Art and Design, glassblowing

Cold Work – The Other Side of Hot Work


When you have guests everyone notices how pretty the table looks once its been set.  Rarely do we want to see how the table looks once all the plates and serving dishes are put away in the kitchen as piles of plates and bowls and cups and platters add up.  Everyone wants to enjoy the evening, but who wants to have to do the dishes?

In everything we do there is the less interesting yet necessary things that go into making the day, the experience, the object or artwork or craft object. In glass, most often you will see artisans simply blowing. its exciting, sexy.  So why NOT show this side of the industry to would-be customers?  You wind up seeing JUST the blowing end of things.  We all use the exciting ends of things to sell people on it. Its pretty rare to see the finishing end of glass work simply because its not the hot part, the fiery end of things.  Some assume it mustn’t be interesting to people because its not very interesting to THEM.

To do the work I need to do, I have to do finishing work, something we collectively call “cold work” which is when glass that has been blown has bottoms ground flat and brought to a fine degree of finish or polish.  This is slow, wet work with grinding or abrasive tools that  are lubricated  by a steady flow of water to slowly wear away layers of glass for the finishing work to be complete.  In principle it is the same as sanding or finishing a piece of wooden furniture or finishing an automotive panel.  You go from coarse to fine grit.  But that is where the similarities end.

What I am going to show you is a insiders look into the process of glass finishing.  It isn’t meant to be an exhaustive review of all the processes or tools possible in the process because there are many.  For our quick jaunt I am going to keep things limited to a horizontal flat mill that I use for grinding smaller things.  Cold work doesn’t get much press simply because its not as exciting or maybe as sexy as hot work.  It is, however, an essentially portion of the larger whole.

Cold work, as it is called, is the abrading of the glass surface in order to grind away sharp edges created from cracking off glass either from the blow pipe or from the punty ( a solid metal rod used to hold a blown piece of glass after it has been broken off the blowpipe in order to finish it). Cold work can be very direct in its method; grind away any sharp parts of glass so the glass is smooth and finished looking.  However, cold work can also be used to be an end in an of itself for creative expression.  Glass can be faceted or engraved as in the case of copper wheel engraving which produces colorful prismatic effects with clear glass and the presence of light. This is a tedious and time consuming process but it can also bring a glass object to a level of fire and sparkle that a smooth uncut surface does not have.  Facets might be cut or abraded into the surface of glass.  Imagery might also be ground into the glass, perhaps in reverse.  In some cases, cold work might be used to rind through color layers in the glass to reveal certain colors in the same way that South American Mola’s are made by laying down many colors of textile thread only to go back through and remove  layers of certain colors  to reveal the layers beneath them. Using this technique, one could blow a multicolored ball of glass with many colored layers, and upon cooling, take the ball and cut it apart and sandblast the colored layers away to create the appearance of, say, an animal or bird.  This technique is called Graal (pronounced “grawl”) and is effectively a way to create shards of glass which are then picked back up onto a hot gather of glass and reincorporated into a new piece where the shards are now hidden beneath a layer of clear crystal for all to see and wonder just how the designs got inside the glass.  So while cold work is itself very practical, it has an expressive side as well.  Having been an artisan who used cold work to create the only curved lenses that I know of in my paperweights and sculptures, I can attest to grinding being an expressive medium, albeit a time consuming and wet one.

grinding check sized

Grinding is done most often on a horizontal flat mill.  This mill could be an iron disc with loose grit dripping across its surface to create the abrasion, or more recently we also have diamond embedded grinding discs that keep the grit in one place and can be used over and over for many years before they wear out.  Grinding can be done with small handheld devices like angle grinders with diamond blades or discs with a water feed attachment as well as devices that look very much like bench grinders and also belt sanders.  The grit on these devices goes from coarse to extremely fine as the piece is worked at each grit until it achieves a fine level of finish. If you look at the grinder I am using in the photo above, you can see a flat disc that is turning with a hose that is feeding water to the center of the disc to help lubricate it. The grinder is basically a plastic housing that catches most of the water spray (but not all) with a powerful motor that turns the spindle that in turn spins the diamond discs which are all attached by way of a powerful magnet holding the abrasive disc in place.

This grinder spins at about 1400 r.p.m.’s and the diamond grit I use varies from a very coarse 45 mesh grit to an extremely fine prepolish disc that is in the area of 1200 mesh.  Final polish is accomplished with a felt pad that has a polishing compound embedded in it.  All of this is accomplished wet and makes observing the progress of the grind and finish a little tricky. But before I get ahead of myself, let me show you the grinding discs….

grinding discs cart viewWhat you see in the photo with all the discs arranged in a series of slots is a caddy I built years ago to keep my grinding discs for finishing glass organized..  I set it up near my grinder for ease of access to all of the different grits I might need during the course of a grinding session.

grinding discs closeupThis is a closeup view of the grinding discs.  You can see that some of the discs have a dot pattern across their surface.  These are clusters of diamonds that have been sintered into a nickle mini-disc that is then attached to a plastic substrate.  This plastic is then attached to a metal disc and the metal disc is then held to the spindle or wheel head of the grinder.

The dark brown discs are prepolish discs, the step necessary before final polish is done.  The rust colored disc is the final polish disc.

For the purposes of this post I ground some pieces without the usual protective equipment.  Normally I will use eye, ear and face protection when grinding.  The grinder creates a lot of noise for example, and sometimes glass can chip off from the work so safety glasses are useful at certain stages of the process.  As you might be able to guess, just holding on to the glass as the water used to lubricate the diamond and the glass is filled with small glass particles, it gets harder to keep a firm grasp on the glass.

grinding closeup sized
the bottom of a vase is examined for scratches as it is being ground

During the course of the grinding and finishing of a piece of glass, the object being finished will be taken through a series of different grit sizes in order to progressively create a finer and finer ground surface until the surface is so finely ground that upon being turned on a polish wheel, the glass is brought to a high level of polish.

cup grinding sizedThe tumbler that is being ground in the pictures that follow shows how the bottoms of pieces have to be examined to make sure that all scratches from the previous grit are worn away before moving to the next grit size.  If this is not done properly, the scratches from coarser grits can remain in the piece and wind up becoming polished scratches which appear as polished shiny grooves on the surface of the glass being worked. The purpose of fine glass finishing is to render the glass as looking like the rest of the glass around it so that one never knew that the facet or surface had ever been in such a coarse or rough state. When done properly, people do not notice the ground or finished surface except that it is part of a consistent whole.

cup check sizedIn some cases, surfaces are not brought to a high level of polish.  In my case, there are several very specific reasons for not bringing a surface to full polish.  I might want the bottom of a piece to be opaque to the rest of the world. I might want light to enter, but I might not want people to be able to view through the glass completely as is the case with highly polished glass.  In some cases I create diffusion filters in my paperweights so that when light is shot up from underneath them from light boxes, the light is softened and scattered,cup check 2sized creating a pleasing and soft diffuse light.  On some light boxes I note that the makers have done the same thing by providing covers for the lights that have sandblasted discs which are called diffusion filters. This achieves the same result and is sometimes necessary or wanted.  In some cases I may be making a piece where I have very specific color effects playing on the surface of a vase and I may not want the bottom of the piece to be ground so that other colors can be seen through the bottom of the piece so I might leave the bottom ground but only to a 600 grit, for example, which is a soft enough surface that it does not mar fine furniture.  IN another case I might have a tumbler or other object that I know will get a level of high use and instead of bringing the bottoms to a level of high polish, I might keep it matte in order to help hide any scratches or wear that might build up across the surface over time. I have observed that the scratched on a polished surface always look ten times worse than the same scratch on a matte or not fully polished surface.  The final reason for not bringing a piece to full polish is simple economics. If I am making an inexpensive item and want to keep the costs associated with those pieces down, I might, if the situation warranted it, choose not to bring some part of a ground surface to full polish.

When grinding I keep a circulating loop of water going in my grinder.  This recycles the water I use and has resulted in the savings of thousands of gallons of water over a ten year period. I do a LOT of cold work in my solid pieces and I was finding that I was going through twenty gallons of water every hour when I was doing my grinding.  By placing a small pump in the bucket I was able to reuse the water many times and I also was able to  capture the fine glass particles so they settled into the bottom of the bucket.  These fine particles actually get saved, dried, and then are put back into the furnace in order to re-vitrify them into solid glass again prior to land-filling them. What is important about the process that I employ is that when glass is ground as finely as I do in my finishing process, the chemistry of the glass becomes much more porous to the environment.  Doing this is my way of keeping the impact of what I do to a minimum for the environment and does keep leaching of heavy metals down to zero this way.


process pieces sized

The result of all of this is a double-win; I keep heavy metals out of the environment and I am able to save significantly on my water usage when grinding.  Doing this does mean that my grinding is more of a dusty affair for the simple fact that there is more glass particulate in the water since its being recirculated.  It does make the water feel more slippery or even soapy feeling, but it also means that I am keeping the glass out of the septic system.

When done with an eye towards detail, cold work can be used to enhance glass work.  It can be used to cut bevels into glass, it can be used to create interesting lines and other surface effects.  IN its least noticeable form, it is used to give the work a look of finish and to keep a rough area on glass from being noticed by completely removing it and returning the glass to a polished, sparkling pristine state.

Cold work isn’t the most glamorous part of glass making.  Its the part of the work that most people aren’t even supposed to notice.   In the same way that you would not consider having your guests stay and help clean the dishes after having had a fine meal at your home, so too you would not consider leaving a sharp hard surface for your customers to see without first grinding it away or giving it a look of finish.

Art and Design, glassblowing

Breaking New Ground

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Long neck copyMuch of what I do in glass has been an effort not to do anything that is like anything others have done.  This is hard to do well. There seems to be very little that is new under the sun.  We say a vase is a vase.  Sometimes we can make our work different by the shapes, the colors, the design we develop within the piece.  I developed a way to make my glass look like rock and this made them very different and sought after. It created the art of the double-take that leads one to think that you see something that you do not, and in realizing it is not as it appears, leads one to wonder how on earth the artist or artisan accomplished it.  I probably don’t need to tell you that this is also where art begins, that place where the ordinary gets transmuted into the extraordinary in some way.  Doing this kind of work  also spawned people making copies, people who I saw walk up to my work, observe it carefully, and then begin making a derivative of it in one years’ time.  I am told that this is a form of congratulations, but for me it does not feel like that.

For years I have zigged when others have zagged.  I did not follow conventions of tradition. As a result I developed techniques in glass that I have yet to see anyone work in the same way.  They are round vase sizeddifferent for the reason that no one has been crazy enough to do what it is I have done.  Even my teacher once said that the techniques I would later use were not something that would yield significant enough results to be practical. That was eighteen years ago and many of those pieces later.  They have somehow gone from impracticality to total practicality…..and new ground being unearthed, or blazed. I have long been amazed at the effects that fuming has had on glass.  This was a technique that Louise Comfort Tiffany developed that became a signature mark of his design work in glass.  Needless to say it has been wildly popular ever since with plenty of paths being cut into that territory. It has been enough to keep me from going down that road even though I have used analogs of irridizing for years, such as dichroics.  Dichroic is a term for a development made during the early NASA days that was developed to create a thin metallic but translucent film on glass lenses to make it possible for photo film aboard the Lunar Rover to be exposed in full daylight on the moon without being cooked (which it did when exposed under normal full light conditions on the lunar surface).  In a way, irridizing and dichroics aren’t that different from one another in that they both involve very small particles of metal that build up slowly on the surface of glass.

I always said I would not fume or irridize glass.  I always considered it a well-worn path.  And it is. The lure, though, of the lustrous surface in glass is powerful.


A few days ago I ordered some supplies for irridizing glass to give it a try. At first the results were entirely unremarkable.  I began to think that the people telling me how they did it were not actually giving me the whole scoop.  It took a little trial and error to work it out.  The colors were okay, but not great. The information was incomplete, and some things like the type of alcohol used for the spray was wrong.  These small things matter and can make big differences. I changed a few things and switched the order of some things around and found much to my pleasure and surprise that I had some pretty amazing results taking place.

upclose1 copy

Today was interesting since the ovens were still empty by noon.  There was no work that had been made. By five o’clock, though, one oven was full and a second one was sent up.  Work was being made at a pretty fast pace and everything was pretty amazing. For a first try.

At some point in my art education I discovered that there was an entry into the sublime that didn’t have to do with the usual concerns of art.  In art content is king, which is to say its supposed to BE about something. I found increasingly that my focus began to settle on simpler things, less complicated things.  While art does create an experience, so too does the glint of light off a brushed metal surface.  Just HOW that impacts us or affects us, or me, is huge.  How the look of polished bronze impacts me is hard for me to explain.  It is just such a basic thing…because it is so direct, so immediate and uncomplicated.  This is the same uncomplicated thing that leads so many on this planet to esteem a rather soft metal not very useful for much of anything except electronic connections and jewelry, a metal we  call gold.  What does it mean? Nothing.  It isn’t about THAT.  Its about the EXPERIENCE.  It is the same thing that Monet did in his paintings to simulate the effect of looking through an early morning foggy haze.  The haze itself means nothing, really, but is itself an effect.  We might say that these things are without coincidence or unimportant, but for the they are not.  I think that the rational mind NEEDS for things to MEAN something. If something does not MEAN something, it simply grows disinterested.  The irrational part of the mind, though, is entirely comfortable with this lack of meaning and instead seeks the EXPERIENCE.  All of this is very much tied up in how our two brain lobes function together as well as separately.  But that is for another blog entry.

If the purpose of art is to help us to see a new way or to impact us deeply, I would argue that just how a color glints off a surface or a texture is rendered can also impact us in a similar way. Nature is the source for all art.  HOW light impacts an environment has become fodder for at down through the ages.  The Vermeer paintings of the wan northern light filtering in through the windows and illuminating the soft light complexions of his subjects creates a simulation or recreation of an original event experience that reaches the sublime.  None of it would have half the impact were it not for something so simple as how light strikes an object, such as the skin of a human in the painting.  Yes, these things matter so much, yet are so often yoked in the service of a larger work that we very often don’t recognize them for what they are, or WHY they are.  I think for me, looking at a simple effect and KNOWING why it affects me fills me with something that just looking at a painting or landscape (whether painted or not) may not do since I might be so caught up in the details that I miss the simpler things, the foundational things that serve to hold the whole circus tend up on its rods and ropes.  The ground  holds the very canopy of heaven up.

detail of a fumed surface
detail of a fumed surface ©Parker Stafford

I can remember sitting with my infant son  who was all of seven months old in my arms in my backyard as the sun set slowly. The entire landscape was washed in a rich gold color. This was the “golden hour” as photographers like to call it, a time when the vibration of light changes to an increasingly warmer tone and is very kind to people being photographed.   The air seemed to heat up but this had nothing at all to do with temperature. The world was bathed in this light that made everything glow.  It was merely the effect of light as it glinted at its fallen angle in the sky. Within minutes the effect passed.  What it conjured, or was conjured in my own mind as a result of its presence, was nothing short of mystical.  It felt transcendent and entirely difficult to even put into words. Perhaps it was because I had had several dreams in my life when I noticed a golden light filtering into my dreamworld and felt as though the light of heaven was infiltrating in.  The experience, though, was entirely simple and uncomplicated, just as with the sunlight.   It went beyond content, it went beyond meaning.  It was an experience of something so simple that it had the power to be a potent force in transporting me to another place…..but a place that was so incredibly present that it had nothing about being swept away, but steadied in the moment as all of the lights seemed to come on and light up life in a moment that felt like an epiphany. My son lay uncommonly quiet and still in my arms as though he was aware that something was taking place.  No squirming; a willingness to take part in this moment, however it was he took part in it for himself.  So in the same way, I find the simple direct nature of making decorative objects to carry, at least potentially, the same experiential “oomph”  as some of these stolen moments that rise like highlights in life.  Curiously, more and more of them are singular, simple, and entirely direct.  Like how the glint of gold is direct, perhaps.

bowl copyThe challenge now is to take this method of working and push the shapes into territory not normally thought of as part of the fumed world.  There are actually very few people who fume glass who make unusual shapes.  For some reason a lot of fumed work tends to be pretty traditional.  Maybe its time to shift things around.

I have been drawn to a rather amazing piece made by Tiffany’s studio that uses a type of fume that is very different from what has become mainstream.  There is a giant punchbowl that he made that is really quite amazing.  The surface on the glass, though, is buttery, soft, and sensual. It lacks the glitz of the tin chlorides and the shifting color palette.  The effect of this punch bowl is far more subtle and this type of surface does not show up often in fumed work.  Currently, I don’t yet know why.  I suspect that it is because it is either very expensive a fume mixture or it is harder to accomplish.  I suspect that it is the latter.  And if this is so, I would like very much to find the particular metals used for the effect and see how I can bring a 21st century sensibility to it in the creation of new work.  This is to say: stay tuned – there will be more!

golden vase resized

I hope you are liking looking at the pieces as much as I have enjoyed making them. It was a real surprise to be honest.

Tumbler. ©Parker Stafford
Tumbler. ©Parker Stafford

I didn’t think I’d like them as much as I do. It has lit a new fire underneath me. Sure, it’s just another line of work, but its more than that.  It gets me down the road a little more with all of this and moves me to the next thing…..and there is a lot of these next things to fill a lifetime it seems.

I swore I’d never irridize…..

fume group copy

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



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.


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.