A small piece of history

KAPAA — In the glass world, it’s a novelty — a find so rare it could even be counted as digging up a piece of Kauai’s history.

That’s exactly how Kyle Doepke sees it.

It would be like getting a hold of a historic homerun ball for baseball fans, or the original, handwritten notes of a hit screenplay for movie buffs.

The 100 or so artistic, blown-glass pieces Doepke recently came across thanks to a ambitious auction house were crafted by the late John Burton.

And Burton is as good as it gets, Doepke said. When it comes to glass, he’s Jack Nicholson in “Easy Rider.”

“I moved here in 2000 and I knew about him,” said Doepke, the Kansas City transplant turned glass-blower and owner of The Glass Shack in Kapaa. “I don’t know what he looks like … He’s just a mysterious, mythical kind of guy.”

But there is the artist’s signature J on the bottom of the pieces Doepke bought, like a historical seal.

Burton, who passed away shortly before Hurricane Iniki, shaped hard and soft glass into vases, stones, statues. Shaping glass takes heat, and adding heavy metals and minerals creates color. Burton could create colors in the 1970s when few knew how to: amber purple, ruby, hues nobody could match.

“John was very abstract,” the shop owner said, pouring over his new box of pieces. “He had a lot of fresh and unique designs.”

Doepke came across the box after the auctioning group, Malama Auctions, contacted him. The company’s co-owner John Genovese said he reached out to The Glass Shack before the auction in part because experts in the glass trade would appreciate the collection more than someone with an untrained eye.

“I knew they were nice pieces,” Genovese said. “I knew who John Burton was.”

Doepke snapped it up for a few hundred dollars. The pieces were wrapped in newspapers from the week following Hurricane Iniki in September 1992, a detail that blew Doepke away as much as the glass. It was like history wrapped in history.

“It was like holy (cow), it was kind of the kicker for me,” Doepke said, looking over the headlines that told people where to go to get clean water, where the free telephones were stationed and when public transportation would be back up. “This is, like, everyone’s story. It’s just cool.”

The glass pieces’ original owner, who didn’t want to be named in the article, said he remembered when Burton’s widow gave his wife the box of pieces after Iniki. He described Burton as an intelligent, articulate Englishman who could carry a conversation on any topic and, legend goes, was knighted by his home country for his work as a chemist during World War II.

Burton has authored at least one book on glass-blowing philosophy and method, but the box’s old owner said he didn’t realize Burton was such a big name in the glass world.

“I thought it was more of a hobby than anything else,” he said, adding that he held on to some of Burton’s bigger pieces. “I thought he was just into retirement, fooling around.”

But it didn’t come as too big of a surprise, considering Burton was versed in many subjects, even a painter.

“He was very interesting man. You could talk to him about just about anything,” he said. “He had a very inquiring mind. He was just interested in things going on around him.”

Doepke, who has run his shop since 2003, said he’s still unsure what he’s going to do with the pieces. He said he’ll keep some, display some and sell some, preferably to those who appreciate the significance of their sculptor. He’d also like to learn more about the legendary glass-blower from those who knew him.

“When we started blowing glass we’d heard of this John Burton guy,” he said. “It’s come full circle.”

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