For Robert Gary Parkes, it’s time to shut off the big glass furnace and say goodbye to the Loafing Shed studio he and wife Jeanette built in the Port Kells area.
After more than 50 years of work in the glassblowing industry, the award-winning artist is closing the doors and moving away from the place that has kept him busy making glass art over the past decade-plus.
“I’m not going to say I’ll quit glassblowing, because glassblowers never retire,” Parkes clarified. “But I’m turning 70 (on March 29) so it’s time to let the younger generation get busy. I’m hoping that this equipment ends up in a studio locally, and whether I’m involved in that or not, we’ll see.”
In 2009 Parkes converted a portion of a barn into a hot-shop glass studio and installed state-of-the-art glass-blowing equipment. The rural property on 184 Street has been sold, and the couple is moving elsewhere.
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^^ A quick look at glassblower Robert Gary Parkes' work displayed in the Loafing Shed's gift shop in Port Kells. pic.twitter.com/pY1MJcNB6J— Tom Zillich (@TomZillich) March 31, 2023
Over the years people have watched Parkes blow glass at open-house events, with final such weekends planned April 29-30 and May 6-7. Custom orders, including his popular memorial paperweights, will be accepted until April 30. Details are posted on loafingshedglass.ca, or call 604-612-2753.
Those colourful paperweights, filled with human or animal ashes, have become popular in recent years. A decade ago he made one as a favour for a neighbour, and the idea “just exploded” to represent around 50 per cent of his business, the artist revealed.
“The biggest thing that changed my business are those paperweights,” Parkes explained. “Cremation is a big thing right now, and when grandma’s ashes get put in an urn, sometimes families disagree over what to do with that urn – who gets it? Who wants it? So with what I make, everybody in the family can have a piece of that.
“And when I work on a project like that,” Parkes added, “I meet with the family and I want to know who the person is, their name, their story. I didn’t realize how much that would affect me, because I’ve had a lot of really wonderful experiences in here with people who’ve lost loved ones, but it’s draining emotionally. I didn’t expect that. Sometimes the most emotional people are the animal owners.”
STORY CONTINUES BELOW VIDEO (“Master Glassblower begins Final Series at The Loafing Shed”)
In 1974 Parkes worked with stained glass at a place on 200 Street, where the Cineplex movie theatre now stands. By the 1980s he went to work with Canada’s “Grandfather of Glass,” Robert Held, in Kitsilano, and then opened his own studio, where Parkes gets a hand from fellow glass artist Jay Regetnig.
“There aren’t that many 70-year-old glassblowers around, and I’m not going to be 80 running a glass shop, I just don’t see it,” explained Parkes, who said glassblowing is physically demanding.
“In my 30s I could do eight or 10 hours, daily, six days a week, but now, we started today at 10 and I’ll work until 2, and I’ll seem fine, but by dinnertime I’m walking around like Tim Conway,” he said with a laugh.
“There’s nothing I can do about that, it’s just physically more demanding on me now,” he added. “And I don’t work every day anymore. I have a 10-year plan, and I’m going to have the most fun I can and disobey as much as possible, as kind of my reward of 54 years of struggling in this industry to make it.”
Parkes said selling the home/studio property “was like winning the lottery,” with development planned in that northeast corner of Surrey.
He has fond memories of the place, like the summer days when it was so hot in the studio that he’d jump in the pool with clothes on.
The super-hot “glory hole” furnace he installed is among the largest in Canada’s western provinces, he says, and was perfect for the larger pieces (platters, big vases) he was making more often a decade ago.
As a writing project he wants to document Vancouver’s glass-art scene starting in the 1960s.
More recent history involves former Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts.
“She really helped make this place happen because she started an arts and culture movement in Surrey,” Parkes said. “The city came forward and started using my work for gifting becuase they were trying to present locally-produced items, rather than buying something from a store. So the work just kept coming, and the awards, too. It was an amazing response.”
He’s done glass props and work for movies including the Steven Spielberg-produced “BFG” and the thrilling “Snowpiercer” series, about a giant train circling the globe.
“I have no formal arts education, I just got in there and started working. I’m lucky, and have horseshoes in the wrong place,” Parkes said with a smile.
“I’ve got a lot of glass to get rid of, but not as much as you’d think, because during COVID, amazingly, those were some of our best years here. We did a lot of work, including those memorial paperweights.
“I want to pass that on to another artist who’s local,” he added. “You can pay the bills with that kind of service.”