Lessons from a Stonemason Grandfather: How Duluth’s Premier Glass Artist Built a Solid Foundation

Dan Neff gives a demonstration near the front window of Lake Superior Art Glass. Michelle Truax / mtruax@duluth.com
By Kathy Hanson

Dan Neff goes right to the heart of things when he says, “There’s no better compliment than a person purchasing your artwork.”

Surely, all artists would agree. Whoever said imitation is the highest form of flattery had it wrong—it is the need and desire to own the piece of art. What could be more flattering than that? It is like hearing the applause from an audience if you are an actor; seeing your book become a best seller; or hearing your own voice listened to by millions.

Dan Neff is a glass artist. He owns Lake Superior Art Glass, a business known as “Minnesota’s Premier Glass Art Gallery and Studio” at 202 E. Superior St. in Duluth, and another location—which opened in April in the Armory Fine Arts Building at 1325 London Rd. in Duluth.

Dan Neff

One of the most difficult mediums in art is flamework glass, where a torch or lamp is used instead of a furnace, to melt the glass.

Then the artist forms the glass by blowing and shaping it with tools and hand movements. In this way more detailed work can be produced and on a smaller scale.

Neff did not stumble into his work or talent. His story is one of perseverance, passion and sheer purpose.

“At a young age I learned a strong work ethic from my family, but especially my grandfather. He was a stonemason and I started working with him at age 11,” Neff relates.

This was in Virginia, Minnesota and his grandfather was teaching an 11-year-old boy how to lay bricks.

“When I tried, I would make a mess and he would tell me to do it just like he showed me, and I would tell him I tried but he made it look so easy.”

And that’s a story between a grandfather and grandson that’s been told many times except in this case, little Dan took the lessons and experiences—hard work, persistence and the importance of mastering a craft—and it stuck. The lessons “set.”

Neff played with glass for another two years and then decided he wanted to master the medium. He was 19, still living in Virginia, playing five different musical instruments and working full-time in a rock band along with also going to classes for his two year Associate of Arts Degree. He knew what he had to do: he gave up everything (except college) and dedicated his all to pursuing the mastery of flamework glass.

Several years later he was selling his work at outdoor summer art festivals around Minnesota, from Lake City to Ely.

This is when it got exciting, he relates—when he began selling his work: necklaces, earrings, animal figurines, chess sets and wine bottle stoppers.

David Royce

PROFESSIONAL LEVEL

A short time later he finished his degree at UMD with a Bachelors of Applied Science in outdoor recreation and education and at the same time began taking professional-level glass classes from world-renowned glass artists.

He was relentless and did this for three years, learning from more than a dozen glass artists and breaking into the art world of professional galleries, art shows and grants. He showed his work at the Uptown Art Fair, Edina Art Fair, American Craft Council Shows in St. Paul and Baltimore, Madison Art Fair on the Square, and Brookside Art Annual in Kansas City. Galleries from as far away as Portland, Oregon wanted to display his work.

TODAY

“Eventually I was encouraged to apply for a storefront giveaway, which is how Lake Superior Art Glass came to be just about five years ago, located in the Historic Artist and Theatre district,” Neff says.

After 14 years as a glass artist, Dan Neff (yes, his name is often mistaken for Don Ness, former Mayor of Duluth), at just 31 years of age, owns two glass art galleries. He is the sole owner with nine part-time employees. But he is, first, the artist.

THE ARTIST TALKS

“My inspiration is twofold. The first is technique based. Glass is a very technical medium. From the physical skillset to the chemistry of working colors, this aspect of the medium fulfills my desire to learn, practice and master.

“The second is my passion to express myself through glass. These two areas must exist in equal proportions. Without the technical side, I am unable to express myself. Without the passion there is no drive to continue the path towards mastery. Many have said that glass is an unmasterable medium. I face this challenge every day and try to convey this to people through my work by using techniques that will foster a sense of amazement in those who view my art.”

ARTWORK AND ARTISTS

Scott Hartley

The shops have contemporary marbles, unique image pendants, and wine bottle stoppers, all made in-house at Lake Superior Art Glass. The gallery also features more than 60 other artists who specialize in various techniques of glass art—anything from stained glass to cast glass. Neff notes his clientele is a broad pool of people, ranging from serious art collectors to folks passing by the demonstration window to those looking for a new medium for their own creative outlet.

CLASSES

A fully functional studio with introductory classes where students with no previous glassblowing knowledge can learn the basics of working with molten glass is onsite.

All of the classes give students an opportunity to work with a unique and unconventional medium: molten glass.

“Whether it is using colored pyrex glass rods and a propane/oxygen torch (known as flameworking) or traditional furnace glassblowing, students with no previous experience can see what it is like to create and shape one-of-a-kind projects with glass.”

Neff’s vision of his art gallery and studio is like the best cut glass—excellent and crystal clear. He says he will continue to foster an appreciation for glass art and strive to create lasting experiences through educational opportunities.

For more information visit lakesuperiorartglass.com.

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