A local Christmas attraction worth its weight – in glass, not gold

A collaborative effort between Mack Glass and The Elliott Organization, Jason Mack and Rob Elliott are hoping “The World’s Tallest Glass Tree” becomes an annual event at Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay. (Photo by Rob Elliott)

      Through this weekend, a new area holiday tradition has started at Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay.

      The World’s Tallest Glass Tree, presented by Mack Glass and the Elliott Organization, offers a look at live glassblowing, steel sculpting and woodworking. There is also a winter maker market with local artisans and craftspeople and custom handmade glass wear.

      In addition, Yerkes Observatory will conduct its “Space and Spaces” tours inside the observatory at set times throughout the event.

      Times are from 4 to 8 p.m. Friday, and from noon to 7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. All parking is at Williams Bay High School, where people can catch a free shuttle to the observatory.

      The event is free to the public. The tree will be on display until mid-January, and then all the glass will be removed the steel frame and returned to Mack Glass to be used in other projects – including commemorative glass ornaments.

      The tree is made by using recycled glass, which is broken and crushed then melted down at 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit.

      A steel frame, pre-constructed, is then used to house the melted glass as the liquid glass is wrapped around the spinning steel frame.

      “We wrap it in post-consumer glass,” said Rob Elliott, producer of the event.

      The tree is designed by Jason Mack, a glass artist based out of Champaign, Illinois. For the last 10 years, Mack has been working on designing a glass forest with a glass river running through it.

      “Or if we build it up here, we might have to turn it into a lake,” Mack said, who said his passion is glass art.

      “I’m inspired by nature,” he said. “There was never one light-up moment. It’s just kind of developed over the last three years.”

      Mack added that he enjoys creating spaces for people to experience art, as well as educating about recycling and teaching children about art.

      “I love using available materials … materials that are all around us,” he said. “I love the idea that people are growing the tree with their recycled glass.”

      Added Elliott, “It is infinitely recyclable.”

      In 2020, Mack set out to break the world record of the world’s tallest glass tree, set in 2010 by an Italian artist at 27-1/2 feet.

      Working with recycled materials, Mack decided to work with recycled glass to try and break that world record.

      He managed it, building a 31-foot tree with a glass star that took it up to 33 feet. Mack repeated the effort in 2021, but made the star bigger.

      This year, Elliott said he and Mack were looking for a place to put the tree and create a community event.

      “Yerkes was awesome enough to say yes, to give us an opportunity to put this in front of a globally historic facility,” Mack said.

      Yerkes is widely considered the birthplace of astrophysics, where George Ellery Hale was a pioneer in the field. Yerkes still has the world’s largest refracting telescope and is one of the most powerful telescopes in the world.

      Elliott said the grounds of the observatory also host a number of laboratories, workshops and libraries that make it a destination.

      “There’s a lot of fun connections and ties to glass at Yerkes,” Elliott said.

      Collection of the glass started in mid-November, with dumpsters in Williams Bay, Milwaukee and at Strategic Material Incorporated (Delavan), which coordinated the glass collection this year.

      Glass was transported to Yerkes throughout November and December, with several tons of glass collected.

      Mack constructed the steel frame on the Yerkes’ grounds. Each weekend from Friday to Sunday, he adds 300 pounds a day of glass to the tree.

      An initial layer of glass was put on the tree the first weekend, then a second layer of glass was added this past weekend.

      The final layer, plus the glass star, will be added this weekend to bring the total height of the tree to more than 35 feet.

      Mack uses a scissor lift to travel up and down the tree to add the glass. The glass furnace is transported to him using a forklift.

      “It’s a lot of fun doing it in front of people,” he said. “Seeing the look on their face when they realize were adding liquid hot glass. They’re like, ‘this is not at all what I thought,’” Mack said.

      Elliott and Mack have worked together for a number of years to create the sculptures. Friends since eighth grade, the two paired up for the live events in college in the 2000s.

      Now, that partnership has yielded what both hope will become an annual event and holiday tradition at Yerkes.

      “The community builds it, and it’s a free event,” Elliott said. “They get to watch that and witness it.

      “Quite frankly, it’s inspiring to kids and adults, and us too,” he added. “When you see kids running around and drinking hot chocolate and staring at it … that’s why we do it.”

      Mack added, “It’s all about bringing the community together and building something together.

      “A lot of different people take something different from the tree,” Mack added. “I feel like we’ve found a long-term home for the tree, so we can start building a generational tradition.”

      To check out Mack’s work and pre-order commemorative ornaments, go to www.mackglass.com.

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