Nestled in the mountain forest of southeast Germany, the quaint village of Lauscha is as close to a real-life fairytale setting as you’re ever likely to get.
The snow-covered, slate-roofed town is famous for its Christmas markets, where the star attraction is an array of glittering handmade glass baubles and ornaments that have been crafted there for centuries.
Lauscha, the glassblowing epicentre of Germany, is also largely responsible for producing one of Australia’s foremost glass artists, who has now made his home on the Sunshine Coast, and whose own story is not unlike a fairytale itself.
Master glassblower Wolfgang Engel fell under Lauscha’s shimmering spell after visiting the town many years ago, before the reunification of East and West Germany. Then a young engineer from the East German town of Leipzig on holidays by the Baltic Sea, he met some glassblowers from Lauscha. They invited him to see their work, and he was transfixed.
“That’s when I saw the first time somebody blowing glass, and I thought that is something I would really love to do,” Wolfgang tells salt.
It wasn’t long before he had become dissatisfied with his work with a construction company, leaving it to pursue his true calling. He asked his friend the glassblower, Andreas Boehm, to teach him.
But changing careers from engineer to glassblower was not quite that simple – Wolfgang’s family, as well as the East German authorities, were not too thrilled.
“With my whole family [being] academics, they basically thought I had a stupid idea when I said I wanted to start glassblowing. Usually, you take over from your grandfather or your dad. In this area it is very traditional.
“[My grandfather] was a professor at university and he had organised my study as a civil engineer, and he saw me giving all this away for something you don’t know what the outcome is. It was a risky thing, but I really loved this material and I wanted to work with it.”
Eventually, Wolfgang’s family were happy for him when they saw his talent and dedication – but the East German authorities were harder to convince. They threatened to close Andreas’ glassblowing workshop down if he continued to teach Wolfgang.
Not to be deterred, Wolfgang visited Andreas in the morning for instructions, before honing his craft in the coal cellar of an old school friend, out of the way of the authorities’ watchful eyes.
He used leftover glass tubes that a scientific glassblower friend didn’t need, that had been discarded in the garden. Wolfgang rescued them and cleaned them up.
It wasn’t easy, but his determination overcame all obstacles.
“Everything that you made went wrong, and you just practised and practised and practised, and nothing turned out like you want it to. But I really wanted to do it. If you put your mind on something, it just works.”
It took him about three years to perfect his craft. With the hope of making his first sale, Wolfgang arrived at the Leipzig Christmas Market in the late 1980s, his old car packed with miniature glass vases, jugs, and wine glasses.
“Within about one hour, I sold everything I had, got back into the car and drove home. That’s how it all started.”
He later went on to build his own glass studio in the German artist town of Ahrenshoop on the Baltic Sea, where he refined his craft and was enrolled as a master glassblower after the re-unification of East and West.
Years later, he finds himself in another charming village – Montville, one of the jewels of the Sunshine Coast hinterland – where he lives with his partner Tina Cooper, a leading Australian glass artist.
His studio, the Red Door Glass Gallery Wolfgang Engel, sits alongside the Tina Cooper Glass Gallery on the same property where the couple lives. Tina’s work is on a larger scale, whereas Wolfgang’s work is finer.
His creations include vases, bowls, a series of candlesticks, and his specialty – glass pens and ink bottles, a centuries-old tradition originating either in Lauscha or Murano, Italy, that are in huge demand around the country.
He uses a torch – flamework – with ‘soft’ glass – soda-lime glass – that comes in handmade tubes from Lauscha, handpicked in person by Wolfgang. The colour of the glass depends on the metal used in it.
“I have to pick the tubes myself, because they’re all different sizes and different qualities, so you have to really make sure you pick them,” Wolfgang says. “For this kind of material, there is no other place except Lauscha.”
He explains that the majority of torch workers in Australia use borosilicate glass, also known as ‘hard’ glass, which he describes as a “totally different material”.
“It’s easier to work with; it’s much more forgiving, but you don’t have the brilliant colours like with the soft glass I’m using.
“But to work with the soft glass, really it takes a long time to get into it. Just the tiniest little mistake you do, and the whole thing just blows up. It takes a long time to learn.”
His current exhibition, in collaboration with Tina Cooper, is A Bug’s Life, which follows their highly successful The Honey Ant Collection. Starring an adventurous caterpillar named Jenny LaLa, A Bug’s Life features various delicate bugs and insects created by Wolfgang, some of which sit on Tina’s larger pieces, and some under glass domes.
Wolfgang also has some pieces featuring in this year’s Sculpture on the Edge competition, which has become an iconic event in the region that Wolfgang has embraced and made his permanent home.
“I’m really happy to be here,” he says. “I travelled Australia a lot, but I really couldn’t put my finger on anywhere else I would want to live.
“I’m absolutely sure [my late grandparents and father] would be over the moon if they could see where I’ve ended up, and how I’ve ended up, with the work I love to do, and I’m really passionate to do, and can make a good living from as well.
“What else do you need in life? I’m very happy that it turned out this way.”