Central Kansas in the 1950s was no cultural Mecca. In fact, Vernon Brejcha didn't know too much about art until he left Holyrood for the big city Hays.
But the cultural vacuum let Brejcha, now an internationally known glass artist, do his own thing. He's grateful for that.
"The arts in Hollyrood were non-existent," Brejcha said. "I also think I was better off. I was free to do anything. Nobody programmed my art."
Brejcha, 47, teaches glass design at Kansas University and runs his own studio in North Lawrence. His blown glass has been shown in hundreds of exhibits, and he's won grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Kansas Governor's Artists.
ONE DAY last week Brejcha talked about his development as an artist as he worked, shirtless, before a broiling hot furnace on a muggy day. The studio, in an old storefront on Elm Street, is littered with his most recent works.
Despite the heat, Brejcha worked on, shirtless, heating and cooling glass at the end of a long pole with an open end. He blew a globe around two or three balls of color, then melted colored glass and painted a glass ring around the globe like squirting strings of mustard around a hot dog.
"Painters say watercolors are the hardest to paint with," he said. "They should try painting with a five-foot pole with liquid glass at 2,000 degrees."
HE SEEMS dead set on his ideas about artistic freedom, freedom from the constraints an early, heavy, dogmatic dose of the arts would bring. He said his independent philosophy came out of his life on a Kansas farm in Holyrood, located between Salina and Great Bend on Kansas 136.
"Most people growing up there were more or less content to farm," he said. "Fortunately, my dad didn't own the land, so my brother and I had to look for something else to do. My brother's a soil conservationist."
Brejcha's artist yearnings grew up on their own.
"I was always drawing," he said. "My earliest memories are of drawing. I was always drawing on the walls and on the floor."
It wasn't until Brejcha studied at Fort Hays State University that he even realized art was something he could do.
"When I was growing up I didn't ever know painting was done on canvas," he said. "The only art I knew was in comic books. When I walked into the art room in college I knew what I wanted to do."
HE EARNED bachelor's and master's degrees in painting from Fort Hays, teaching all the while at a high school in Towanda. He went on to study at Wichita State University, but a glass exhibit rolled into town, and he rolled out off to study glass art at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
"I saw my first hand-blown glass exhibit in 1968," he said. "It was in Wichita, and in fact it had come from Wisconsin. I was looking at the glass like I'd never seen anything before. I knew that's what I had to do."
At the time, Wisconsin had one of the few glass-blowing programs in the world. A teacher there named Harvey Littlefield was cooking up his own little revolution that changed the way people looked at glass. During the 1960s it changed from an industrial craft to high art, and Brejcha was there to be a part of it.
"FOR YOUNG glass artists today, there are things going on with glass technology that never happened before in the history of the world," he said. "It's a great time to be working. Most of the innovations before were mainly for speed in a factory."
Brejcha's glass objects seem to flow from ideas and images he saw growing up. One of the better-known series Brejcha created were long, thin ladles from windmill water pumps, a shape he turned into curved, flowing streaks of colored glass. He's also made glass globes that show impending storm clouds of pollution.
Right now, he's working on long, heavy clear-glass objects shaped like curling flames with colorful obelisks inside. The coloring around the interior posts changes from object to object, sometimes looking like a sandstorm, sometimes looking like blue sky.
BREJCHA SAYS the obelisks represent stone posts, like the thousands of stone posts he saw in and around the farms of central and western Kansas.
"I was trying to make stone post forms out of glass, to make them rectangular," he said. "I finally decided that glass was a liquid. It flows. So I inserted the posts in glass, and I created an atmosphere around them to indicate different sesasons of the year."
He's also created a series of glass awards for the KU Nursing School. This year, the school gave out 10 awards to outstanding nurses, and the nursing school brought Brejcha in to make them.
"I think it's wonderful these people are being honored," he said. "I was in the hospital recently and the nurses did more for me than anybody. Nobody works harder."
FOR THE award, Brejcha encased several colorful symbols inside a small-but-heavy clear-glass flame.
"Inside there's a flame and a birth symbol. There's also a little heart in there. The stuff is pretty literal."
Brejcha said he makes artistic choices based on how he feels emotionally on each subject. He feels strongly about the nurses; he also feels strongly about the environment. Those emotions keep the fire burning beneath him.
"I develop the glass with emotional fervor," he said. "The way I make pieces is pretty emotional. Then the next time I do the piece I try to put the emotion back in."
Brejcha said he enjoys having a studio separate from the West Campus barn where he teaches glass-blowing. It's a retreat. But that doesn't mean he doesn't like working with students. Far from it.
"I LOVE 'em. They're all great," he said. I've had two weddings that came out of the barn. They're both working together and supporting themselves."
Having taught at KU in the design department since 1976, Brejcha has sent a lot of students into the art world either as glass blowers or teachers. Many of them report a great deal of success, and Brejcha said he's happy about that.
But above all, he said, if he has any influence on them at all, he Brejcha them, as artists, to think independently.
"The best thing a teacher can do is let the students think. There's no way any educator can predict the future."