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Santa Barbara Neighbor - Saul Alcaraz
updated: Nov 19, 2011, 9:30 AM

By the Urban Hikers, Stacey Wright & Peter Hartmann

This week as we continued our quest to walk every street in the city limits of Santa Barbara, we only made it two blocks before stopping to investigate a little shop near the corner of Mason and Quarantina. It was late afternoon, and the activity, color and warmth of the humble workplace literally stopped us in our tracks. We spent the next hour looking, listening and learning. And then we returned again and again to experience more about this amazing neighbor and his remarkable talent.

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Saul Alcaraz is the owner of Santa Barbara Art Glass, and its only full-time employee. He has occupied his shop/studio a few blocks off lower Milpas Street for the past 20 years and has been quietly perfecting the art of glassblowing. He is open, honest, industrious and tenacious. This is his incredible story...

Saul was born in Ensenada, Mexico in 1968. At the age of 8 years old, while playing in a city dump, he watched as the occupants of a car - which was being pursued by another car - stopped to ditch an over-stuffed black bag in the bushes. After finding his 14-year old cousin nearby, the boys opened the bag to discover that it was filled with neatly wrapped blocks of marijuana. They took the bag, stored it in a secret location, and returned daily to smoke its contents, until a few months later, all 5 kilos of the pot was gone. Thus began a young boy's decent into the world of drug use and addiction.

By the time Saul was 12 years old, he was using any and all things to get high; including marijuana, glue and gas. One day while hanging out with his cousin and a few of the older boys, he overdosed on something he believes was LSD or some other hallucinogenic. This was Saul's first and only experience with hallucinogenic drugs, and not only did he not know he had been given the drug, he hadn't a clue about what was happening. He described how he panicked and became deathly ill. The other boys locked him in a trailer and left him for 5 hours. During that time, Saul was certain he was dying.

Several months after his experience in the trailer, Saul spontaneously decided to leave Ensenada and the lifestyle he intuitively knew was killing him. And so, at the age of 13, without telling a soul of his plan, he left his parents, siblings and extended family behind and started walking toward California. When he reached the border crossing at Tijuana, he simply kept walking. He recalls that he crossed into California in plain sight, during daylight hours. No one stopped him; no one questioned him. He carried nothing, and had no plan other than to get to Los Angeles where he imagined a spectacular life awaited him.

A little further down the road, a car pulled over and questioned Saul about where he was headed. The occupants of the car - a father, mother and three children - spoke almost no Spanish, and Saul spoke no English at all. Ultimately, Saul joined the family as they returned to their home in Jamul, California, which is located east of San Diego.

After spending a month with Ken, Donna and their three children, the couple bought Saul an airline ticket to Los Angeles and gave him $50 pocket money. During the flight to Los Angeles, he met someone who persuaded him that Los Angeles wasn't safe for a small, vulnerable 13-year old boy. Saul heeded the advice and accepted an offer of a pre-paid taxi ride to the Greyhound bus station. After having something to eat and drink, Saul took stock of his finances. He determined that he had just enough money left to purchase a ticket to Santa Barbara and still have a couple of dollars left for his next meal.

When Saul arrived in Santa Barbara, he began walking again. It was almost dark when he arrived at Cabrillo Blvd., so he slept at the beach that night. The following day Saul made friends with some of the transients he met, and before long he had found a more suitable "home" at a junk yard down near the beach.

For the next 3 years Saul kept a low profile, getting meals at the Rescue Mission and Casa de La Raza. He did not attend school. He stayed away from drugs and alcohol as much as possible, smoking tobacco or marijuana only rarely. He recalls knowing then that the ill-effects of his previous lifestyle had ruined his ability to think clearly and how his mind was very fragile for many years after arriving in Santa Barbara. Even then, he understood that mind altering substances were the cause of his illness, and that if he was ever to regain his health he needed to refrain from using them.

When he turned 16, Saul approached a local roofing contractor for a job. The man told Saul that he was too young to go up on the roofs, but offered him a job keeping the yard clean for $4 an hour. Saul took the job, and worked for the roofing company for almost a decade. It's the only job he's ever had working for someone else.

With a steady income, Saul was able to finally get a real roof over his head for the first time in three years. By age 17, he had saved enough to buy his first car, and within a few of years, he realized he could go no further in life without learning to speak English. While in his early twenties, Saul enrolled in ESL classes at SB City College, and attended night classes. While on campus one evening, he happened to pass the glassblowing studio and saw what the students were creating. Saul recalled that at that very moment he made the decision to become a glassblower. There was one major problem though. When he spoke with the professor about enrolling in the class, he learned that he had to be able to speak and read English proficiently, if not fluently in order to keep up with the class work. After two years of intense study, Saul had passed the prerequisite classes to enroll in the glassblowing program, and he hasn't looked back since.

As luck would have it, back then, Saul met another pivotal person in his life - his wife Gina. Gina was a nursing student at SBCC, and although she was not enrolled in any glassblowing classes, when the two met, Saul learned that Gina's stepfather, Mario Real, is a world renowned glassblower, living in Santa Cruz, California. Over the next many years, Saul studied and learned from Mario and says, "I am who I am because of him".

Today, Saul says he thinks about glass and glassblowing every day, all day. Aside from his wife and two sons, Saul Jr., who is 19, and Steven, who is 16, and an occasional vacation, glass is admittedly all Saul thinks about. Glass is his passion and his life. He has a thriving business which he runs out of the same shop he started in 20 years ago. There he makes custom lighting, vessels of all shapes and sizes, does repairs and teaches classes. It's demanding work, requiring skill, concentration, patience and physical strength. As we watched Saul and learned from him, he seemed to accomplish his tasks with such ease that it was almost otherworldly.

Saul is a humble and accomplished man. He says it took him 20 years of working almost every day to feel that he is competent in his craft. He is now a US citizen, and loves both his country and his community. He is very generous with his time and support of community projects and agencies. He values family, education and the pursuit of ones' dreams. His two sons - both of whom were home schooled - are on impressive career paths. Saul Jr. started college at 16 and is looking forward to attending Loma Linda University to study medicine; Steven will start college classes soon and hopes to become a marine biologist. Gina retired from nursing and helps

Saul with the office end of his business. His business is going better than ever and his association with local architect Jeff Shelton has given him many opportunities to showcase his unique and impeccable work.

If you go to Saul's website you will see a lot of examples of his work and learn about the classes he offers. You will not, however, learn anything about the man or his amazing journey to success. Only by wandering past this jewel box of a shop were we privileged to meet Saul and hear his story. There is so much more to this man than could possibly be written in these pages alone...Saul is a valuable Santa Barbaran and neighbor, and we are thankful our urban hike took us right to his doorstep.

Now for the photos...This is his shop. As you can see, it would be easy to pass by it without even noticing.

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These are some of Saul's lights in Casa Blanca restaurant.

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These are Saul's creations at El Andaluz in the 500 block of Chapala Street.

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And these are photos we took as Saul went about doing what he loves best in life - creating a glass masterpiece. The steps are as follows: gather the class from one of the three ovens that stay on 24/7.

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Form the glass.

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Return it to the second oven, which is heated to about 2000 degrees.

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Add color and return it to the oven.

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Form the glass further. Traditional tools include wooden forms and paddles, metal tools and paper. Saul explained that he uses only the Wall Street Journal for his forming paper because other paper tends to stick to the glass. No joke.

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Next he blows the glass using gravity as much as possible. Then he shapes and molds it before returning it to the oven once again.

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More molding, shaping and blowing.

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A little help from Gina to flatten the bottom.

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More shaping, including cutting the glass with shears and taking a blow torch to it.

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After Saul was satisfied with the shape and color of this piece he placed the piece in the last of the three ovens to let it cool slowly. If you want to see the finished product, you'll have to stop in and see Saul and ask him to have a look at it. But beware - once you walk into his shop you'll never think about glass the same way again!

And last, but not least, here is some of what you will see if you visit Saul in his shop.

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As always, we encourage you to take an urban hike of your own, experience the town you live in and meet your interesting neighbors.

Comments in order of when they were received | (reverse order)

 COMMENT 234227 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-11-19 09:40 AM

amazing work!


 COMMENT 234230 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-11-19 09:53 AM

Wow, what a magical find. Beautiful work.


 COMMENT 234231 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-11-19 09:54 AM

Great article! Thanks for sharing Sauls' story.


 COMMENT 234233 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-11-19 09:56 AM

Beautiful story and work.


 COMMENT 234234 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-11-19 10:00 AM

WOW!!!! Thank you so much for this article! It made my day ... seriously!


 COMMENT 234235 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-11-19 10:01 AM

I was close to tears reading and seeing this piece of work. THANK YOU so much for sharing a beautiful and touching story.


 COMMENT 234236 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-11-19 10:03 AM

Saul did some custom lampshades for a custom (hard to fit) iron chandelier for us years ago, he was amazing to watch and work with. I encourage anyone who wants a special piece made to talk to him.


 COMMENT 234238 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-11-19 10:09 AM

Interesting story, thanks for sharing. I realize that having lived here most of my life there are still so many people and places to meet and see. That area where he does his glass work is a neat area, did some surfboard shaping for Al Merrick during high school, and during college breaks. Good and interesting people from all walks of life.


 INQUIRING MIND agree helpful negative off topic

2011-11-19 10:14 AM

An excellent article. Kudos to Saul, the author and Edhat for covering this very interesting and inspiring selection of our city.


 COMMENT 234242 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-11-19 10:21 AM

Good article, thanks. I've lived here most of my life and there is still so many people to meet and places to see. That area where he does his work is a cool place, used to shape surfboards there and miss all the interesting people.


 COMMENT 234250P agree helpful negative off topic

2011-11-19 10:48 AM

FYI - Last night I walked past the Yes Store (it opened yesterday) and saw Saul's glass work in the window. He has a nice variety of things and they are all very beautiful. He's a superb artisan.


 COMMENT 234252P agree helpful negative off topic

2011-11-19 10:55 AM

Now THIS is inspirational!
I am sending the link off to some of our teachers
who are mentoring students facing crucial choices
along their life paths.
Thanks Edhat. This made my day.


 COMMENT 234259 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-11-19 11:25 AM

Facinating as well as inspirational story! Nicely illustrates how we should never give up on our dreams ... Absolutely stunning glasswork.


 COMMENT 234262 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-11-19 11:43 AM

SBCC should bring back the glass blowing.


 WESTZYDE agree helpful negative off topic

2011-11-19 11:48 AM

Wow. Thank you.


 COMMENT 234267P agree helpful negative off topic

2011-11-19 11:52 AM

Truly a wonderful story and a terrific start to the day to read it. Saul does beautiful work. Thanks for sharing the story and the pictures.


 AUNTIE S. agree helpful negative off topic

2011-11-19 12:36 PM

What a beautiful article and inspiring story. I have two Christmas ornaments and a prefume bottle of his. The jellyfish lights are amazing - Santa Barbara's Dale Chihully.


 COMMENT 234288 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-11-19 12:57 PM

Wow! Are those huge chandeliers hanging in the upper left hand corner of the first photo behind Saul? Those are absolutely amazing, would've loved to watch him make those.


 COMMENT 234291 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-11-19 01:06 PM

This was a wonderful story. It made me remember watching the blowers in Tlaquepaque near Guadalajara.. It was so exciting to also see the young boys waiting their turns to be the next "helper". Now that I am living near Ensenada, his story was truly inspiring.


 COMMENT 234301 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-11-19 01:39 PM

what an incredible inspiring story & photos! thank you, urban hikers, for writing & sharing this--& thanks to edhat for providing the opportunity for all of us to enjoy it.


 COMMENT 234319P agree helpful negative off topic

2011-11-19 03:13 PM

Beautiful, amazing work. AUNTIE S. echoed my thoughts exactly.

A question for the Urban Hikers: the previous owner of my house left what are now 20-year-old copies of the Wall Street Journal in the rafters in the garage (not sure why). Occasionally a couple fall down and we recycle them. Would Saul want them? I'm not sure how many are still up there, but he wouldn't have to buy new copies for a bit if he's interested in ours.


 COMMENT 234355 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-11-19 06:44 PM

@319P - Urban Hiker here - knowing what we know about Saul, we're sure that he would love to have the old Wall Street Journals...In fact he probably pines for the "old fashioned" papers. If you ask Ed for our email, we'll be sure to coordinate a transfer of the papers. Thank you so much!!!


 COMMENT 234357 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-11-19 06:59 PM

Wow, I'm blown away by this story and by Saul's beautiful work. Thank you for sharing your write up and photos with us. Saul's story could make a great movie!


 COMMENT 234366 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-11-19 08:00 PM

Inspiring, gritty and wonderful story of an artist and his amazing journey. Thank you Urban Hikers!


 COMMENT 234418 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-11-20 07:33 AM

Thank you so much for this article. I admire your curiosity and love reading about your urban adventures.


 COMMENT 234454 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-11-20 08:36 AM

Fantastic article and supporting photos. I knew there was a glass blowing community here but you gave a part of it a face and a story. Thanks.


 SPACE agree helpful negative off topic

2011-11-20 08:38 AM

Another great article and inspiring subject - thank you Urban Hikers and Ed Hat. Well done Saul, good job in making a life for yourself here in Santa Barbara.


 COMMENT 234467 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-11-20 08:50 AM

What? No complaints about another illegal immigrant sucking up this nation's resources?!? Fortunately for Saul, he developed an obvious and admirable artistry in making his way in life. Those 'illegals' who pick our fruit, wash our dishes, rake our yards, roof our houses, and on and on, also are craftspeople - just not as sexy craftspeople - and many of them have dramatic stories of heroism about arriving and surviving here, some life-risking. Saul's is a wonderful story; there are many wonderful stories in SB and elsewhere if one just sees them as people and neighbors rather than 'illegals,' or whatever label we use to keep distance between ourselves and others. Fine story - thanks!


 MTNDRIVER agree helpful negative off topic

2011-11-20 09:08 AM

What an inspiring story, and such lovely glass work, thanks so much for sharing all of it.


 COMMENT 234517 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-11-20 09:46 AM

Wow, who would have given that young boy in Ensenada much chance for a succesful life. Great true story, and I have seen some of his work, which is beautiful. Made my day reading this.


 COMMENT 234528 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-11-20 10:22 AM

Remarkable man, astonishing talent, dramatic story. I'm glad someone mentioned Chihuly upthread; that was the first thing I thought when I saw the jellyfishy piece, but now when I see Chihuly I can think "Alcaraz."

Thank you again UHers.


 COMMENT 234548 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-11-20 10:53 AM

Fascinating story! I was in Murano, Italy watching a glass blower with a group from the Santa Barbara Art Museum a few weeks ago, thinking it was a dieing art. Who knew this was happening in our own backyard?
Saul is very inspirational. It would be wonderful to compile stories like his into a book. I highly recommend the new film "A Better Life."


 COMMENT 234575 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-11-20 12:05 PM

Wow, I think this is the best story I've read all month. Maybe one of the best all year, anywhere. Thank you so much!


 COMMENT 234838 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-11-21 10:08 AM

Ok, now that I've wiped away my tears, what a beautiful story and I so look forward to a visit to his shop. There are millions of stories like his, kept secret for obvious reasons and I am so glad his was told, someday I will share my grandmothers story.


 ZEBRA STRIPES agree helpful negative off topic

2011-11-21 11:42 AM

Fabulous story about Saul, Gina, and Santa Barbara Art Glass. We found Saul in 2006 when we were looking for a custom dining room chandelier. He crafted 9 pendants, all different colors, patters, shapes. We love night-time viewing -- including the wonderful reflections in 3 windows, clock face, and our glass dining table. So amazing I no longer use candles! It was a joy to work with Saul & Gina. We even visited during production. I highly recommend SB Art Glass!


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