By JEANNIE WILEY WOLF
Work for Kelly Crosser Alge is more like play.
The Findlay artist has developed an art form she calls sgraffito, a process that uses fused glass powder to create drawings and collages that are then fired in a kiln.
“Sgraffito is a term, it means scratched,” said Crosser Alge. “And what we’re doing is laying down the powdered glass and then scratching away the places you want to keep white. So it’s almost like scratchboard where you scratch off the black to show the white.”
The method has become so popular, she teaches workshops across the country as well as here.
“It’s challenging, but it is a lot of fun,” she said. “People are surprised at themselves, what they’re able to do when they’re finished.”
Crosser Alge grew up in Findlay and graduated from McComb School in 1990. She majored in art at Ohio Northern University where her mother was a professor.
“They didn’t have glass though so I couldn’t nail down an art concentration,” she said. “I did a lot of drawing. I did a lot of ceramics.”
After three years, she married Kris Alge, who is a teacher and coach at McComb School. They have four children.
“I started teaching home-school art lessons. That’s what I did for a long time,” Crosser Alge said. “And I just saved my money and bought all kinds of art supplies and taught what I felt like teaching and learning.”
Eventually she decided that she wanted to learn how to make glass beads and signed up for a class in Columbus. When the teacher got sick and canceled, Crosser Alge opted for a spot in a glass science class.
“It was really boring,” she said. “What they were doing was trying to figure out formulas to make glass melt together at different temperatures so that it would be compatible and not break apart once it was melted together.”
Different types of glass have to be very close in range to melt together and then not split apart, she explained.
“It was interesting once we got to melting things together. Of course, pyromaniac me, I like that kind of stuff,” she said.
That was her introduction to working with glass.
“I didn’t get to make beads, but it was still cool,” said Crosser Alge, 42. “And I did eventually end up getting a torch and fooling around with beads and decided I didn’t really care for that anyway.”
Using the money she earned from art lessons, she bought a small kiln and began experimenting with scraps of glass.
“I kind of built on it from that,” she said.
She made glass jewelry for 15 years which financed building an art studio at her home. But she grew tired of jewelry and moved on to this new method of drawing with glass.
“I said, ‘I really have to start making art for myself again,'” Crosser Alge said.
“Experimenting with some of the materials that are available, I’ve developed a technique that is kind of my own,” she said.
Crosser Alge starts with a plain sheet of glass, then uses powdered glass on top of it to create a drawing. She describes the method as a “subtractive technique” on her website; light areas are created by scraping away the powdered glass, while dark areas are made by adding piles of powder.
She manipulates the powdered glass with all kinds of tools ranging from a business card to her fingers.
“I do a lot of trees. People seem to think trees are really hard, but everybody likes trees,” she said.
After pouring some of the powder on a glass panel, she uses the edge of a business card to drag out the branches.
“You’re just splitting the lines and dragging them away from one another,” she said. “And I switch hands a lot because it’s easier to do. I’m not ambidexterous or anything like that. It’s just easier to do it if you’re on the left side with your left hand and if you’re on the right side with your right hand.”
Crosser Alge said trees also look more realistic if they’re drawn upside down.
“For some reason, they just flow better upside down,” she said. “It takes a little bit of practice, I mean a serious little bit, not a lot.”
Making a change on the drawing is as simple as sliding the powder around.
“If you don’t like something or you want to adjust it, you just slide the powder over. So it’s so much less frustrating than drawing and erasing,” Crosser Alge said.
“If you screw up you can add more glass on top of it, so it’s kind of a take away and add process, back and forth,” she said.
She has used a similar method to teach children how to draw using a dry erase board, some dirt and a business card.
Crosser Alge adds other colors and pieces of glass to make collages and scenes. She tries to save all the bits and pieces that are left over because they might work in a future project.
“Glass is super, super expensive. One big sheet is $100, so I save as much as I possibly can,” she said. “When I started, I didn’t have the money for any of this stuff, so I would go through the dust pan and save every little bit. I’m still doing that.”
She also invents her own tools.
“When I started doing this, there really weren’t any tools because it’s not really an art form that’s recognized,” she said. “So I visited the dollar store and I came up with a lot of great tools.”
Pencil top erasers make sharp, chiseled lines, she noted. And the feet cut off a rubber lizard are good for making blades of grass.
“I’m always on the lookout for something I can make a tool out of,” she said. “The other part I think is fun is just trying to figure out how to use these things.”
When the drawing is finished, Crosser Alge fires it in a kiln to make it permanent. Firing at a lower temperature makes for a more textured finish, while firing at a higher temperature results in a flat, shiny finish.
Once she developed sgraffito, she wondered if she’d be able to teach it to others.
“I got a group of people together that I thought would be the worst nightmare of a class I could come up with and tested it out on them to see if they could pick it up, and they did great,” she said.
“So I’ve been teaching this. I’m teaching drawing to people who don’t have any drawing experience, but using glass as the media. And I’m finding that it’s a lot easier for people to learn the drawing skills when they’re not using a pencil. It’s a lot less frustrating for people to learn those skills using glass than what they would imagine it to be,” she said.
She said it’s exciting for both of them.
“I kind of live for those ‘aha’ moments when you see somebody get that I can do it, and they see that success. I love that,” Crosser Alge said. “People are a lot better at this than I thought they would be, and I’m probably going to put myself out of a job at some point.”
She’s held workshops all over the country, including Texas, Oregon, Washington and Missouri, and has made arrangements to go to Illinois, Colorado, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Canada in the coming months.
Students from Akron, Cleveland, Georgia, Chicago and eastern Pennsylvania have also come to her studio for classes.
“I love teaching. I feel like I’m getting paid for doing nothing workwise,” she said.
Crosser Alge said it’s challenging in some ways because it’s a method people have never done before.
“It’s a totally different approach,” she said. “It’s like starting a puzzle, only you don’t have a picture on the box, and the pieces aren’t even made yet. You have to make all the pieces, and you have to figure out the pieces.”
In addition to teaching, Crosser Alge does several craft shows each year and sells her paintings on dailypaintworks.com.
“I feel like I have to do the outside art shows just to lead people to that site,” she said. “It’s too hard to show people what this is really like with a photograph. They have to see the real thing.”
She also did a 30-day challenge on her website for people to learn how to do sgraffito.
“I made up a little challenge each day in January and I thought I’d get 10 to 12 people who wanted to do it. I got almost 700 from all over the world. So that’s how this whole thing got started I think,” she said. “And I’ve got a really heavy strong following on Facebook of people that are doing this. They’re really doing some cool stuff.”
Crosser Alge said she enjoys the method because it’s fun, spontaneous and easy to fix.
“There’s really not a right or wrong way to do it,” she said. “I think it’s neat, too, because it’s so easy for people to be successful at it.”
Send an E-mail to Jeannie Wolf