Summer is the perfect season in Santa Fe for trying something you’ve always wanted to do but never had the time or the motivation to learn. There are a lot of cool people in Santa Fe who do cool stuff and are willing to show us how. So I signed up for stint in self-assigned summer school and here’s what I discovered.

The Glassblowing Experience

Glassblowing is the kind of thing you see at a ren faire and you're like, "Oh man, that's pretty cool! I kinda wish I were that guy, minus the laced-front leather pants!" But it is shockingly easy to do, with help.

Playing with 2,400-degree goo would be super scary if it weren't for the careful guidance of people who make sure a) you don't set yourself on fire and b) you go home with work that looks amazing. For $175, you get an hour of time with an instructor in the studio, enough to make three or four little objects. It costs the same whether it's just you or a group of three.

Jackalope glass artist Ira Lujan can totally help you blow.
Jackalope glass artist Ira Lujan can totally help you blow.

Prairie Dog Glass is that brightly colored atelier at Jackalope (you know—behind the prairie dog enclosure?) where you can buy all sorts of glass yard art, Christmas ornaments, drinking glasses and other objects. The classes are just a part of what it offers. The day I came in, the shop was manned by Ira Lujan who, like the other staffers, is a glass artist who works at the shop partially in exchange for access to the equipment; this spring Lujan had a solo show at the Institute of American Indian Arts, presenting contemporary work that plays on traditional forms and themes.

But Lujan is also a patient, reassuring teacher who definitely monitored where the hot molten glass was going, but quickly handed me the blowpipe and let me take over. He had me rolling the glob in colored chips and guiding it into the glowing-hot glory hole (that's what it's called) to melt the color into the glass. He propped the pipe on a table and had me blow into it to inflate the glowing glob, then pointed me to a bench where I sat and rolled the pipe as he manipulated it with ancient-looking tools. Then he passed me the tools and let me use them.

The idea of glassblowing is simple, but the execution requires strong lungs, steady hands and a carefully controlled fear of third-degree burns. I had chosen a small fluted bowl from the glassblowing menu, which also includes things like long-stemmed flowers, globe-shaped paperweights and translucent chile peppers. The menu says it takes about 25 minutes to make and that's probably about what it actually took, although I stayed and pestered Lujan for a while afterwards.

He told me some people want to make objects that include the ashes of a loved one. It sounds kind of gruesome, but there's something lovely about getting family together and using some of Dad's ashes to make a series of Christmas ornaments or glass hearts that each person could take home. I immediately thought of our creaky 13-year-old cat Vizsla. Wouldn't paperweights in the shape of delicious cat poops memorialize her perfectly? I might be back to Prairie Dog after the old girl goes.

Prairie Dog Glass
Glassblowing Experience:
$175 (total) per hour for up to 3 people
Jackalope, 2820 Cerrillos Road, 216-1699
Open 9 am-6 pm daily

Tracing the Roots of Chocolate

Over at Cacao, owner Melanie Boudar says many visitors who do her two-hour Food of the Gods chocolate immersion workshop also do glassblowing while they're here. Why not act like a tourist in your own town? Boudar is a passionate chocolatier whose vast knowledge of the history of chocolate is deeply engaging, and by the end of this two-hour class, you'll know more than you expected about the plant, the process and the finished product.

You think you’ve done chocolate. You’re wrong.
You think you’ve done chocolate. You’re wrong.

You may have heard of Cacao, a new-ish place in the Siler-Rufina district. The shop is in the front of the building, where Boudar's gorgeous handmade chocolate jewels glisten in a refrigerated glass showcase. Wooden shelves are lined with exotic single-origin bars and other drool-inducing chocolate porn made by Cacao and other artisan producers. Three days a week Boudar leads a group through the shop, back into the high-ceilinged production area for the class (there are also shorter factory tours for $10 on Saturdays, coffee workshops once a month and other events less frequently).

We sat as Boudar went through the history of cacao, where the plant grows, how the weird pods grow straight off the tree's trunk like bizarre orange parasites. I was just vaguely pondering how Santa Fe is connected to chocolate when she got to the part about the clay vessels lined with chocolate residue that were discovered at Chaco Canyon. I was just hiking in Chaco recently and thought about the bird feathers and other finds archaeologists have unearthed there that clearly link this outpost in Northern New Mexico with other cultures hundreds or thousands of miles south into the tropics. Of course they had chocolate. Cool.

Boudar delivers a huge amount of information during the two hours, but it's also a hands-on experience—and don't worry, it involves eating plenty of chocolate. We got to open bags of beans and smell them, revealing a breadth of variation I hadn't imagined. Some smelled just like chocolate pudding. (In fact, the whole place smelled like chocolate pudding the whole time I was there, which delightful yet almost overwhelming). We roasted some beans in a portable roaster and crushed them using a hand-cranked contraption. Then we took turns mashing the nibs in a heavy stone molcajete, the kind you use to make guacamole. She added cane sugar, cinnamon, allspice and vanilla.

Boudar added hot water to our mashed mess and frothed it with a molinillo (that's a turned-wood whisk), then poured it into tiny ceramic mugs that on another day might have held tequila shots. It was slightly sweet, yes, but the flavor exploded! It was super intense, revelatory, transformative.

She then guided us through a tasting of craft chocolates, some hers and some made by others. Why would anyone drink Swiss Miss? How could anyone eat a Hershey bar? What pale, saccharine imitations of this food of the gods!

Cacao Santa Fe
3201 Richards Lane, Suite B, 471-0891
Open 10 am-5:30 pm Monday-Saturday

Fun With Dead Bugs

The last thing I signed up for was an all-day lesson in how to dye wool with dead bugs. Oh, did you not know that carmine red dye comes from the crushed exoskeletons of an insect called cochineal that lives on cactus? Yes. And it's back in fashion, even for food and cosmetics because it is, oddly, not toxic.

Are you not dyeing with dead bugs? That’s no way to be.
Are you not dyeing with dead bugs? That’s no way to be.

Cochineal (co-chuh-KNEEL), which lends its name as well as gives its body to the dye, is an incredibly intense, effective dye that was popular among the Aztec and Maya. It was quickly adopted by Spanish colonialists and applied to the wool of the sheep they brought with them. You can see its characteristic tones from colcha embroidery to Navajo blankets.

I'm already big into knitting, but I'd never done any dyeing until I stumbled on the schedule of classes at this mecca of fiber nerddom in Española. It's a yarn shop specializing in local churro wool and native dye ingredients; a weaving studio where you can walk in and immediately start working on a rug; and a community education center where you can learn how to make lace, knit a hat, piece a quilt, felt a bag or, yes, dye wool with dead bugs.

The workshop I signed up for, “24 Colors From One Dye Pot,” was taught by a traveling teacher, Diana Armes Wallace. She showed us how, by dipping yarn in one kind of pre-dye bath (maybe containing alum or tin), then in a bubbling pot of cochineal, and then into a post-dye bath, and varying the order of those dunks, we could achieve 24 different shades, from mauve to blood red to deep purple.

We carefully measured colored powders, pulverized bugs in a coffee grinder and stirred bubbling cauldrons. And, like magic, the yarns took on colors and then changed, again and again. We each came home 24 tiny skeins of yarn, each labeled with a code for the precise recipe we'd used to make it. The whole thing felt like witchcraft. And it was awesome.

Española Valley Fiber Arts Center
325 Paseo de Oñate, Española
Open 10 am-5 pm Tuesday-Saturday