Brownstein: Glass-making centre an enchanting escape from winter blahs

It’s been around for over 40 years, but Espace Verre remains one of the best-kept secrets in Montreal. Those who know about it flock there at this time of year to make Christmas ornaments.

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Camille Breton and her five-year-old daughter Samuelle are blown away. 

They’ve seen the results of the two brightly coloured Christmas ornaments they helped create at the Espace Verre glass-making centre in Pointe-St-Charles. 

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While Camille and Samuelle blow through a long tube connected to different masses of steaming, red-hot glass, staff tech Florentin Chaumet masterfully massages and shapes the resulting two balls into spectacular Christmas tree ornaments.

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“It’s like magic,” says the enchanted Samuelle, her eyes bulging under her protective eyewear.  

A little girl is blowing glass to create a Christmas ornament.
Samuelle blows glass to create her very own Christmas ornament. Photo by Dave Sidaway /Montreal Gazette

“It really is so amazing,” responds Camille. “I had heard about this place from my father-in-law, but had no idea what an experience it is. It’s like taking an adventure back in time. It’s like another world here.”

Glass-blowing is a time-honoured tradition around the world, following a similar process that has been handed down over the ages. Espace Verre’s basement area, where the magic is conducted, could possibly pass in the minds of the overly imaginative for some medieval facility, with its heirloom ovens and tools. 

Yet, while Espace Verre has been carrying the glass-blowing torch in Montreal for 40 years, it remains among the best-kept secrets in town. But those who are aware flock to it at this time of year to fashion their own festive ornaments.

A man shapes a Christmas ornament after a little girl blew the glass.
Samuelle watches Florentin Chaumet shape her Christmas ornament. Photo by Dave Sidaway /Montreal Gazette

Those less interested in giving their lungs a workout are quick to descend on the venue’s main floor, where they can purchase the creations — ornaments or an array of other glassware — of Espace Verre’s professionals.

Operating out of a converted 100-year-old fire station on Mill St. in a part of the industrialized Pointe few frequent, Espace Verre is more than a spot where the public can apply their lungs to the glass-blowing adventure. It also offers an array of presentations, seminars, lectures and classes spanning the entire gamut of the glass-making art form. Plus, in conjunction with Cégep du Vieux Montréal, the facility offers certified courses leading to a degree in the field. 

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“We have regulars who have been coming here for years around the holidays for the glass-blowing of their ornaments. This is one of those few events that can bring the whole family together. Young or old, people are equally mesmerized,” says Espace Verre’s Anton Pettigrew. 

He notes that this glass-blowing event for the public takes place only in the months leading up to the holidays, and that health and security precautions are taken seriously and strictly enforced. 

Pettigrew is also a student at the facility, focusing on glass fusing and glass casting. 

“For those of us studying here, the place is really such a treasure,” he said. “We are the only school in Quebec where we can learn all these aspects of glass-making.

What’s great about these kinds of workshops is that the public can see how glass is made. Mostly, people see glass only serving as a vessel, but once they see the stages it goes through to form it, they have a new appreciation for the entire process.” 

Chaumet has been at the craft at Espace Verre for 15 years, since he was 13. 

“It never gets boring, because no two creations are ever the same,” he says. “But this time of year is especially fun. There’s not much more gratifying than to see the eyes of children light up while making ornaments.” 

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A woman and her daughter stare on as a Christmas ornament is being made in the foreground.
Camille Breton and Samuelle watch as Martin Nawrocki adds the hook to Samuelle’s ornament. Photo by Dave Sidaway /Montreal Gazette

Espace Verre tech Martin Nawrocki’s task is to attach the hook on hot ornaments and then seal them up and put them into a less heat-intense oven. After time spent there, the ornaments are removed for a cooling-off process and their creators can pick them up a day later. 

“It’s kind of like an enchanted kingdom here,” says Nawrocki, sporting a festive mini-chapeau. “It fills even the most skeptical with joy. People don’t take glass for granted after leaving here. They learn to appreciate that it’s more than a vessel. It’s art. You can’t eat it, but it does make everything taste better.” 

A man is creating a Christmas ornament as a five-year-old girl and her mother watch.
“You can’t not love hot glass. It’s something to cherish. It is a handmade craft in a world where few take the time to do such work,” says Martin Nawrocki.  Photo by Dave Sidaway /Montreal Gazette

After a career in the construction trade, Nawrocki — Captain Hook, as he has been dubbed for his work on the ornament front — decided to switch métiers and became a student at the school. 

“I had been a weekend warrior working with hot glass for years here. I had been taking courses on the weekend, too. So, my wife said: ‘Instead of being miserable at your other job, why don’t you just do this?’ So I did. Now I’m just a year away from getting my CEGEP degree in the field, and I couldn’t be more thrilled,” says Nawrocki.

He then drops this pearl: “You can’t not love hot glass. It’s something to cherish. It is a handmade craft in a world where few take the time to do such work. It takes so long to become good at it, but if you do succeed, there are few rewards like it. I’m poorer now, but much happier.” 

Espace Verre is located at 1200 Mill St. For more information, visit espaceverre.qc.ca.

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A woman and her daughter smile as they look at a freshly made glass ornament.
Camille Breton and daughter Samuelle eye Samuelle’s new ornament before the hook is attached. Photo by Dave Sidaway /Montreal Gazette

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