Barb Zehentner McKinlay, kiln-formed art glass creator
By Pamela Brandt
After raising her children and making a career in business, scholarship winner Barb Zehentner McKinlay returned to her hometown of Dubuque, Iowa, to transition into a new career as an artist. She recollects that as a breadwinner for her family, “My creativity was limited to homemade Christmas gifts, and I was always working.” In this new phase of her life, she is determined to achieve her artistic dreams. “I decided it was time for me to express my creative self. And I taught myself how to make kiln-formed art glass.”
A defining moment came when she went to the studio of a glass blower and blew a glass. “I said to myself, ‘One day I’m going to make my own work.’” After she attended a workshop with her daughter at which she made a 2-inch by 2-inch fused glass ring tray, she knew that her future was in creating art glass. Today, the 3-seasons porch of her Dubuque home is a studio.
She is focused on attaining success as a working artist, although she admitted, “I’m just working on getting established now. But after I started making my designs, I realized I’ve been doodling and drawing them since I was a little girl. They’ve just been in my head, and I finally had the opportunity at this time in my life. It’s been really exciting for me to be able to finally get these ideas out and make them into something.”
Her creative output includes a variety of art glass pieces, both utilitarian and decorative, including dinnerware, glass paintings, and small décor pieces or centerpieces. Her most elaborate piece so far is a 7-foot-tall by 4-foot-wide multicolored glass mobile of giant flowers. She has also created a vibrantly geometric set of dinnerware in Hawkeye colors: black and gold.
The simplicity of some of her pieces reflects a look that was popular from the 1950s through the 1970s. “The first collection I designed was called the Geo collection, with polka dots and squares, very geometric looking. A lot of my designs are influenced by Mid-Century design. I grew up in a home where my Mom’s aesthetic was that very cool, sleek, modern design.”
Barb plans to bring items from 5 or 6 different basic collections to the fine arts fair at DubuqueFest. Her current collection, titled “Flowers in Relief,” uses deep relief so it’s possible to feel all of a piece’s flower petals. This dimensional texture adds to production time, so that some of the larger and more intricate deep relief pieces take over a week to create.
The process starts with glass she purchases in big sheets, measuring 2×2 or 2×4 feet. She mostly uses opal glass, which is opaque. Another choice is cathedral glass, which is colored transparent glass. After Barb cuts out the desired shapes, tiny fragments are transformed by an initial kiln firing into flower petals. She then designs the individual piece and its petal layout, using the kiln to fuse layers of glass. While a high temperature would result in a flat piece of glass, Barb prefers the relief and texture of low temperature glass fusing. “I really like that it’s not a flat piece of glass, that it has its little hills and valleys. I’m really enamored with having a lot of relief and a lot of detail in my pieces.”
In contrast to her work in the Geo collection, where several layers of simpler designs are fused within a single kiln firing, her more elaborate Flowers in Relief collection ultimately takes four firings. In a later step in the process, each piece is slumped over a mold to give it a final shape.
Barb owns two programmable electric kilns, each with an inside measurement of about 20×20 inches. All the stages in the firings can be programmed, depending on how she wants a piece to turn out. With an electronic kiln, there is no need to stand and watch through a peephole in order to perfectly time manual adjustments. Barb says, “It is sometimes difficult not to just peek in to see how things are going, but it’s not necessary.”
All of the glassware she creates is food safe and durable enough to be used daily. In her kitchen cupboard at home, she keeps a set of 6 polka dotted salad plates, imperfections from a commission of 250 plates for a Kansas City museum patron’s gift. There are no breaks or chips despite the fact that she and her husband use them regularly.
“It’s a meticulous process and I’m very picky before I put a piece in. So much goes into cutting the piece and sanding the edges so that they’re smooth and the corners are rounded so that they look pretty when they fire. There’s a lot of prep work that goes into cutting the pieces that I decorate with, or making the pieces, that I’m really meticulous before I will fire a piece. By the time you get to the firing part, you’ve done a good portion of the work, so I try to keep errors to the minimum.”
As a new artist, she is excited to be part of this year’s DubuqueFest Fine Arts Festival. “This will be my first art fair. Really, I’ve only been making glass for less than a year and a half.” Being awarded the emerging artist scholarship has made a difference. “I’m so thankful to the Dubuque County Fine Arts Society for recognizing that emerging artists can be of any age.”
“Just getting started and setting up a studio, with the expense of the glass and the kilns and all of my materials, I know I wouldn’t have been able to participate without the scholarship this year. I’m really appreciative of it. It gives me an opportunity, since I grew up here, to let Dubuquers actually see my glass, so I’m very happy about it.”
When festival goers visit her booth, Barb invites them to ask questions. “I’m happy to share my process, my thoughts on making the glass, so I’m open to any questions. The number of ideas in my head have apparently been piling up for years, so before I get one grouping finished I’m already started on another one.” Realizing that sometimes people are shy about asking questions, Barb says, “I plan on having a few informative signs in my booth that explain the process so people can read while they’re looking at the piece, to understand, and maybe feel more comfortable about asking a question.”
You can find Barb Zehentner McKinlay’s original kiln-formed art glass at the DubuqueFest fine arts fair in Washington Park on Saturday May 18 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday May 19 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For the most current information on festival happenings, see the Arts Schedule. You are also invited “like” the DubuqueFest page on Facebook or follow DubuqueFest on Twitter.