It’s 11 a.m., and the temperature is already a sweltering 95 degrees, cool in comparison to the workshop in which glassblowers Freddie Blache, Tres Johns and Gage Nobles were working earlier this morning. The trio takes refuge from the heat inside Satori Coffee House, just down the street from where they met as students at the University of South Alabama.
The artists, collectively known as Muffinjaw Designs, have been selling their work since 2016, appearing first at LoDa ArtWalks and other events the Mobile Arts Council helped organize. Over the past five years, their presence on the Bay has grown to include live demonstrations at local venues, as well as retail space in area shops. Now, relaxed in the air-conditioning and fueled by caffeine, the three give MB a peek into who they are, what they do and their vision for the future.
MB: What have you guys been up to this morning?
Freddie: We are in the midst of seasonal production. Right now, we’re making pumpkins, but in a couple months, we will start doing ornaments.
Tres: We’ve gotten pretty fast at making pumpkins. It doesn’t take very long to make one, but it took a long time to learn.
Freddie: Yeah, people will ask, “How long did it take you to make that cup?” It’s taken me eight years to be able to make a cup in 10 minutes. It took 30 minutes per cup in the beginning, but they were cups only a mother could love.
Tres: She still threw them away. (all laugh)
Gage: Glassblowing is tough; it’s very physical. It’s like being an athlete — you have to keep showing up. You have off days and you have on days.
MB: Do you have any battle scars?
Tres: I’ve got a lot. (pulls up his sleeves)
Gage: I nearly chopped my toe off once.
Freddie: I’ve burned myself more in the kitchen than I have working in the shop.
Tres: We break a lot of stuff. I broke a thousand things before I made the first.
Freddie: It’s never easy. It’s a lot of heartache. You have to be able to take failure and not beat yourself up. You have to be resilient.
Gage: It’s fun, but you gotta be tough.
Freddie: And it’s more than just playing with fire. We’re like mad scientists. I’m constantly battling physics. It’s chemistry, mixing elements to create color.
MB: Did you want to be mad scientists when you grew up?
Tres: I used to want to be a doctor. But here we are. I was a physical therapy major before I switched to art.
Freddie: I wanted to be a musician. In college, I started bouncing around majors. I was a history major, anthropology — I think I started out in marine biology.
Gage: I wanted to be a space cowboy.
MB: What does a space cowboy major in?
Gage: B.S. (laughs) But seriously, I did think I was going to be a welder.
Freddie: We are glassblowers, but we also focus on metalwork. As students, we made a 16-foot sculpture that’s still at South.
MB: Will you stick to only glass, then?
Freddie: No, that’s kind of why we chose to call ourselves Muffinjaw “Designs.” That opens up what we can do. We bought a welder, and I’ve been playing around with it. Not that I’m trying to take Tres’ thing. I’m more of a decorative person, whereas Tres is focused on making a statement.
Tres: I definitely focus on stuff that is more sculptural, a lot of mixed media. It’s more like a throwback to the beginning of the studio movement in glass, where it was just a bunch of guys winging it, experimenting. Art for art’s sake, essentially.
Gage: My favorite pieces to make are dragon-stem goblets.
Freddie: Gage is being modest. He specializes in goblets, which is one of the most technically challenging forms of glass. It’s about a 90 percent fail rate.
Tres: Yeah, I don’t try it anymore. (laughs)
Gage: It’s an adrenaline rush when you accomplish an art piece that you didn’t think you were going to be able to pull off.
Freddie: Each one of us brings something different to what we do. We have separate approaches to how we look at glass, how we make glass, what we specialize in.
MB: So, if I had two ornaments here, I could tell who made it?
Freddie: Not necessarily. That’s production work, that’s all three of us working together making one thing.
MB: Where are your products available?
Freddie: Right now, our work is just in Mobile and Baldwin counties, but we’re planning on branching out. I really encourage people to check out local stores. It’s really important to not only support local artists but also local businesses.
MB: Speaking of local, Muffinjaw Designs has partnered with local environmental contractors Osprey Initiative. Tell us a little about that.
Freddie: We’ve been working with Osprey Initiative for the past year. We melt recycled glass and pull it into cane, which is just a big gather of glass stretched to about a pencil diameter, 20 or 30 feet in length. From there, we break it up to make multiple canes. Then we spin them on a mandrel, melt the glass with a torch and shape it with various tools. We cool them, cycle them through the kiln, clean them up and send them off to Osprey. They string the beads on bracelets made from shrimp nets sourced from net makers in Magnolia Springs. So, it’s all local companies working together, trying to create positive change and bring awareness to what we are consuming and what can be done with it.
MB: Freddie, you and your better half, Caroline Gratton, have a daughter, Evie. Do you hope Evie grows up to be a glassmaker?
Tres: I mean, look at us. (all laugh)
Freddie: I will support her in anything she does. Part of me wants her to be a glassblower, but she can do whatever she wants. We joke and say she’s probably going to be an accountant.
MB: Tres and Gage, do either of you have families of your own?
Tres: I have a cat, Dizzy. She’s cute.
Gage: I want a monkey. (all laugh)
MB: Good luck with the monkey, Gage.
Freddie: These guys are like my family. We operate as a family business. Caroline does a lot of the production work with us, she’s at all the markets and demonstrations, and she supervises our social media. We all play an equal part. None of us would be here without the other.
Muffinjaw Designs can be found in Mobile at Red Beard’s Outfitter, Mobile Botanical Gardens, Urban Emporium and Innova Arts; Spanish Fort at Five Rivers Delta Center; Fairhope at Corner Copia Gardens.