Art and Design, glassblowing

New Work

©Parker Stafford

If you are an artist then you know the importance of new work.  Developing new winning designs is a way to not only generate renewed interest in your brand, but it serves an integral effect of helping to keep you creatively vital.  I know that for me I get a big bump behind developing new work that helps to push production for a while.  I feel better.  Life just FEELS better to me and my mind is working in a much more fertile way as I wonder just what might be next on the creativity front.  Its as if the world moves from few options to one where options are just bursting at the seams.  Such is the effect that inspiration has on us.

The last four years have brought unprecedented change to my life.  From a severe shoulder injury, to a divorce, to managing an eight-entity partnership to being without a home and without income.  Being instantly disabled was no fun. The doctor explained I would not do anything except therapy with my shoulder for an entire year.   The combination of pain killers and discomfort and my inability to work was like a depth charge in my world.  It shook my confidence, it took me back to square one, and it also gave me a solid period of introspection into WHY I was doing what I was doing and caused me to step back and look—really look—at the who when where and why’s of all of this.. When the tree was shaken in this way I had to look long and hard and honestly at WHY I was motivated to do the things I was doing.  Why was I running a business in production glass?  It isn’t as simple an answer as you might at first expect.  Having a marriage break up during this time was itself a double-whammy and was made much more difficult by a spouse who sought to put children in the middle of it all while also limiting my exposure to them.  The economy was in the doldrums and I had few options available to me as I recovered just enough to wind up in another pot of soup.  And in the midst of all of this very terrible stuff was a center of clarity and purpose…..and even design.  I don’t believe in destiny.  I believe we create much of this.  A life can have a design that often escapes our notice but emerges in times when we allow ourselves to grow quiet.  If you step back and look at our culture and world as a whole, we really aren’t known as the species that quiets itself.  What we take as quieting the mind is akin to a brief distraction from the normal rush of inner dialog that goes along with our days.  You just never realize just how much you do it until you are suddenly without it.  Boom.  The sound goes off. The lights go out.  You are suddenly suspended within a deep blue buoyant ocean of a place.  What happens to you in places such as these?  In sensory deprivation tanks the mind is known to feed information out of itself for its own consumption just in order to keep the information loop it is so used to having supplied to it, going.  We never realize any of this until something comes along to put the brakes on things.  Its relative, so breaking the frame of reference just a little does a lot to begin to shift awareness, feeling, and being.

So, putting away the violins for a minute, I want to say that one of the few things that has helped me get through this period has been the ability to create.  During this time period I have had some of the biggest outputs of writing in my life.  I amassed a 700 page manuscript for a book, wrote several children’s stories and began developing new work and classes for my studio business.  I have written music, poetry, maintained up to three blogs and wrote an article for an online magazine on the subject of nonduality.  I was asked to teach at two colleges locally.  Now I teach at just one.  Part time and perfect.  It keeps me in the mix with young minds that want to be involved in new and different projects in a collaborative way, much as was done this past semester with my sculpture students in making blown glass sculptural forms for the Glass Garden project that I wrote about a few posts down the line.

Being able to have friends who serve as inspirational source-points can be incredibly important for turning the boat in your life around.  I know that for me, the creative was the one force that made the difference between madness and great joy.  It wasn’t a crutch; it was a means for changing how I thought, how I felt and how I reacted to the world around me.  A curious thing happens in the brain when we choose to feel differently; we do!  Our bodies stop pumping out things like adrenaline, which is a stress chemical and begins to pump out things like endorphins, dopamine, and other feel-good compounds.  The body is actually a loyal servant to our own minds and feelings and will most often mirror our thinking and feeling state as precisely as it can chemically. If you care to know just how fast this change can take place, observe as you allow your feelings to shift from one mood to the next. Our bodies can shift on a dime for us if we realize that it is we who control the boat and where its sailing!  Too often, though, we wind up being mastered by our feelings, and this can put people into quite dismal places indeed.  At the end of the day, though, until you understand that YOU are in control of all of this, even your own so very crazy emotions (that feel out of your control), you wont develop the sense of personal responsibility and self mastery that is necessary to have the confidence to take charge of your interior life and put it into a more positive direction.

Shell form 5 -b sizedSo art and creativity was a powerful way through all of this for me.  This was good, too, because I like simple and nondogmatic.  I happen to believe or feel that all of this here was not meant to be difficult but can actually be amazingly simple.  Like falling off a log.  Instead, though, we often set up barriers to our success.  I know I have.  Lots of them.  Why?  it all comes down to self love.  Not selfish narcisism, but rather a reverence for your own self as a gateway to worlds of wonder and boundless joy and love.  We tend to mess it up somehow, self-sabotaging most often.  Somewhere along the line we begin to feel that we aren’t good enough.  We are then on the lookout for any suggestion that we aren’t.  Our minds actually are on the lookout for ANYTHING that matches this pattern turning in our minds or hearts.  The thing about these patterns is that they are like plants; they will continue to self-propogate and can wind up getting worse.  You can also in that moment choose to go in the other direction and actively change the pattern into something different.  You can literally change your mind.  You can change how it operates, how it responds, how it chooses from a list of behaviors.  One of the most powerful ways to change these negative patterns is through creativity.  By being creative, you are granting yourself permission to be happy and to enjoy what it is you are doing as well as to begin to consider not just new ideas but also allowing yourself to enjoy something that you may have felt edgy or uncertain about (because maybe you felt like you just weren’t GOOD enough at it) for some time now. Sitting down with a guitar and playing music alone might at first seem like a lonely thing to do, but it can also be an incredibly nurturing thing too. Giving yourself the freedom to dream wildly and creatively is another way of honoring your own insides. It can be a game changer, it really can.  We now know that the very substance of our brains actually undergoes change as we begin to rewire the brain by developing different thought and feeling patterns.  We can see how different parts of the brain begin to light up when we move away from anxiety and uncertainty and allow ourselves to play and have fun. Play and fun are not mere idle activities; they are the very substance of what gives us long lives, healthy hearts, bodies and minds, and productive relationships.  When we are happy, when we are engaged, everything moves so much more smoothly.

As a result of all of this I remind myself that I need to stop what I am doing periodically and design new work.  Already I have begun some very different things.  Who knows if they will be of any interest.  When it comes to developing new work you do what you like and what winds up selling helps to support the business and more innovation.  Its not unlike a publishing company or movie producer that has blockbusters that help subsidize the less successful but just as worthy lesser known movies or books. I can remember making some of the ugliest suncatchers ever.  They were an experiment that went wrong.  I took them to a show and placed them in a basket on the floor.  They were the first things to sell and were gone within the first hour of the show.  So there is no way to gauge popularity; do what you like, make what you love and leave the rest to the fates.  Really.  If this is about pleasing other people, you are going to spend many sleepless hours trying to do just that when the only thing that ever made any sense or works is pleasing yourself.  I know maybe that sounds self centered, but you know, I have noticed that when I am happy, those around me feel that happiness and respond to it.  If I am not right then those around me are most certainly affected.  Instead of seeking to fill your cup from others, fill it yourself so that you are overflowing.  If we each did this we would each be in a lot better shape emotionally, and socially as a species.

This year I have embarked on some very divergent ideas creatively.  I wanted to do fish for my home.  I made some out of ceramic.  I wanted a garden because of how being amidst living things make me feel.  Last week I had a hummingbird buzz around my head as I stood stock still watching it move through the garden.  Bees and butterflies by the dozen are zooming in and out of this garden and it just lights me up to watch.  It lights me up to watch people enjoy making art, enjoying what they are doing.  I am making new work in glass, more different than anything I have ever done and yet its also some of the most satisfying so far.  I am breaking away from the vessel more and pushing blown forms into sculpture.  I am beginning to make water fountains; this was something I had NEVER considered but once I saw the results of what I and my students had created, I was hooked.  I wanted one in my yard, too. I wanted TWO.  One in the front, one in the back yard!  Here is glass and color and water all in one place creating sound and movement. Maybe its not highbrow, but I am a simple man.  Sometimes the sublime speaks to us through the ray of light peeking through the trees, or in the particular pthalo green we have on our pallet for the day.  In each moment, tucked between the obvious and the esoteric there is something and it is waiting quietly for us to recognize it.  When we do, it doesn’t require grandiose visions.  Its as simple as a smile, as grand as a waterfall.  It is in both, and it waits for all of us.  The gateway is in allowing ourselves, which is so very much like what making great art and invention is all about.

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.