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Latvia's got personality: Glass artist Bārbala Gulbe

Old Rīga is more than just beer gardens and souvenir stands. Meet a lady making delightful stuff from glass in the winding cobblestone streets.

“Rīga dimd (Riga Rings Out),” a beloved Latvian folk song about the country’s capital, tells the story of a family of craftsman forging a glory box for a maiden set to get hitched. And even in today’s mass produced world, artisans are still hand-making beautiful things in the city.

Some of them can be found toiling away on Laipu iela, a quiet lane in the Old Town. A leatherworker and a jeweller offer their wares there, and for two decades a talented woman had been designing and crafting unique items out of glass.

“I’ve always been attracted to glass because of the interplay it has with light,” says Bārbala Gulbe, proprietor of the Glass Gallery. “If you make a sculpture in stone or bronze, you don t have this added dimension of transparency that glass brings.”

Bārbala’s father Aivars Gulbis was a sculptor, while her mother Agija Sūna opened one of the first private art galleries in Rīga after the restoration of independence. And after finishing an applied arts-focussed secondary school and the Art Academy of Latvia, Bārbala took over Agija’s Laipu iela premises for her own use.

The fact that in the 18th century Riga’s first glassmaker Hinrick Slottel established a guild house for the craft in the building across the road was a good omen. A moulding testifying to this piece of history can still be seen today in the facade.

Moulding on the facade of the historic glassmakers' guild hall in Old Riga

Bārbala’s place is a humming workshop, with glass fragments waiting to be shaped on plaster moulds, then fired in an electric glass furnace sitting in one corner. But it’s also a showroom for applied arts objects including vases, plates and jewellery. Customers and friends pop in unexpectedly, and Bārbala juggles making them feel welcome with practicing her craft. And she somehow holds down a job at a school too.

 “I think that teaching has given me a talent for multitasking,” she laughs.

Hard won experience has taught Bārbala that things with a practical function find buyers. Nevertheless, she proudly points out that every pair of earrings is unique and infused with her creative passion. And it’s certainly not about turning a quick buck, as evidenced by delicate glass Latvian folkloric symbols which go for just four euros.

“Friends think I’m crazy, for all the time, work and materials that go into making them,” she says. “But I don’t mind – it gives me pleasure.”

She also revels in the occasional chance to create what could be termed as pure art. Recently, she made a series of glass clouds for an exhibition in Sigulda, earning her a nomination for the annual “Kilograms kultūras,” art prize sponsored by Latvian Public Broadcasting (LSM). According to Bārbala, the theme of the show, “Breathe In, Breathe Out,” was an invitation to reflect on finding inner peace during the Covid era.

Like many people, Bārbala admits to feeling anxious about the disease. And trading restrictions and dwindling tourism numbers have added to her worries. But she recalls how in the spring of 2020, during the first phase of the epidemic, a man from Russia who was stranded in Latvia by travel restrictions came into the shop and bought several vases.

Artwork by Bārbala Gulbe

“There is a higher power that looks after you when you need it most,” says Bārbala.

Since the Lord helps those who help themselves, she is also going to classes to study e-commerce. But while she admits that online sales are the smart way to reach new customers, she is fond of her existing face-to-face clientele and has no plans to give up her physical space.

Because of all her commitments, she is occasionally absent from Laipu iela, so arranging a visit beforehand is a good idea.

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