BELFAST, Maine — It was the throw of a dart that brought Brian Frus and his family to Maine from Florida last year, but it was the vibrant midcoast arts community that helped them mold a new home.
That’s just fine with Frus, 43, a professional glass artist and educator whose exuberance for his art is matched by his enthusiasm for teaching.
“I’m arriving in a place where I’m an unknown,” he said. “For myself as a creator, I want to be rediscovered in this community. It’s important for me to make work and make a mark and become a known entity.”
He’s doing that in Belfast. Last month, Frus and his wife, Stephanie Natale, 39, opened Mainely Gallery & Studio on Searsport Avenue in Belfast. They offer community classes in glassmaking, host artist lecture series, invite artist residencies, operate a cafe and hold shows. It’s a busy, eventful place, which is how they like it.
Clockwise from left: Brian Frus (right), glass artist and instructor, works with two of his students, Anna Homola and Tillman Crane (background) during a glass blowing class at Waterfall Arts Glassworks in Belfast on Thursday; A glass pitcher is put into the glory hole, a hot chamber used to reheat glass to make it malleable again, at Waterfall Arts Glassworks in Belfast; Brian Frus, who teaches glass blowing classes, works with Tillman Crane as he rolls the hot glass on a steel surface at Waterfall Arts Glassworks. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN
“It’s a very versatile space. It’s more than just a store,” Natale, the gallery director said. “Creation, community and commerce — those are our important pillars.”
Frus is also teaching and renting space at Waterfall Arts, a community art center that last summer opened Waterfall Arts Glassworks in the basement space formerly known as the “Fallout Shelter.”
That’s where he was on a steamy morning last week. The 1,000-square-foot glass studio is the first full-time, community-based public access glassblowing facility in Maine. It also may be the greenest glass studio in the country, Frus believes, because the furnaces are heated by electricity and biofuel instead of fossil fuels. The biofuel is waste vegetable oil donated by local restaurants.
It’s there that the magic of glassmaking happens. On that morning, he and two students focused on the work of alchemy before them: transforming white-hot molten glass into something else entirely.
The three moved quickly but carefully around the two furnaces, one of which burned at more than 2,000 degrees, as they worked together to shape and sculpt the liquid glass as it cooled. The end result was a pitcher — functional art that was made one-of-a-kind thanks to the ripples and slumps it bore as a mark of its journey through heat.
“As a working process, glass is unlike anything I’ve ever done or tried or worked with ever before. It’s akin to sculpting lava,” Frus said. “It’s magical, it’s molten, it’s intimidating and intense. It’s humbling. It’s this choreographed dance with fire, and my partner, glass, is quite alive. It keeps me on my toes.”
Clockwise from left: Colorful glass rods in the studio at Waterfall Arts Glassworks in Belfast; Brian Frus, a glass artist and instructor who recently relocated to Belfast, heats and stretches glass in his studio, Mainely Gallery & Studio on Searsport Avenue in Belfast; Brian Frus gives instruction to Ann Homola as she blows into molten glass using her blow pipe while rotating it to give the glass shape and size. Homola started taking glass blowing classes with Frus in August at Waterfall Arts Glassworks in Belfast and said she enjoys the challenge. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN
It’s clear that Frus loves that dance and is happy to share it with dedicated glass-blowing students like Ann Homola of Old Town, who started learning to make glass at Waterfall Arts last summer.
“It is really challenging,” she said. “There’s a gazillion things to think of. It is sort of alchemy — you take this blob of glass and can make it into anything.”
Homola, who has made drinking glasses, vases, pitchers and more, said that the process forces you to concentrate and really be in the moment.
“To think that I can make this, I blow my own mind,” she said of her glass creations. “You can take a lot of satisfaction.”
Frus is familiar with that feeling. He fell for the art form as a high school student when he went to a weekend glass blowing workshop with his dad. They both loved it, and eventually brought his younger brother with them to workshops and classes. For Frus, working with glass felt more like a calling than a hobby. So when he went to college at Jacksonville University in Florida, he majored in glass art.
“I was at the prime age that I was discovering something that aligned with a lot of my interests,” he said. “I never, ever thought about doing anything else.”
After getting his master’s degree in fine arts, he worked as a glass studio manager, visiting professor and then the director of education at UrbanGlass in New York City, a nonprofit public glass studio. In 2010, Jacksonville University hired him to be an art professor and eventually he oversaw the glass art program there.
For Frus, it was a pretty dreamy gig. But in 2021, he and his wife and their two children Penelope Danger, 9, and Juniper Wild, 6, decided to make a change. They wanted to go somewhere else and decided to leave the specifics up to chance.
“I threw a dart at a map of the U.S.,” Natale said. “I aimed for New England. We ended up in Ellsworth.”
Clockwise from left: Ann Homola shears the mouth of the pitcher she is making in one of her glass blowing classes with Brian Frus at Waterfall Arts Glassworks; Brian Frus instructs Ann Homola as she rolls molten glass on a flat metal slab during a glass blowing class; Brian Frus, a glass artist from Florida, recently relocated to Belfast with his wife and children and are already active in the community. Along with their new studio on Searsport Avenue in Belfast called Mainely Gallery & Studio, Frus is teaching people how to blow glass at Waterfall Arts. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN
Last fall, they moved north to the Hancock County community, where their kids experienced their first winter while the family figured out how they might fit best into Maine.
“Once we got up here, we discovered Belfast. It’s a place where we started to have opportunities,” Frus said.
One such opportunity presented itself at Mainely Pottery, a venerable pottery studio and gallery that for many years had been run by husband-and-wife team Jamie Oates and Jeannette Faunce. After Oates, a potter, died in the spring of 2021, his wife decided she didn’t want to keep the business going without him.
“We literally wandered in a day before it closed,” Natale said.
She and Frus liked what they saw and decided the space would be a perfect fit for a glass studio and art gallery of their own.
They bought the property from Faunce this spring, filling the light, bright space with their energy, ideas and art. The gallery’s current show, “Brian Frus: Made You Look,” features 30 of his works, including “River Table,” a massive, 14-foot sculpture representing a river’s journey from freshwater to saltwater. There are tall grasses and cattails, graceful fish and delicate lily pads and flowers — all made of glass. It took about eight months to complete when he created it for a 2015 exhibition at the Cummer Museum of Art in Jacksonville, Florida.
“I say it was a labor of love. It took an awful lot of labor, driven by an awful lot of love,” Frus said.
From left: Ann Homola is talking glass blowing classes with artist and instructor Brian Frus at Waterfall Arts Glassworks; Brian Frus, a glass artist and instructor who recently relocated to Belfast, talks about his piece called River Table in his studio, Mainely Gallery & Studio, on Searsport Avenue in Belfast. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN
He and Natale are excited to show it, and the other works, to Mainers and visitors who might happen by the gallery. It’s the first time that “River Table” has been viewed since its Florida debut. So far, reaction to it has been gratifying. It’s the kind of art that makes people stop and take their time as they absorb the details and surprises, like the tiny glass snails climbing up the reeds and roots emerging from the river.
Frus hopes that curiosity about glass art will light a spark in people, who may go on to try their hand at Waterfall Arts Glassworks or at the classes and workshops he’ll teach at his studio. He knows well how a spark can grow into a fire, how glass can catch you and not let you go.
“I feel really alive now in my career, because there’s new things happening,” he said.