Through a Glass Brightly: The Iconoclastic Kaleidoscope Table

Kinetic, quixotic, translucent, colorful. Words can scarcely convey what the soon-to-be-famous kaleioscope table is like. I encountered it here in my new hometown when my editor at the Sopris Sun, the Carbondale, Colorado community newspaper, asked me to check it out.

Because the table moves, you would think a video would best convey what it’s like. But a YouTube video that shows the table’s spinning glass plates in action doesn’t fully convey the way that the colors change and that the patterns interact. (You can see the video at the bottom of this post.)

The one-of-a-kind kaleiscope table is a collaborative work of art that took eight artists, engineers and fabricators more than seven years to produce. I wouldn’t have been surprised to find something like this at a gallery in downtown San Francisco. But Carbondale, Colorado?

Detail of jeweled glass

When I moved back to Colorado in the spring of 2011, and new friends suggested that Carbondale was the place for me, I worried about whether they had both oars in the water. I also suspected that they were seeing me in way quite at odds with the way I see myself.

When I knew Carbondale back in the 1970’s, it was a wide place in the road where there was a bait and tackle shop and a potato farmer’s co-op. It was a place you could roll out your sleeping bag for a couple bucks a night during a ski trip to Aspen. But that was about it.

Why would an urbane, artsy sort like me want to go there?

Since then, Carbondale has grown into a wonderful artists’ community. It’s a town of about 6,000 that features not only gorgeous scenery, but also great restaurants, frequent cultural festivals, and delightful art galleries. The Ravenheart Gallery on Weant Boulevard is one of them. Ravenheart has a bit of specialty in glass and when one walks in the front door, the kaleidoscope table takes center stage.

The half-ton table is made of four stacked orbs of glass, each more than six feet in diameter. All four balance on a steel stem, and only the lowest orb, which is made of clear and crackled glass underlit by LEDs, is fixed in place.

Above the lighted plate, everything rotates.  The second-to-the-bottom orb spins around to reveal rainbow-hued peacocks, ravens, rivers, fish, mountains, orchids and symbols. The third-level orb, which is divided into sections by three jeweled scepters; a detail of one of them is shown at the top of this post. This orb rotates across the two below, changing colors and flashing as its facets cross the lights.

The fourth orb, perched at the top of the stack, is composed of clear tempered glass. Although it protects the artwork below it and provides a dining surface, it also has a decorative job: it frames a large lighted dome of crystal that perches at the table’s center.

The table’s three decorated layers contain at least 16 kinds of glass: fused, dichroic, jeweled, stained, rippled, textured, seeded, mirrored, molded, crackled, watered, etched and beveled glass, to name a few.

The idiosyncratic table was the brainchild of Willa Doolin, who opened the Ravenheart Gallery in the spring of 2011. “I thought of this about 20 years ago,” said Doolin, “but it took 14 years to find the right people to make it, and for technology to catch up to my vision.”

Because of the table’s weight, and because three of the four orbs are supported only by the tensile strength of the glass plates themselves, the table required custom-made ball bearings. Two engineers and four different metal shops were involved in making the petal-shaped base to which the orbs are attached.

A sun and a peacock in the table. Doolin's family raised peacocks in Texas. Most of the symbols in the table have autobiographical significance.

Glass artist Mary Matchael, who drew the table’s designs for Doolin and fabricated the glass plates, said, “If anything was so much as 1/16 of an inch out of true, it wouldn’t work. The glass is essentially balanced on a pipe that is nine inches in diameter, and the plates extend out more than six feet. If a 200-pound man were to lean on the edge – and someone will because it’s a dining table – the table can’t tip. The base had to sit on the floor and be very stable. It took a lot of trial and error to get it all to work, to get it to rotate smoothly and quietly.”

Matchael is the owner of the Crystal Glass Studio, located behind the Ravenheart Gallery. Matchael cuts, cooks, and carves glass to create sophisticated architectural lighting, doors, windows and giftware. She has received commissions from all across the US. Despite nearly 40 years of glass-making experience, Matchael had to develop new techniques for adhering and attaching the glass plates in the kaleidoscope.

A school of jeweled fish swimming in the Crystal River; it's the river that flows through Carbondale on its way to the Colorado River.

If you’re looking for a distinctive dining room table, this one is for sale. The asking price: $200,000.

Doolin admits that she’s “rather conflicted” about selling the table. The art in it commemorates her sons, her birth constellation, the peacocks that her family raised in Dallas, and orchids that her scientist brother named after discovering them in the Amazon.

But no matter; now that all the kinks have been worked out, other kaleidoscope tables can be made.

“If a person wanted to commission a table like this, we would know how to do it now,” said Doolin. “We wouldn’t have to have seven or eight people work on it. It wouldn’t have to be as heavy; this one could bow a floor. It would have the buyer’s own symbols in it, rather than mine. Or it could be geometrical, more like a traditional kaleidoscope.”

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