Ghost Pepper Glass Creates Mesmerizing Glass Blown Sculptures in East Austin
Owner Katie Plunkard teaches the fiery art of glassblowing at her studio and classroom
By Amanda Eyre Ward
Photos by Gregg Cestaro
“I first saw glassblowing when I was nine years old,” says Katie Plunkard, the owner and manager of Ghost Pepper Glass, a wonder of an art studio and classroom in East Austin. “I was on a family trip — a cruise. One of the ports was Malta. We toured around the island and ended up at a glass studio. I kind of got fascinated with it. I just got hooked.”
Plunkard stands in front of her studio’s main melting furnace, which burns at two thousand degrees Fahrenheit and is named “Beyonce.” Along with Education Coordinator Shara Funari and a team of fellow artists and instructors, Plunkard maintains the studio to teach glassblowing and have a chance to create.
Her dogs, Archer and Ghost, lounge on cots far enough away from Beyonce to feel a bit of the cool Austin night. The studio is named after Ghost, a white German Shepherd.
“I love spicy food, so Ghost is affectionately called ‘ghost pepper,’” she says. “Our logo has a fiery pepper, but on our t-shirts and business cards and everything, there’s a very subtle kind of hidden silhouette of Ghost in all the imagery.”
My husband and I have come to Ghost Pepper Studio to take an evening glassblowing class. We’ve been married for twenty years, so we jump at the chance for a “hot date” when we can find it. When I told him I had planned an adventure and to wear closed-toe shoes and bring lots of water, he smiled — ever game. Now, we stand in Katie’s studio, preparing to make our own treasures — I’m making an ornament, and Tip, a terrarium.
The studio hosts a variety of classes, from one-night dates and private lessons to team-building workshops to weeks-long craft seminars. (All the classes are listed on the website; Katie says her favorite groups are work gatherings where people start out nervous and end up laughing.) Ghost Pepper is also a gallery featuring the work of local artists like Michael W. Hall, Chaos Woods and Love Studio Ceramics. Katie’s own artwork is breathtaking.
“I play with patterns,” she tells me. “I love the type of glassmaking that utilizes something called cane, like candy cane — so sticks of glass, kind of ribbons of color. You create a pattern, and then you stretch it. Then you bundle it, twist it again.” Katie shows us a video of this process, and we admire her affordable and intricate glasses.
She also designs cups and vases that inspire thoughts of peacocks, trying to “emulate the feather pattern and the peacock eye and put it onto something.” Her favorite pieces (and mine) are sculptures she calls “urban aviaries.” They’re large vessels that Katie fills with scenes of birds and branches and flowers on the inside.
In the sweltering studio, my husband and I put on safety goggles, and I hoist a blow pipe. With Katie supervising carefully, I insert the metal rod into a furnace filled with glowing, molten glass. I turn the pipe, “scooping” up glass and then (again, with Katie’s help) moving it to a metal table where I twist the malleable orb in color. Jamming metal pliers into the glass blob to move the color around is immensely satisfying. Then I place my masterpiece back into the maw of Beyonce to heat the glass again. Katie explains there’s no thermometer because you can tell “from the movement and color” of the glass how hot it is, how hot it needs to be. (It seems important to point out here that I could not tell … clearly this knowledge, second nature to Katie, is earned through years of work.)
Eventually, we use a pump on one end of the rod (“No blowing during Covid,” Katie explains wryly) to inflate my glass into a sphere. Katie twists a “hook,” and we set my gorgeous object aside to cool. I love the way it turned out — a blue orb shot through with white I twisted a bit, like a dreamy winter blizzard.
Relaxing afterward at a picnic table in the side yard of the studio, I tell Katie how exhilarating and fun I thought it was to work with hot glass, to stand so near to Beyonce. “She’s a beast,” says Katie, grinning.