Customers get blown away by glass sculptures from Fort Lauderdale studio

Harold and Helene Rosen were searching for someone to design an unusual piece of abstract sculpture made of glass for their Boca Raton home.

So was developer Terry Stiles, who wanted to exhibit a large hand-blown glass sculpture in the lobby of his company's new office building on Las Olas Boulevard in downtown Fort Lauderdale.Both turned to Crystal Vision Studios & Gallery, which says it's the only business in South Florida where artists blow hot glass, create original stained glass art and run a gallery as well."It's a commercial enterprise developed by art," said Harold Rosen, a builder who also purchased a clock made of blown glass from Crystal Vision's co-owner, artist James Thibeaux. "I'm just elated over the pieces. I look at them every day."

Thibeaux and co-owner Tom Strang, also an artist, run their business out of a 3,700-square-foot building at 1400 NE Fourth Ave.

"We've always been driven with a passion to create art and glass, not the commercial aspects of it," Thibeaux said. That's why Crystal Visions relies mainly on word of mouth and repeat customers and doesn't sell retail supplies to hobbyists.

Strang and Thibeaux met in 1972 when they were art majors at Florida State University in Tallahassee. Both were selected to participate in a glass-blowing class and got hooked. After college, they and a third partner opened a studio in Miami's Little Havana.

While that business tried to stay afloat, Strang kept his day job teaching racket ball at a health club.

In 1981, Strang and Thibeaux moved the studio to rented space on Northeast Third Avenue in Fort Lauderdale and started Crystal Vision.

"For the next five years, we struggled to get the business off the ground," Thibeaux recalled. The two spent much of their time making stained glass windows, lamps and entryways.

But they were itching to blow glass again and to own their own building.

Thibeaux accomplished part of that goal when he set up a glass-blowing program at the University of Miami that later became part of the art department's curriculum.

Crystal Vision's success also began to grow, as high-end clients commissioned expensive work, such as custom beveled, hand-painted stained glass domes and archways.

Strang, who does most of the stained glass work, said one client paid $60,000 for a hand-painted Tiffany-style window.

By 1999, Strang and Thibeaux were in a position to accomplish their second goal. They bought the building where Crystal Vision is now located because it was in an area targeted for redevelopment. "Being stashed away in an industrial zone wouldn't have given us the exposure we wanted," Strang said.

The building houses a gallery, a work area, a "hot shop" where glass is blown and a viewing area.

About 60 percent of the business is stained glass and about 40 percent is blown glass. Stained glass comes in flat, hand-rolled sheets. Blown glass is three-dimensional.

The art displayed in Crystal Vision's gallery is mostly blown glass pieces ranging from small vases and goblets to large sculptures. Prices run from $50 to $10,000.

Strang said last year, the business did about $160,000 in sales, quite different from the early days when Thibeaux was so broke that he slept on a couch in the shop.

"Our goal as a business would be to do corporate work or art in public places exclusively," Strang said. "But we also don't want to forget our roots. If someone wants a small stained glass bathroom window that's only 12 by 12 and costs $200, we'd do it."

The men said their business got a huge boost from the Stiles project at the Las Olas City Center, where 30 pieces of colorful hot-blown glass made by Thibeaux are displayed on a wall in the lobby.

Developer Stiles said he was impressed with Thibeaux's work and was glad to hire a local artist. "The guy gave us 140 percent. He really got into it and did way more than we expected him to do," he said.

Stiles said he decided on glass for the new building because it was unusual.

"We wanted something different," he said. "When you put lights on glass, you not only get the glass, you get what's behind it. We took relatively few pieces and made the entire wall alive, with light refracting on it."

The Stiles project led to about a half-dozen commissions from private collectors, including the Rosens.

Rosen said he turned to Thibeaux because of his work at Las Olas City Center.

Thibeau produced an unusual circular multicolored sculpture for him that took almost a year to design and create.

"It had been years that I'd been looking for someone to create this, someone with creativity that I could trust," Rosen said. "I'm absolutely thrilled with his work."

600450 Customers get blown away by glass sculptures from Fort Lauderdale studio
Date: 24 January 2004

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