glassblowing

Art and Design, glassblowing

Welcome To The Swamp


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When I first began my business I discovered that my production created or required a pace that was unlike anything I had experienced up until that time.  I had come from a graduate program where I blew glass four hours a week.  I was able to stretch that time because I had the last blow slot of the day which went from eight until midnight.  I had access to ovens that were what are called long cycle which did not get used very much.  The scheduling of these ovens always made it possible for me to continue working on until two or three into the morning….which I often did.   Every object I made was special.  Each one marked a transiting from one level of ability to another.  When I began working 10 to twelve hours a day in my own studio, I would blow as many pieces in a couple of days as I would have blown in an entire semester when I was at school.  The arc of development is very rapid in the beginning and often has a tendency to slow as skills are accumulated.  After that, the leaps or strides made are often from moments of pure inspiration.  It sends things in a new direction and the skill set may be enlarged, stretched, grown, even unexpectedly.  Hopefully as an artist, we all get that new growth added to our old growth.

When you make things like I do, I find that the way I look at objects, especially the ones I make, is very different from anything I knew before.  In a week I might have a hundred of one thing move through various stages of grinding packaging, shipping, or blowing or conceiving. It can be very easy for these objects to be just that; objects.  I can’t live in such a place where everything is debased in this way.  For me what I make wont EVER be just another object.  I might as well be selling T-shirts or tires.  To do what I do I realized I had to love what I do, love the designs I make (a good design might mean making that work thousands of times), and love the lifestyle the work affords me.  By that I mean that it gives me flexibility to not have to work a nine to five cubicle job.  In fact, the time people have off from their nine to five is most often when I need to be available.  That is nice because it means that I can be off when others are working which makes going to the store or driving down the highway very easy. It also meant I could attend my children’s performances as children in school, art exhibits, talent shows, and other things with my family that were valuable to me.  In truth, I worked 70 to 90 hour weeks in my work, so the time I had to do these things was very important.

To create, to produce in this way requires a level of love for the job, the life, the work and way of life that it elevates it or vaults it beyond anything that I have experienced before.  Work and worker wind their way into one another.  Everything I make I have to make with love. Glass is funny like that; when I am in the groove, I am also feeling the love.  When I am not, it does not flow and the work most often becomes difficult.  Weird things happen.  I lose pieces.  Taking a break, I can often return to the glass soon to continue working.  This is no ordinary kind of job.  I could not do this work if what I needed or wanted was a nine to five job. I can easily work twelve hours a day seven days a week.  I have worked much more at other times.  The only way I could do that was because I loved what I do.  And this is important.  If you come to the swamp, as I tell my students, you really ought to go  ahead and wrestle  some alligators.  This means to me that if you are going to go to the trouble of doing art -or in my case craft- you might as well do it up.  Make something remarkable.  Cool.  Awesome.  Make it worthwhile.  Don’t just mark time.  You never know when you wont have that time anymore.

Many people look at my way of life with a mixture of envy and admiration.  They see the work all finished and clean in a gallery  environment and can’t help but admire.  The truth is, though, it takes wrestling some gators.  Sure enough.  So in order to do this kind of thing, you really do have to love it otherwise it will grow old fast and wither on the vine. I am lucky since I have managed to keep my interest, a love, all these years and continue developing new work instead of stagnating.  It is easy to burn out, wither, blow away.  I have gone through burn out several times in fifteen years of business.  The last one had me wondering whether I even had love for this anymore. My priorities were askew, I found, that the hardness of art and craft is such that if you do not love it, truly love what you are doing, it can be a hard ride.  Love makes it worthwhile.  Maybe in the corporate world that just sounds like silly fluff, weak pasty talk.  Some of us believe that it matters what you do, what you make, design, create, and even leave behind.  Those who care aren’t the strange ones.  There is a whole lot lost in the world if that isn’t the case.

In a day when industrial giants seek to produce at ever larger scales, it is really nice to see studios producing handmade in the way they are today; high quality and with lots of good design and a whole lotta love.

I esteem objects that are made well.

I love objects that have great design.

I like design that makes using an object more fun. As humans we like to decorate EVERYTHING, so its nice to see well designed chairs and clothes and brushes and rugs and cups and a zillion other things big enough to have something different about them beyond mere utility.  I even don’t mind poor design when I know the artist is trying to make the world a better place.  We all have our own tastes.  When an object is made with love, it emits an energy, a sense of aliveness and presence that you can FEEL.  This turns a simple tumbler into a holy grail experience.  It can. You just might be surprised what a little love can do to your day and the objects that share that day with you.

I came to wrestle alligators.  Its not easy always.  Sometimes you doubt yourself, why you are even here doing this.  No one else is there backing you up; you MAKE all of this happen.  By hook or crook.  But that is just it; it is like giving birth….you have to WANT to make things and to see them from beginning to end.  And get them done.  On time.  I actually like to improve the quality of life by making great objects.  I believe that by imbuing my work with unusual, unique and powerful design concepts that I am actually dispersing mediocrity one object at a time.  i do not pause to think that perhaps we have enough stuff.  It is ALL just stuff.  And since it ALL just stuff and things, we have a duty as artists and artisans, I believe, to make those objects worth the while by being interesting, creative, excellent, usable, amazing, remarkable.  And even if it is just ONE of these things, it passes.  It is good.  It is good because it does not let through the door anything less than something that says clearly that we don’t have to be slaves to the mediocre world of the mass produced and unremarkable cheap object (that likely pollutes a country beyond sustainability just for having the industries that make the things they do that are so cheap—there is always a price even if you are not paying for it at the store).  I don’t think I ever wanted this to be easy.  I wanted it to be satisfying.  And today was satisfying.  Hard work, long day, lots made.  If it were easy maybe everyone would be doing it.  Maybe that leaves me a little more elbow room for wrestling that alligator.

What we make says a lot about us.  As a culture.  As a person.  A business.  As an artisan.  As a world. I esteem this and bring to it quality and uniqueness.  We should all live life like its worth living and that today could be well be the last day we get to spend on the planet. By bringing that level of engagement, we also bring our heart and spirit in a much more tangible way.  Call me old-fashioned, but I actually believe that these things matter.  Welcome to the swamp.

Art and Design, glassblowing

Glass Garden


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This semester, facing a dwindling array of options for how I might be able to engage and teach students sculpture, I decided to do something radically different.  Instead of letting institutional issues get in the way of providing a stimulating creative experience, I chose to go beyond limits and open the door of my studio to my students and to the world of hot glass.  The result was nothing short of amazing.

I was lucky to have attended two very different schools during my college career.  One, Berea College, was a small liberal arts college that charged no tuition and instead required students all to work to help offset their term bills and other costs.  In terms of a college community, Berea is in a class by itself.  There are very few schools that can do what Berea does so well.  The other, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, was a larger state school that had a very good arts program at both the undergraduate as well as graduate level.  While at Carbondale I observed first hand how both the glass and foundry program were run. In foundry, my professor had a visiting artist program that brought in luminaries in the art field like Ernest Trova, Linda Benglis, Rubien Nakien,  Daly, Richard Pert, Red Grooms, and many more.  They all came to make sculpture.  The students were there as assistants to the artist, and their access was total.  No faculty member was allowed to be onsite while the artist was at work with the students.  At the end of the day the students who had worked with the artist on that day all got together with the artist at one of the apartments of the students to have a potluck where stories were told and students had an opportunity to spend valuable social time with the visiting artist.  There was one evening set aside where faculty gathered to have their own social time with the artist, but for the most part, the students were given the lions share.  In the glass program, the glass club, Southern Glass Works served an important role in supporting the glass program.  When I was there the sales we held on campus during the holiday season garnered the club over six thousand dollars, which was enough to buy materials, supplies, tools, and enough material to build a 600 lb capacity cast zircon tank furnace.  The mobile unit that Bill Boysen had built back in the early 70’s affectionately named Aunt Gladys had been used to do demos of glassblowing all over the country.  When I was in attendance, we took the mobile unit out to Tucson Arizona to the Glass Art Society conference where she was used to demo the work of students all across the nation who wanted to try their hand at our delightful contraption that folded up like a fruit stand (actually the studio was built on the chassis of an old fruit stand on wheels). I was involved in doing the last rebuild on her furnace before she was replaced with a larger sleeker model just prior to Bill’s retirement.

I was able to see how business and education could not only mesh, but work together in a powerfully synergistic fashion, all for the benefit of the students.  When I hear educators in the arts bemoan the use of student labor in an art program (say for helping them make their work for example) I think how unfortunate that outlook is.  It exists perhaps because some have misused it in the past.  However, my experience has been that this has been one important route to getting to know the people your teacher knows, the galleries, as well as learning how they work in their own studio practice.  These kinds of experiences were invaluable to me and it is my sense that it is one way that students learn. By doing.  And in truth, the student is at a school involved in an exchange; paying money in order to learn.  But what about more expansive opportunities that would bring students right into the studio operations where they can see up close how things are made, how they are sold, and to simply become exposed to the real world of art?  it is kind of funny sometimes how we educate our students in colleges and universities. They spend all this time alone in the studio and then they go out into the world of work and there just aren’t any jobs that pay them to sit and make art.  There are no art factories or studios that will let them do what they did in school.  To do that, you have to begin your own business.  And you have to be savvy enough to do well so you can keep doing art instead of working a nine to five job in some other kind of work.

Needless to say, I have been anxious to find ways to incorporate these same aspects into my teaching.  Make it less abstract and more tangible and real world. This semester my students and I embarked on a rather courageous enterprise; take twenty kids who had never blown glass before and get them working on a project that would involve installing sculptural glass in a given location on the university campus.

The location had to be found first because glass couldn’t be displayed in just any location.  We needed good security and we needed a place that wanted us there.  We found it in the education department which was very interested in what we would come up with.  it turned out that there had been a lot of talk about what they could do with the garden in the way of art or similar kinds of things to help improve the space.  When we came along, it was like a feite accompli.

It turns out that I have an old friend and colleague who managed the space that we were interested in.  Dr. Ann Roberts had taken on the courtyard garden as her own pet project, weeding and planting flowers over the years she has been teaching at Radford University in Radford Virginia.  It was as if the tumblers all fell into place in perfect combination.  My students and I went to look at the space and we were welcomed with open arms.

We photographed the space, measured it, and then went back to consider the possibilities.  Within minutes of being in the space, students were already suggesting ideas. I stood back and let them ponder, imagine and create.  When an idea was too far afield for what was possible with glass or our collective skill set, I nudged the boat closer in to port.  After our initial meeting we had several main concepts that we wanted to try.  One was a series of staves, tall tendril like pieces that would become canvasses for a range of different color effects.  I had no idea they would expand into so many different combinations.  I had some glass color I hadn’t used in years that I felt like I could let go of and once they got a hold of it, magic began to bubble to the surface.  the way we worked was as a group.  I might suggest something, but I had to ask the group who was working at the time what they thought.  They did the same. “What do you think if we used green over the blue this time and added this colored frit on the surface?”  Sometimes decisions were made entirely in the moment with surprising results.  We considered making a fountain and a large bush-like piece that would have over 80 different glass elements attached to it. Could we get all of this done in three to four weeks, which was the time allotted for the project?  Could twenty students with no prior experience come up with something that would achieve our stated goals?  IMG_3466

Video was shot throughout the project and this is currently being edited for publishing on youtube.  Once that is done a link will be provided. Students learned how to heat up color bits, to gather at the furnace, to blow and shape the glass.  Students were eased into the process with a three hour intensive work period with their teacher, yours truly, in order to get them up to speed enough to be of assistance in the making of pieces.  As soon as that was done and several basic moves were mastered, off we went into the world of hot glass.  It was truly a learn as you go experience. Twenty students had to be trained in this way, and while there was some standing around at first, once students had the basics, we could begin building on those basics.

The ideas expanded to clear crystal flowers, several mushrooms, some pieces that looked like sea urchins, and larger flower forms.  In the end we have over a hundred different elements that went into the garden.

Once we were finished and the work was installed I asked the students what they thought.  They responded that they felt that the space needed MORE glass!  We had some students who hadn’t come out as many times as they should have so we were short some pieces, about twenty in all.  Students continued to come out to the studio additional times in order to make up the difference.  How is that for dedication?  Some how, somewhere, what was as simple straightforward class project had become something much more.  And that is as it should be.  When learning like this goes beyond the bounds of the classroom it enters into the realm of the real world, and when the university studio meshes with the professional production studio, very interesting things happen.

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Students got food and set up the reception.  A poster was designed and printed.  The word was put out.  The result was that the venue has garnered a lot of attention and has already spun off a commission as a result of the display.  Once the materials are paid for, the students will each get an equal share in whatever is sold out of the space.

I chose to donate the studio time to this enterprise just to get it going.  In exchange I got a huge influx of creative energy and ideas moving through the studio.  That is a win-win in my book.  Long after the show is down there will be new ideas floating around and bearing fruit.  it is this sort of collaborative effort that seems to offer the most amount of fulfillment for all involved.  yes, it cost money, but it was worth it to me.  It was a swift kick in the creative pants for me and it has helped me in ways I am sure I can only begin to imagine. As for my students, they have started something that was only a dream a month ago….

The images in this blog entry are all works taken from the installation at Radford University entitled Glass Garden.  It is the beginning of something new and interesting.

Art and Design, glassblowing

The Essence of Inspiration


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My students at the university aren’t always happy with me.  The ones who are independent self starters seem to have no trouble, but the students who want to be led and “taught” how to make a piece of sculpture most often wind up pouting a lot.  I understand why this is, and I am there to teach processes and methods and tool usage and all the rest.  However, most of what I offer is basic information that has to be brought together into a synthesis that is the creative moment. This means that the student has to go beyond mere tools and methods in order to realize something of consequence, and to do this winds up feeling like a lonely place.  This is not where the teacher can go.  As a teacher I can nudge and encourage and give my own ideas about how to kick start the moment that lead to inspiration, but its very much leading the horse to the water.  This is the fact of art.  Process, method and technique wedded to something that has nothing at all to do with such concrete things and is instead the deep waters of our own insides, our own creative selves.  It takes a bit of courage to bare ones soul in such a way.  There is a lot of very careful work that happens in schools, I think, as a result.  I mean, really, who wants to bare their souls for all to see and poke and prod?  This is what all of those dreams we have all likely had where we discover that we forgot to put on clothes after taking off to school or work and wind up feeling panicked to find ourselves in such a position.  So discovered, so vulnerable.  Meshing bravery with vulnerability isn’t the most comfortable place in town, but it is most often the very place where innovation begins, where all new ideas start –  be they in science or art.

The rational and practical fact-based world is brought into the wildly creative and imaginative in order to drive a process that leads to creating art.  I realize more and more that what I seek to teach above all is a self-reliant attitude that oozes with confidence; a confidence that comes by way of experience.  Doing.  Making.  It is a curious conundrum; confidence most often comes by way of learning and then doing.  However, in great art, not knowing how one will accomplish a piece is most often what leads to a far greater work than if you follow the more obvious steps.

Confidence allows the creative to flow.  I try to teach my students that some of art is a leap of faith.  they say, “But I don’t know how I am going to DO this!”  and I say in return, “It is like you are standing on the side of a cliff before a river.  All of your friends have all just jumped into the river and you are now standing with your arms crossed, shivering, afraid that the water might be too cold, or the water too fast.  You just have to jump in, and when you do, you will realize all of this was really just about your fear.  You just have to jump in and do it.”  When I began telling my students this, they began just jumping in and the result has been some pretty remarkable work.

I try to apply the same things to myself.  It is easy to stay in ones comfort zone, but the remarkable in life emerges when we go out on a limb.  Even just a little.  So it was several weeks ago that I was asked if I could do a tree of life design in glass as a gift for someone.  I had never made anything like this before.  It would require me to work in a way I had not done previously.

I said yes right away.  I ordered the glass which was a glass I had not worked with for over fifteen years.  I work with a glass called soda-lime.  It is a composition that has been relatively unchanged for millenia.  It is the basis for all of our container glasses from beer bottles to champaign flutes.  It is in our plate glass, windows, and automotive glass.  Its working characteristics are pretty specific.  It is a known to me.  Borosilicate, which is the glass I had to order for this project, is a very different kind of glass.  It contains boron which imparts a great deal of  thermal shock resistance to the material.  It is what all labware is made out of and is also used in cookware.  I connected my torch because the glass is worked with this appliance and I simply began to make the tree.

Being able to do this piece was a kind of blessing in disguise.  It allowed me to work at the torch with a material I had pretty much avoided for years.  Just this past year I purchased eight torches to make up a new addition to the studio which will enable students to come work glass at the torch as well as the “big glass” that is part of furnace work which is what most people normally think of when they hear the term “glass blowing.”  But torch work is also glass working and it is every bit as much fun as its “bigger” counterpart.  Being commissioned to do this piece helped push me along in getting some things worked out technically and it also showed me just how much fun it is to work at the torch.  If I am going to offer glass of this type in the studio, I really need to be the best proponent for it. And I am sold.

In the coming months I will be building a special work table that will house all of these torches.  Each torch will be hooked up to lines for gas and oxygen.  I will make small kilns for preheating glass bits and for annealing beads and small glass elements.  The studio will unfold one more page in its capacity to bring the gospel of glass to the masses here in the New River Valley (NRV).

I am now done with the piece. I wont say I am Gods gift to makers of trees, but this project showed me a rich bed of potential that I had not known before had I simply passed on it.  Packed and now on its way, I am glad for the gentle prod, the perfect nudge.   Sometimes it just takes a gentle nudge to make the jump into the water….which perhaps is a big part of the essence of inspiration.

(I will post a pic of the piece as soon as I am able)