Last Run of the Rainbow Blower

 Glass artist feeds his passion and hummingbirds

Story and photos by WILL FREIHOFER

A nondescript metal outbuilding stands on the southern edge of Red Horn Road, placed exactly two miles off U.S. Route 93 towards the snow-capped peaks of Montana’s Mission Mountains. The dirt road doesn’t see many strangers, but if one were to pass they might expect a peek inside to reveal the normal mix of farm equipment, tools and feed common to folks in towns like nearby St. Ignatius. Until they hear the Sinatra, that is.

The building’s open red door reads “Gallery” in hand painted letters and leads into a well-lit room covered with brightly colored paintings and several racks of rainbow-hued globes. Each is adorned with a yellow tag and a small, curved tube projecting from the bottom. The orbs of hand-blown glass are hummingbird feeders, and a Bavarian-born artist by the name of Peter Reuthlinger is busy making more nearby.

Behind a sliding glass door, Reuthlinger sways to Sinatra in a concrete-floored studio that growls and glows with the sounds and heat produced by two 2,100-degree furnaces. Dressed in worn moccasins, sweatpants and a yellow shirt, Reuthlinger stares intently at a bright lump of molten glass on the end of a four-foot blowpipe ­­– but not for long.

“It’s got to stay warm,” said Reuthlinger. “You have to have a momentum, you know?”

Reuthlinger’s interest in glass blowing began in California’s Sierra Mountains in the late ’70s, when it struck him that an upside-down Coca-Cola bottle was a shoddy way to attract a hummingbird. Before long, he was studying under the world-renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly at the Pilchuck Glass School in Seattle.

For Reuthlinger, the path to St. Ignatius has included intercontinental voyages by sailboat, Volkswagen bus and aboard a camel in an African salt caravan. Now settled on Red Horn Road, his art mixes with that of his wife, artist Carolyn Stone. Their home, once the schoolhouse for their piece of the valley, wears a bright and healthy coat of the pair’s work on canvas, leather and glass.

Reuthlinger and Stone travel across the region to art shows, bird shops and garden centers to sell his one-of-a-kind art glass hummingbird feeders. His delicately hand-colored pieces now compete with a range of cheaper products made overseas.

“There are many now,” said Reuthlinger, waving his hand dismissively. “They make them in a mold. One looks like the other one – 10,000 green, 10,000 red.”

His own output is much smaller. On a good day, he said, he places around 40 colored spheres into his 900-degree annealer, which looks like a freezer chest, to gently bring the delicate glass down to ambient temperature to preserve its strength. Over the years Reuthlinger estimates he’s crafted over 10,000 hummingbird feeders.

“Perhaps that’s enough,” he said.

Next to the annealer sits a bathtub-sized bag of colorless glass shards. Reuthlinger predicts it will be the last one he ever buys. “After that, it’s done,” he said.

His wife seems less certain. “He says he’ll be finished,” said Stone. “We’ll see.”