By Kendal Groner
The arts community in downtown Erwin continues to grow with the new addition of the Union Street Gallery – a new business which features unique decorative art brought to life by glass fusing, plasma cutting and welding.
The owners, Jan and Vince Bowden, make quite the pair with their expertise and exuberant enthusiasm they bring to the work that they do.
“I think it’s going to happen,” Vince said about a growing art culture in Erwin. “I think we’re right at the beginning phase of it.”
Before they moved to Erwin, the Bowdens owned a successful art gallery in Ohio and for at least the last six months they have been moving their artwork and studio equipment into the building located at 100 Union St., just around the corner from Stegall’s Pottery.
“Now we just need to have some more artists move in,” Vince said.
“Then we could really have something going,” Jan echoed.
They have been rehabbing the 3,200-square foot building themselves, which has involved tearing out 10 walls and a stage, among other things.
“Our plan is to have the gallery up front and we’ll be making all the stuff in the back,” Vince said.
As avid bike enthusiasts and outdoor lovers, the couple was drawn to the close-knit community and the affordable cost of living that Erwin offers. Many of their pieces require a collaboration of their skills, with Jan specializing in plasma cutting and glass fusing, while Vince focuses on a metal medium in his welding work.
“The two of us make a pretty good team. We’ve been working together since 1992,” Jan said.
Jan explained that glass fusing is all about cutting glass through the utilization of a glass kiln, which has elements in the lid that provide a single layer of heat that reaches down to the glass.
“I can only fuse one layer, unlike pottery,” Jan explains. “I actually was a potter in college, but I switched to glass. You lay the glass on the kiln floor, and with fusing – fusing means two layers or more that are joined together – so you heat it up to a certain temperature and the glass will fuse together.”
Both Jan and Vince have been doing plasma cutting for over two decades. While sitting at a cutting booth with ventilation to prohibit dangerous fumes, they use a plasma cutter to turn various metals into beautiful works of art.
“It runs on air and electricity and when you pull the trigger, it can blow through an inch of steel,” Vince said. “This cuts aluminum, brass, steel, anything that conducts electricity.”
The plasma cutter allows them to work at high speed and create precise details in their pieces. They plan to purchase an even smaller plasma cutter for added precision and control.
Jan recalled when she first met Vince in Minnesota, where he is originally from, and how she didn’t know “jack” about welding. Although it was still apparent to her how skilled Vince was at welding.
“He’s been welding since he could walk,” Jan said. “Vince taught me everything I know about metal. I knew nothing before I met him.”
Vince said he has been welding his entire life and eventually taught Jan how to weld. Jan has now been doing it for seven years.
“I knew she was making progress because I’d come home and have to cut fewer and fewer welds out,” Vince laughed.
Vince’s welding skills have led him to various jobs from machining to his previous job which was working as a heavy equipment welder for five or six years.
“When you see someone that’s good at welding, it looks easy, but it’s not,” Vince said.
The Bowdens incorporate as many recycled items into their artwork as possible and say they draw heavily upon nature for their inspirations.
“I know that’s a common response from an artist, but it’s true,” Jan said.
One of their favorite pieces they recall creating together was a large piece for an outdoor art gallery at the Inn at Honey Run, a resort located in Ohio.
“That was our first really big commission,” Vince said. “The piece was called ‘Face of the Nations’ and it was the first commission where you really had to feel out what the person giving you the money wanted.”
Over the course of six months, they used recycled tanks to create a metal totem pole with birds and three faces, a tribute to the rich history and Native American heritage in the region. They were the first artists featured in the gallery and for the unveiling of the artwork, a primer cord was wrapped around the structure at night as people carried lit torches to illuminate the piece of art.
“We had to install it and luckily the piece was in sections … when we were done it was probably 900 to 1,000 pounds,” said Vince.
For those who are interested in learning plasma cutting, glass fusing, or rudimentary welding, the Bowdens will be offering art classes to share their craft with others.
“I love teaching students how to do this,” Jan said. “When I teach a class on how to make a piece of garden art, you’ll also learn very rudimentary welding. I cut glass, fuse and either incorporate it into metal or leave it as is on its own.”
On the first and third Friday of each month, Jan said she plans to have a Sip-n-Shop where residents can enjoy a drink while they are perusing art or taking a class. She mentioned working with breweries in Johnson City to provide attendees with options for local craft beer.
“Hopefully, someone else will pick up and say ‘hey, I’ll be open Friday night too’.”
The Bowdens expect to have Union Street Gallery open by August and expressed their excitement for bringing more opportunities for engagement in the arts to the Erwin area.
“I’m happy to be living here,” Jan said. “I look at this as a new opportunity and we are so excited.”