An open door to art

Gavin Heath is one of two dozen Laguna artists who will invite the public into their studios this Saturday.

September 29, 2011|By Cindy Frazier
  • Glass artist Gavin Heath demonstrates the art of glass blowing in his Laguna Canyon studio. Heath will be a featured artist in this weekend's Artist Open Studios tour.
Glass artist Gavin Heath demonstrates the art of glass… (DON LEACH, Coastline…)

Gavin Heath was a competition surfer making his way from his native South Africa to Hawaii — and planning to end up in Australia — when he landed in Laguna Beach and found work in the surf clothing industry.

It was the mid-1980s. Heath had always concentrated on sports and never thought of himself as an artist, but when he was exposed to the art of glassblowing, something clicked.

Glass is a liquid — a slow-moving liquid — and maybe that's what drew the surfer to the medium, which requires skill, strength and scientific knowledge to master.

Growing serious about the field, he studied at various schools, including Pilchuck Glass School in Seattle and at Cal State Fullerton's glass-blowing program. He worked for a time for noted Laguna glassblower John Barber, all the while creating his own designs and selling them. His work began appearing in prestigious shows.

By 1991, he had purchased a property on Laguna Canyon Road next to Barber's studio, making what he calls Tribal Dolls, inspired by folk art from his native land.


The dolls, which can be as tall as six feet, have a raw, primitive quality that he says evokes the spirit of the South Africans who were displaced from their homeland under apartheid, in which native people were officially barred from the white-dominated society.

"That [apartheid] was what drove me away from South Africa," he said. "They took everything away from the tribal people, and these dolls show the spirit of the people."

As soon as he started making the colorful dolls, his career was set.

"The African dolls took off," he said. "Neiman Marcus bought 50. Twenty years later, I'm still making them."

He says his secret is to remain playful.

"I use clashing colors, zig-zags, spirals. If I try too hard, I'll blow it." (Pun not intended.)

He also makes life-sized African animals, giraffes, gazelles, zebras and masks, formed in glass using a pair of furnaces that he made himself. The glass is created by melting huge bags of silica sand at temperatures higher than 2,000 degrees.

It is an intensive process of picking up the glass from the red-hot furnace on a steel rod, cooling it enough to be malleable, then gently blowing through a hole in the rod to form a bubble. The glass can be twisted, pulled, and formed into any shape imaginable.

Coastline Pilot Articles Coastline Pilot Articles