For those who are curious about blowing glass themselves at the studio, this will help you to understand a little more what to expect if you do blow glass for the first time. I also suggest reading the BYOB post a few entries down the line as well.
Over the course of this past season when we had the bulk of the people coming out to blow glass I was told how I let people do more actual working of the glass than other studios do. To put this into perspective, most studios when holding an event of this type do not allow their “students” do much more than pick the colors that will go into the piece and then blow into a hose at the end to inflate their ornament. That in itself can be a real thrill for anyone who has never been involved in glassblowing, sure enough. Having worked with glass, knowing its secrets, knowing how amazing a material it is, I have to be honest and say this is not the best way to expose people to the wonders of glass. I know that some studio’s have concerns about liability, some wont let you onto the blowing floor without a rope between you and the pad where glass blowers work. On the one hand it is understandable, but on the other, its not something that a simple explanation about how to keep safe being in the mix wont correct. At the end of the day we all know that hot glass is an extreme material. It is one reason why people are drawn to it in the first place. Children are carefully shown how important it is to stay in certain places while we are working and once you see what it is that we do on the blowing floor, it is easy to remain safe while being up close with this amazing material. It is an opportunity most people do not get in their lifetimes.
Yes, all you have to do is watch it being made to “get” how amazing this stuff is…..and yet, there is a significant leap that happens between observing and doing. Glass is frustratingly difficult to master. It literally takes years to learn well. The old masters all look forward to getting better with the next piece. We are all pretty humble when it comes to glass (even those who don’t seem to be when you visit their studios or meet them in person at a gallery). Having said this, my big challenge has been how to involve people more in actual glass making while not making it so hard that we can’t get an ornament made.
When I do ornaments with beginners off the street there are several steps that I have to do to ensure that the glass is made right. This is only because some steps cannot be re-done if they are done incorrectly. Like putting on the hanger/eye that covers the hole where the ornament is knocked off the pipe. That step has to be done flawlessly because you have to be able to use the heat in the bit of glass used to cover the hole and get it into perfect hanger shape or everything that you have done prior in making the piece is lost. This step could easily take a day of drilling over and over before a person would get good enough to do it dependably. I know some beginners years later who are still polishing their skills on making good hangers on ornaments! And yet, even at the first go, there is so much a person can learn, and then build upon after that.
When you blow an ornament or suncatcher, you select the colors and I lay them out for you. We talk about what kinds of effects you would like in the glass. Would you like the color to cascade like a solid ribbon through the glass or would you like all colors to simply blow out straight? Would you like anything to swirl together, etc. Once that is determined, we have a basic game plan. After that, I talk about the blow pipe and how to keep your hands safe from the heat by knowing how to use the blowpipe. If the person wants to get the glass out of the furnace, they can. This is the most extreme part of the whole process and its not for everyone. It is akin to standing in front of a roaring bon-fire. It is hot and sometimes the gloves you wear will smoke! the glass is shaped quickly by me at the bench before the student heats it and rolls the glass in the bits of color. depending on the intensity of color desired, the student may do this several times, going back from the reheating furnace to the table where the colored glass is kept. Once this is done, I quickly shape the glass and we begin to initiate what is called a “starter” bubble. Once this is done, I attach a flexible line to the end of the pipe and when signaled, the student begins to blow gently first into the hose, further inflating the ornament.
Once this has been done, and its most often done very quickly, the suncatcher or ornament is ready to be cooled and broken off the pipe by me. I run quickly to get a bit of glass for the hanger and it is made and put away into a kiln where it must cool for about 12 hours.
Weekend and day-long classes are different. While I may do the same steps as mentioned above in the first ornament for a day or weekend class, the point of these classes is to actually give you the skills to balance molten glass on the pipe while blowing/inflating the bubble. Gradually as the steps are shown by doing pieces, the student is given more and more opportunity to repeat the same steps that were shown as we made an ornament for example. In the beginning I do more of the steps so students can observe and learn and then as we move along, the student does more and more of these steps as they are able.
If you want to do more in glass, being able to repeat the same form several times in order to build skill is what is necessary. This past season I had two instances where the ornament that was made did not turn out. The third time for two separate cases was the charm. However, I and the student both noted just how much faster they were in the second go-round than they were on the first. It took almost half the time, which speaks to how your own skill increases once you have repeated these forms a few times. This is progress! Once you can cut that same time in half again is where I work when doing production in the studio. And speed is a very good indicator of skill because with hot glass it means that you are anticipating what the glass will do and you can then work with it to utilize the heat to build the form. You don’t do this as much when you are simply learning what the glass does for the first time. As a result of this, taking a class that builds on skill is what will actually show you how much you can improve and learn with glass….which is a lot!
For those who have not blown glass as the studio or have not been to the studio before, the following post is an informative way to become accustomed to what it is we offer, such as the Blow Your Ornament Ball (BYOB):
People have said I take a lot of time with my students. I do. What I want to be able to do is to expose them to glass and hope that the glass does the rest for them. And I do have an ulterior motive in all of this; if people so enjoy their experience that they tell their friends about it, or show off their creations, they are helping me to get the word out about what it is that I offer. In a world where we get less cereal in the box for the same size box, I want to continue offering something more than all the rest do. The looks on the faces of the folks who took the last picture below tells the story better than I could ever do!
Much 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 different 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.
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.
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.
The 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!
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.
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.
There are a number of stories that suggest the genesis of glass as an expressive and utilitarian material. Some are more believable than others, but what we do know is that glass, unlike other materials was discovered in one place and spread from that locus (in the middle east near Ur or present day Iraq). Glass was an entirely new and unique material whose secrets remained with those who discovered it. It did not pop up in many places at once as did other better-known inventions or discoveries.
Glass was not first blown but was instead heated in small batches over fires more like a forge than anything we know today as being like a glass furnace. The feat, though was significant since the temperatures necessary to make sand turn into glass requires a pyrotechnology that rivals iron smelting, and THAT dear reader is some significant heat. Consider that with our advanced knowledge and ready liquid fuels, it still takes between 2200° to 2300°F. to induce sand to move into a glassy phase. The first objects were trails of glass wrapped around a solid core made up of sand, clay and camel dung. These were the early core formed vessels that were not blown and sported wraps of color like ribbons running down the sides of these miniature vase-like or amphora forms that were used to hold the most valuable of unguents, ointments or perfumes. Only the rich and royalty could afford these objects. They were incredibly rare and the price for a vessel would be on par with the similar prices for a nice sapphire, garnet, or emerald. The craft, science, and art of glass has been highly secretive for millennia. Its secrets were hard won and its keepers sought to keep the gems for themselves.
That was about 3,500 years ago.
About a hundred years before Jesus walked the earth, Romans discovered that you could dip irons in glass and blow bubbles. By coupling their knowledge of mold making in creating mass-produced ceramic items, these enterprising people turned their attention to a new way of working. Offhand glass blowing was born. During that two thousand-year period many epochs in glass creation have come and gone. The empires of glass are many, some more famed than others, and the march continues for the hope of the new. For as much as we would like to say there is nothing new under the sun in glass, artists and artisans continue to tease out new forms that have never existed before, cutting new soil and turning up fertile ground for new movements, ideas, and advancements.
There is nothing like hot glass. I have had a broad background in sculpture that has put me in contact with a variety of metals for casting including pewter, silver, bronze, aluminum, and iron. I have fabricated in steel, aluminum and bronze. I have carved wood, fabricated in wood, along with stone and a variety of materials all made in molds including paper, wax, polyester resin, chocolate, and clay. I have built forms from slabs of low fire and high fire clay, slip cast clay, coiled it, pit fired and raku-fired it. I have developed a slip cast clay for pit firing when I was in graduate school, and I also developed a new take on papier-mache that involved a glue that was highly reactive to heat that provided me unusual coloration. I have worked in mixed media, cloth, wood, encaustic and oil paint. I wont claim to be an expert at all of these things, but I do know that when it comes to the mainline materials used for creating three-dimensional objects, there is no other material that is like glass.
Drop it on the floor and let it drizzle along like honey from a spoon and what you have moments later once it cools is a beautiful tenuous thread of liquid frozen light. Add color and it gleams like a gemstone. Exert expert control and you have a vase, a bowl, a sculpture, or a window of stained glass. No matter the methods or the means, glass is intrinsically beautiful. It gleams. Like gold, glass wont save our souls but it certainly will bring us delight. We could certainly hold our milk in ceramic jugs and life would continue perfectly fine if we didn’t have an ounce of gold upon the planet. But we seem to need the twinkle, the sparkle. Somewhere deep inside of us glass just makes us feel good. For me, it is nothing short of a miracle. For someone who has been in business since 1997, I think that is a significant statement.
The truth is, in order to master glass it takes years to develop the requisite skill needed to command a material that is frustratingly difficult to manipulate. In the glass houses of Murano and earlier in Venice, a maestro was only so-called after many years of practice. Boys who were allowed to first sweep the floors would take years of service before they could rise to the level of a gaffer, the name used for the individual who blows the glass at the bench and heads a small team of workers who move together as a crew to help move at the speed of molten glass, which is most certainly fleet. I did not feel like I had begun to “get it” until two years of weekly practice. I stuck with it and I did this because the moment I saw the bubble emerge from the blow pipe. In fact, I am a little embarrassed to say that when I saw glass being blown while in graduate school for the first time, I clapped my hands like a gleeful five year old. I am a little embarrassed to say that, yes, but also proud. I am proud because this material had lit such an intense and immediate fire under me right from the start. Through all of the comings and goings in life, the hardships and uncertainties, glass has remained as the royal and regal presence it has always been in my life. My fall for glass was instantaneous. When I close my eyes I see a world of wooden buildings rising up along the canals of Murano some four hundred years ago as hot shops or glasshouses held the honor of being the glass center of the world. It wasn’t until Dale Chihuly began a school in Pilchuck Washington that the center of glass shifted to the United States in a Pacific Rim city called Seattle. Wherever the crown goes, glass remains what it has always been; so simply beautiful that we need not even speak a word or seek to describe it in order for others to “get” it. We get it.
Glass eats light. Refraction is measured by an index that actually describes how much the glass impedes the FLOW of photons through its form. By slowing down light, it is accumulated, and this is what gives glass its sparkle. It seems to glow from within. And just so you know, I came by the refraction definition in a book on engineering and optics. As light gathers within the body of a piece of crystal, it shines and glimmers. It makes us feel more alive, reflecting perhaps the shimmer that is most assuredly in our own souls, that it reminds us in such simple and uncomplicated ways.
For all of the tradition that has built up around such an ancient material such as glass, I will be the first to tell you that I came to glass as something of an outsider. I came to glass later in life and was not privy to the knowledge that such a tradition can amass in ones mind. The American Studio Glass Movement whcih was largely kindled by Harvey Littleton who began the first glass program in the university system in the U.S. It was at the University of Michigan at Wisconsin-Madison that Harvey developed a program that would produce some of the first glass artists who would fan out through the U.S. and begin teaching or working in studio practice to spread the gospel of glass. For as much as I feel that I stand apart, I am part of this upstart tradition, even if only marginally so. Bill Boysen was there in that program that Harvey had just set up and was in on the very beginnings of its big questions and discoveries. It was under Bill that I was able to rediscover glass for myself while at graduate school, and even though I was a full time student in sculpture, he welcomed me into the program and provided me with the opportunity to take part in a program where we made glass,sold glass, and used the money to build new equipment and to purchase supplies. His method was startlingly direct and simple; learn by doing. Let school be a lab for real life and require students to know how to build equipment and develop their own studios. For Bill, nothing resided in the theoretical realm but was discoverable right here and now. You learn by doing, and we all learned under his care. I have remained outside in order to remain fresh and to always look at glass with a fresh eye. I quickly learned that my lack of knowledge was not a deficit but an asset. I might not have been able to blow a dragon-stemmed goblet, but I was free to ask questions that many may simply have not considered due to their involvement in a tradition that was not used to asking those questions. There are great gifts that glass has yet to offer up and they reside within the potential which we have yet to realize. Lino Tagliopietra, arguably one of the greatest of glassblowers the modern world has known expresses the same sentiment; there is more to learn, more to explore, more to know even as he continues to work well into his seventies.
Glass exists at the edge. in order to work glass properly, it must be so hot that it is nearly on the verge of being uncontrollable. There is this small window of viscosity that exists where this vitreous material is worked. The ability to control this unwieldy material now in its molten state is where mastery emerges. This is not easy. Glass becomes a challenge, a mountain to surmount and along the way a great discovery of the stuff that we ourselves are made of. Whether you are the one who has glimpsed the peak of such a mountain or someone observing the fruits of such an expedition, the result is the same. We are enchanted by this impossible, even implausible material. Yet, here it is; a miracle in our midst. Glass is precious partly for how fragile it can be, but also for how difficult it can be to grasp on a technical level. If you listen, it will teach you. My greatest teacher has been the glass itself.
When I first opened my studio in 1997, I began the second leg of my education in glass. I had only a few years’ worth of experience with the material. I had one course in graduate school. After that, everything was considered independent study. I was given a key to the studio for my four hour blow slot where I would blow glass and seek to tease the secrets slowly from the great body of material that were my first years in the field. I worked alone because I felt so behind everyone else who was in the glass field full-time. I was a sculptor working on earning my M.F.A. at Southern Illionois University at Carbondale and I was a late comer to the world of glass. When I left the university and decided I wanted to work glass full-time, I soon learned that the number of pieces of glass that I would make in a week would be more than I would make in an entire semester at school. Time sped up, or seemed to. The secrets of the language of glass began to emerge and carried me along from one discovery to the next. I knew nothing of the world of “paperweights” and chose to make rocks with galaxies hidden within them. The truth is, most paperweights bored me. They seemed stiff and formal. I simply was not drawn to develop any kind of study of the old traditions even though I was aware of them. I think that this is the place where new ground is revealled, even though we may not recognize it for what it was when we look on as observers to what an artist is seeking to do. Instead of making my “rocks” round, I made them bumpy. Instead of brightly colored on the outside, their shells concealed a great secret within their crystal caverns. What would be the bottom of a piece was the top of mine. Everything that was considered traditional in this form was exploded, lain aside like some old tool that had been used but was too worn to be of much service. Without any bias in my mind from the burden of too much information or knowledge, I set about quite innocently making things in a very different way. The glass, in truth, showed me the way. I learned from it. By remaining attentive, I discovered how I could take piece that took forty-five minutes to make and reduce that time down to just six minutes. I found that I could shape glass by how I moved through space instead of touching a cold wooden or metal tool to its surface, which sucked it of its life force, which for glass, is heat. By learning this, I was able to pack into the moment more operations of shaping and streamlined the process in ways I was never taught before. The only way I did this was by observing the glass. I didn’t walk fast, I merely listened to what the glass was telling me. The discoveries came in an incremental way and stacked up over time. What you see in my work is the result of a development or a route that is the result of many small steps in a larger journey.
As a result of this love of glass, I teach glass making to others. I do my part to spread the gospel of glass. My own teacher, Bill Boysen, was a generous, excited, and enthusiastic supporter of his students and of the art and craft of glass making. I try to pass along a little of his own spirit in my work as well as those things I have found to be of value, too. I don’t teach because teaching brings me great economic fulfillment. The truth is, I can make more money just by blowing alone in the studio. That, however, is not enough for me. Being able to be around the hive of activity that is a studio full of newcomers to this very ancient art is something that borders on the mystical for me. There is a satisfaction that I get, a fulfillment that reflects on my early days of excitement and wonder about the potential of this material. Leaning this close to that fire is where the essence of our creative spirit resides. So I teach. I have the best of all worlds in a studio that allows me to display, create and teach all at once if need be.
To understand the expressive potential of glass you have to just see the possibilities. There is cast glass, fused glass, torch-worked glass as well as blown glass. In my own studio I have both offhand glass blowing (glass blown by hand the old way) as well as a studio-within-the-studio with a set up with torches to teach lamp working, another term used for glass made by torch. These two realms of glass making are very different from one another and their appeal includes a broad audience. Some come to learn, while others are content to watch as I blow piece after piece. Looks are completely free. Sometimes I am host to groups who want to see the work finished in the gallery while also being able to see the work being made before their eyes. The studio is especially suited for all of this.
The classes offered at the studio are day-long intensives, weekends as well as short Blow Your Own Ball events (BYOB) where participants work with the gaffer in designing and then blowing an ornament or suncatcher as well as a paperweight option, as well as events that involve working with the artisan closely to create custom designs to your specifications. You are right there as the piece emerges from the pipe and as the collaborate energies flow between you and the glass worker. There is consideration of a glass pumpkin do-it-yourself class, bead-making classes, as well as evening catered events with music, food, and locally sourced beer and wines from our own microbreweries and award-winning vineyards. Everyone who comes leaves smiling, and it is little wonder; there is nothing else quite like glass.
Please contact me directly for studio hours: our work is seasonal and sometimes the studio can be down for repairs, for example. Some days we are blowing glass while other days we are running errands or away at a show. Let us know when you are free to come see us and we can work something out that works for you.