Life in color: An artist’s secret trade

Photo courtesy of Dan Ness

Photo courtesy of Dan Ness

An azure doorway is sunken into a brick building like a tattoo on Canal street. The door lies open, welcoming the occasional breeze that flows through the shop, enrapturing the senses in the musky scent of flames. Inside, multicolored glass sculptures hang off the ceiling or carefully placed on shelves causing your eyes to bounce from one vibrantly colored piece to the next as they collide against sunlight. 

“I’d choose that one,” an employee told me as I looked for a small Lake Superior pendant for my mother. He gingerly pointed out to a deep sapphire version, “since you said your mom’s favorite color is darker blue.” 

I played with the pendant, held it delicately, twisting it between my fingers, awe-stricken by the shifting colors in one little piece of jewelry hanging off a thick onyx cord. I told him I’d take it. He nodded, I paid, and slipped a piece of paper in the taupe box that held the mystical necklace. He told me I could read all about his necklaces, because he’s the artist — “I make every one of them the same. But they all turn out different colors, it’s super cool.” 

Dan Ness in his store. Photo courtesy of Dan Ness.

Dan Ness in his store. Photo courtesy of Dan Ness.

“By the way,” his brown eyes scanned my own, “my name’s Dan — if you have any other questions about gifts in the future.” 

This encounter made me want to return — this artist, Dan, had a type of passion in his eyes I hadn’t seen in a lot of people. It had enough impact on me that I returned, bought another necklace of his on my own, and my eyes fixated on him carefully working with glass and fire in the back under white-brimmed glasses. The heat radiated into the store and molded itself onto my fingertips. 

Dan Neff is from Virginia, Minn. Neff is the creator, owner and artist at Lake Superior Art Glass store and is exactly who I encountered. 

Neff started this famous local business in 2012 and has been working and maintaining the shop full time since he graduated from UMD as a part of the outdoor recreation program, at the end of 2008. “I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life going to art fairs every weekend,” Neff said. “I was 26 when I started this.”

He said he’d always been creative. A driven, starving artist. More so in performing arts when he was young and in love with music. He played instruments and was constantly involved with music growing up. 

Neff said he thought that’s what he wanted to do in the future while he was in high school. That is, until a friend introduced him to a “secret art form” when he was 17-year-old high schooler. 

“I was captivated,” Neff said. Like his friend, he grew determined to become an apprentice of glass blowing.

When he was just 19 he made it his goal was to master “something like this”. He wanted to make it a hobby. Neff asked his friend’s instructor if he’d take him on as an apprentice and was met with a sudden no. 

Ness holding one of his projects. Photo courtesy of Dan Ness.

Ness holding one of his projects. Photo courtesy of Dan Ness.

“He said no, at first. He said it was a secret art form only few really got to know how to do.” About a month later, however, the instructor offered him a community ed class where Neff stayed after when everyone left class, working at his art sometimes until midnight. 

“It’s a hard art form, and I wanted to master it. I liked staying after, sometimes my instructor and I just talked as I worked on my art — he was a real hippie guy.” 

Neff said glass blowing is his passion and it commands all of his attention. He said he loves the discipline, the challenge of glass blowing and the focus which is “good for someone who is unofficially diagnosed with ADD”. 

Art offers him a sense of control as well as a platform to honor the natural beauty of Duluth. This natural beauty of Duluth and Lake Superior is what inspires Neff’s art. 

“The lake is my biggest inspiration. I love how much it changes — the fluidity of it — it’s like glass in that way. The movement of water reminds me how fluid life really is and my art is a platform that can express and capture that.” 

Duluth also reminds him of home — another inspiration for his art. “The community aspect of Duluth reminds me of home. The music scene I was involved with in high school is sort of reflected here.” 

Ness said Duluth feels familiar in that way.

“My favorite part about my art is communicating that sense of awe in the people that view my work,” he said. “Just for them to experience a glimpse of my passion in making that art — it’s a neat way for people to connect.”

CultureAbigael Smith