely Black. “When I did a Google search for ‘famous Black glass artists,’ I found three,” he says. (Therman Statom, Debora Moore and Ché Rhodes). However, the scarcity of Black artists in his chosen field made him more determined to succeed. He now says his challenge was, ‘How can I stand out?’ “I wanted to break all the design rules similar to Ettore Sottsass,” he added, “and develop my own style.

So Mitchell set about creating irreverent objects: hand-blown kinetic glassware that swivels on a ball, colorful stacked geometric shapes he calls totems and tall textured bottles with whimsical patterns.

The key, he says, was practice. “Robert Greene’s book ‘Mastery’ really helped me,” Mitchell says. “The main thing for me was improving my skill set through practice. I still embody that today: the perpetual practice of things.”

Mitchell’s bold style — something he calls “modern funk” — is informed by Sottsass’ playful Memphis-Milano Design Group of the 1980s, which blended bold geometric shapes with the primary colors of Pop Art.

By 2015, Mitchell was ready to leave Tulsa and devote himself full-time to his art.

He was still working at the Tulsa studio when he struck up a friendship with Los Angeles glassblower Joe Cariati. “I commented on one of his YouTube videos, and we became friends,” Mitchell says of his mentor. “Joe invited me to L.A. to a demo they were doing. I was sending my resume to studios, and everyone wanted me to do interviews. When I asked Joe what to do, he offered me a job.”

Mitchell moved to Los Angeles, which he calls a “healthy melting pot of creatives,” with only his bike and two suitcases. Upon arrival, he rode his bike to El Segundo from Culver City to get to work at 7 a.m. as Cariati’s assistant.

The COVID-19 pandemic, however, is what “lit the fire under me,” he says. Worried that he could not continue working while everyone was staying home amid pandemic-related closures, Mitchell took advantage of a 30-day free trial and created a Shopify account for solo makers to showcase his work.

His efforts were worthwhile. The account caught the eye of longtime California design studio Heath Ceramics. “We were taken by his postmodern-like shapes and juxtaposition of bold colors,” says Heath co-owner Cathy Bailey. After crafting pieces in line with Heath’s seasonal collections for some time, Mitchell created a stand-alone showcase that blended vibrant, geometric pieces and traditional patterns. “Our best partnerships are when we both inspire and push each other in unexpected ways; working with Cedric is one of those,” says Bailey.

Mitchell agrees. “Heath was one of the best things that happened to me,” he says as he stamps the bottom of a vase for Heath’s summer seasonal collection. “They gave me the opportunity to get better.”