When people stop by the former theater that houses Art Truckee, they ascend a winding staircase and are greeted by a gallery filled with intricately crafted glass forms of everything imaginable — from pigs and eagles to a full drum kit and a Harley-Davidson.
And there’s Frank Rossbach, personable and friendly, waiting to greet them and share his story — if they want to hear it.
He motions to the windows of his shop, overlooking downtown historic Truckee and offering a view stretching to the mountains beyond. “To me, it’s looking out the window right now,” he says. “This is most people’s vacation. I get to live here, and I keep that in me every day.”
While he’s been no stranger to the struggle of living in the mountains, and what life as a self-employed craftsman means, Frank remains grounded about what he wants in life.
“I have a wonderful, wonderful life,” he says. “If it’s bad, it’s just in my head. You have to deal with that on your own, and I have.”
For those who enter the studio and want to learn, Frank is most engaging — especially with kids. They, too, can crouch behind his sturdy desk, littered impressively with glass tubes in all shapes and colors. His students can heat the glass on the torch and learn to twist and pull and bend and then blow into it, creating something of their very own. Frank’s careful eye and sturdy hands help students understand how to manipulate the glass, but also learn on their own by experimenting with how it feels.
“It’s kind of like we’re carnival people,” he laughs, alluding to the small setup that affords him the space and tools to do everything appearing in the gallery. “Lamp work” glassblowers utilize small torches, heating and bending pre-fabricated glass rods into shapes.
To make a business like this last in the small community of Tahoe — particularly as a craftsman — commitment, drive, passion, and focus are key attributes that go a long way. It’s a hard life, not without struggle, which begs the question: Why would someone keep putting in the hard work on those inevitable days when monotony creeps in?
For Frank, glassblowing is in his blood. He was born in West Germany, where his father was a “scientific glassblower” interested in making neon signs and laser components. They immigrated to the Bay Area when Frank was 4, and his father went to work in Silicon Valley. It was 1960 when they moved to America, the year of the Olympics at Squaw Valley. The family would visit Tahoe for the beauty that reminded them of Germany, where the mountains and the forest were similar, and even the culture of ski jumping was reminiscent of their home. Frank began glassblowing with his dad in their garage at age 15, with both of them eventually turning to the artistic style that Frank continues today.
His father was, and still is, the “quintessential German.” At 92, “he doesn’t wear lederhosen anymore, unless I pay him,” Frank laughs. But back then, Gerhard Rossbach used to tell his son you get the most work done from 8 to 9 a.m.
Frank’s sister also drew inspiration from Gerhard to try glassblowing. She continued for about 10 years, joining with her husband and some cousins in Canada to start a glassblowing business. Frank also taught the art to his best friends’ son, who now makes a living glassblowing in Washington.
In 1974, Frank helped his father build a ski cabin in Truckee, which he purchased from his dad about 30 years later. He’s proud to say that it’s almost entirely paid off, due mostly to his successful career as an artist. And he’s earned it. There have been low years, where inspiration didn’t come.
“This is all I know how to do,” he reflects. “So, when I got disenchanted with glass, I asked, ‘where do I go from here?’ I heard a saying, ‘If you don’t like your life, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.’ So, this is what I do. And luckily, it’s working.”
During those times, Frank focused on his reason for being here: to exist in these gorgeous mountains. To cruise on the boat he was fortunate enough to own. To carry on his father’s legacy. Those things gave him purpose, and a renewed sense of positivity.
“It’s very repetitive. You have to do the sweatshop years, I call it,” he says. “When my dad retired from scientific glassblowing he went to work at a shop and they had four glassblowers. If it were a dolphin, one guy would make the tail and pass it to the next guy and then they’d put the body on. But you have to do that to get a feel for the glass. To me the people that make it are the ones that don’t get sick of it.”
In times Frank didn’t want to work, he’d start every day by creating hummingbirds to get himself going. They captivate almost everyone who wanders through the shop and are easy gifts to take home. And though Frank will tell you he’s a craftsman turned salesman, because that’s what you have to do these days, an outsider will say his creations sell themselves. Frank’s work brings form to life. While admiring the intricate figures, there’s a sudden whimsy that lights up visitors to the gallery, much like the fascination a child might have in a toy shop. It’s far beyond just a simple hummingbird.
“My opinion is if you want to get really good at something, you specify,” he says. “What I do is I make shapes. So, if I’m making an elk, I want it to look like an elk — but I’m working on coming outside the box. To make free forms. [That] is the direction I wanna go, but big.”
Among some of his favorite creations are a “hog within a hog” — a hollow pig with a motorcycle inside his body, a dung beetle he once custom-made to commemorate someone’s African Safari trip, and a formless piece he calls “the lovers.” True, Frank’s sculpture-like renditions of animals, people, and objects are spot on. The muscular curves of a strong buck standing atop a shelf in the gallery reflect his attention to detail and study of the animal’s body. But he’s now ready to try something else.
The lovers are two formless body-like shapes wound together in an embrace. Looking at them makes you ponder a, perhaps, deeper meaning in the piece while contemplating what it makes you feel. Sitting on a different shelf is another pair of entwined figures. Though crafted by Frank, they’re based on his father’s idea called “the shadows.”
Not one to be bragadocious, he shrugs and talks about carrying on Gerhard’s legacy: “I’ve found that people like the emotions. We kind of both like those nice clean shapes. Carrying on the family thing,” he says.
Frank has tried many things. Once determined to be a concert pianist, he played until the age of 14, mastering Joseph Haydn’s “Piano Concerto No. 11” in D and then quitting due to stage fright. He managed Truckee’s Loch Leven Lodge for a year at one point and had another stint as a Harley rider with “stick-on tattoos” and was a “temporary badass,” he laughs. But he always came back to glass, and his father’s legacy, something which he plans to continue for a long time.
“My life has been really eclectic,” he says. “Now it’s kind of calming down. I think it’s the natural course of things. I’m supposed to be retiring [but] my retired idea is to come in and out of [my shop] when I want.”