The Soul Of Glass

I wanted to start talking about glass, to explain what interests me as an artist, and why I have stuck with it for so long.  What is it about glass that makes it so seductive?  In a series of posts, I am going to explain the art of glass to you, not too laden  with technical jargon, but just enough to give you a feel for the stuff.  Maybe a few videos thrown in, and a lot of work.  Perhaps in there somewhere, what I do will begin to make a little sense to you if it hasn’t already.  For some folks, glass is still a bit of a mystery.  We, artists from all walks  of life, are involved in changing that, and bringing this material forward as an expressive medium.

Consider this….glass can be cut and polished at room temperature in order to shape it.  It can be put in a kiln and gently draped over a mold, or in a mold, or poured HOT into molds.  It can be blown, it can be shaped  solid. It can be rolled.  It can be ground up fine and packed into molds for a real nice effect called Pate De Verre. There are now dichroics, thanks to the space age and the lunar rover (this stuff was designed for the camera on board that craft) It can probably be other things we haven’t even dreamed of yet. We are working on that part.  And I am here telling you about it.

Its ancient technology resting on the edge of cutting edge tech.  Some tools have remained unchanged for thousands of years.  Some change yearly.  Perhaps its the same with other things, other media.  Perhaps I am biased; glass always seemed like a miracle to me.  That it was even discovered is a miracle in and of itself.  And its story is an interesting one since glass was not taken up as a breakthrough that covered the globe.  No, it was discovered in ONE place by ONE people and then spread from there (in highly secretive fashion lest anyone uncover the secret to making glass from the raw ingredients!).  But that is a story that I will save for another post, a little later.

There’s no doubt about it.  Glass is a terribly seductive material.  Having worked in a variety of media, I can say unequivocably that there is no other material quite like it.  Glass must be kept molten in order to work it, so it “exists” as a plastic material only in those higher ranges. This means the studio is an engine of heat.  Furnaces blast using specially designed equipment capable of achieving, and then maintaining about twenty-five hundred degrees Fahrenheit.

When I first began blowing glass, I was a grad student at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.  I was there studying sculpture and had just completed my first semester when I discovered that there was a glass program there.  The guy who was hoping to find a replacement for his job at the University Museum told me about the job as well as the class.  I wound up taking his job at the Museum so he could move to teaching glass.  And that is how I started blowing glass first at Carbondale under Marshal Hyde, and then Prof. Bill Boysen.  I wound up falling in love with it.  It was instantaneous.  From the moment the bubble emerged from the blow pipe, I was hooked.  It was that simple.  I continued my studies in sculpture and completed my M.F.A in sculpture, but when I left Carbondale, I was also a glassblower.  Impatient with getting a job in academia, I chose to go full bore in the studio biz and did, designing and building all my own equipment in a bare little space of a studio which I turned into a humming world of molten lava until I moved to SW Va and to a very different studio space (you gotta promise to come visit the gallery and the studio–its a great sandbox!).

In order to work glass with any degree of speed or facility, you have to keep the material within a fairly narrow temperature range.  If you work the glass too cool, it takes forever to get a piece done since its plasticity is limited.  If you work too hot, you could lose the piece as it careen out of control by becoming TOO plastic.  Everything with glass happens within a pretty narrow window, and as a glass worker, you are able to gauge what this window is both by look as well as feel.  I can remember working alone and realizing I could gauge temperature strictly by how the glass resisted my turning it on the pipe.  When glass is hot, it will “lag” behind the turning of the pipe.  This is because it is semi-fluid.  its like getting a small pool of water to turn in one direction using your hands.  It doesn’t all start the same way a solid object would start to turn; it is more like getting MOST of it to turn and then the really hot soft stuff that is “lagging” catches up through sheer peer pressure.  Well okay, not peer pressure. Its just not an exact thing.  Its a coaxing thing, a cajoling thing.  This is what makes glass so hard to master.  It seems to have a life and a mind of its own.  It is what also makes glass frustratingly difficult.  And rewarding when you get it.  Its a miracle that the material can even be shaped, or kept that hot, let alone transformed into objects of great beauty.

Each time I blow at the bench I think about this small miracle.  It keeps everything fresh for me as I refuse to stay entrenched in what I think the material is capable of.  Its capable of more than I can even conceive.  I just have to learn how to tease those new secrets out of it!  And so you get an idea of what I go through when making my stuff.  Or new stuff.  New stuff is interesting for how, even now, I go partly by instinct and partly by something that is entirely mysterious to me and I am sorry that its like this, but that is what it is.  This is the miracle side of the thing.  Its how I come up with the coolest ideas.  They can even seem or appear as accidental. Some are flat out accidents.  You heard me.  I discover the most when I relinquish the greatest control.  Then the glass shows me, and I follow.  Its accidental like that.  I know it probably sounds like mumbo jumbo, but its very significant mumbo jumbo and that’s just how it is.  Its a mystery,  And you and I have to deal with that while we sit back and enjoy the fruits of the days’ labors.  Don’t get me wrong; I couldn’t do any of this if I didn’t know how to blow glass.  The blowing part I have down.  Its what allows me to do what I do with minimal effort, the part that frees my mind and spirit to soar.  You can’t always do that if your mind is burdened or you are still working on getting technique or form.  It actually has to be set free.   I haven’t figured out a way to do this while constantly having to figure out if I am doing the technique right or if I am having trouble keeping everything centered.  Its why artists create.  Its a touchstone to something still larger.  And deeply rewarding.

This is what is called the glory hole.  It’s also called a reheating furnace. Some people snicker at the term which is now used for a very different meaning.  I could give you the history of where glory hole came from (gold rush actually) but I will just let you stare into the intense heat of the furnace for now.  Its so hot that the flame from the burner isn’t discernible.  Everything becomes incandescent at these elevated temperatures.  In just the right place within the glory lies a swath of insulative material that isn’t just yellow, but white.  I aim for that spot, knowing by its color to be the hottest spot in the entire place.  Here is where the glass will quickly melt and become soft and pliable.

There is little more capable of capturing the sense of flow and liquid the way glass does.  Having said that, glass is also expert at turning into just about anything, and that includes things that don’t flow.  There is nothing contradictory in what I just said!  Right?

For me, I enjoy the fusion of hot with cool, the water and fire all at once.  I enjoy watching the material go through a transformation from hot to cool.  And truly, it transforms.  Colors change, some colors seem to radiate light while they become opaque and dark once cooled.  Sometimes it feels as though you are looking into the secret life of glass.  Like the hot side is its undercover identity, and few ever see it.  In this state, in this phase of its expression, things are VERY different.  And as quickly as it began, its over.  The piece is quickly broken off the punty and dispatched to the annealing oven so that it can go through a special heat treatment that is absolutely necessary.

I think annealing is like a big mystery to most people, a kind of invisible process that you can’t see or touch or taste or watch as it happens.  This all happens inside the safe confines of the kiln or oven.

The speed at which glass exits its plastic phase into its solid phase can result in considerable stress being built up in the body of the glass, a type of thermal stress that is never seen by the eye, yet is lurking there, ready to strike at any moment.  If the glass is taken through the liquid to solid phase and below to quickly the glass will register this stress invisibly, and it will also break if it continues its march much below 750° F in too rapid a fashion.  Instead, the oven or kiln is used to slow that descent so that everything cools just right.  Too fast, and stress can be reintroduced, and too slow and the glass could slump at the higher ranges (deform slightly from the high-end heat).  There are ways to calculate all of this and in general a note is made of what is the thickest piece in the kiln because that batch’s annealing cycle will be determined by the thickest cross-section of glass in the kiln.  the thicker it is, the longer it takes for the annealing cycle to work.  Glass is, you see, a very poor conductor of heat, so it takes time to get heat INTO the ware or work, and it is slow to take it out of the pieces.  Again, this is why if you cool too fast, you can actually cause work to break (everybody make a sad face now).

Inside of glass is a world where nothing is real, where light bends, where solids register as etherial sprites.  Nothing is as it should be and yet, it all feels perfect.  Looking through glass is somehow like looking through a womb, a world made of water and muffled sounds.  There is nothing about it that suggest cold hard reality, although I am sure there are people who are whipping their glass into such submissions of shape and form.  But not me….at least not now…

The expressive potential of glass is huge.  It can be made to be soft edged and water.  It can be turned into angular rock-like forms and made to fool the eye.  it flows and yet it is solid.  May describe the medium as a super cooled liquid, and to this I would agree, but absent the thought that the material keeps moving (that is an old romantic tale that some seek to back up with various inaccurate “evidence” which just isn’t so, sadly, but I wont go into here….maybe later…if you are interested…)

Most often, my work with glass is in letting the material speak its own language of molten fluidity. I add my own contrasts to highlight my own preferences and turn of mind, but homage is given in my work each moment to the amazing fluidity of this material.  I have only begun to scratch the surface of the potential this material has…

When glass exits the furnace where it is “gathered” or twirled onto the end of a blowpipe, the molten shapeless gob of glass (yes, “gob” is actually a technical term in the glass forming industry; so appropriate!) is allowed to cool and be shaped.  A bubble is inserted through the long blow pipe in order for the glass to be inflated and have a hollow inner core.  If this is going to be sculpture that isn’t hollow, the glass isn’t blown in the traditional way, but is instead “solid formed” which means that no air is blown into the center of the molten material.  Instead of blowing up like a balloon, its more like dipping hand dipped candles; layer and layer, the wax or glass builds up on the outer-most layers until the achieved size is realized.  Through a series of as many as fifty different moves, a relatively modest vessel can be formed, such as the perfumer to the left.  For larger more elaborate objects, the number of steps can treble and the need for assistance from others in on the team effort can sometimes be required.

All blown glass, or hollow vessel forms always begin the same way on the blow pipe.  They are blown and then the vessel has to be cracked off the pipe and a new tool, called a punty, a solid rod with a dab of glass on its end is used to temporarily stick to the bottom of the vessel so that the broken ends can be heated, trimmed, and then heated until it is either spun out (for a bowl) or it gains enough plasticity so that it s top section can be formed into a long graceful neck for a vase or some similar kind of form, depending on what the artist has in mind.

Glass has remarkable expressive potential.  It can be blown, it can be formed in a kiln (fused glass) it can be worked on the end of a small metal rod in the making of beads, and the glass can be ladled molten into molds while hot for cast glass.  It’s an amazingly versatile material that makes glass containers, windows, windshields, beakers for chemistry experiments, platters of Pyrex for cooking the roast beef, and beautiful objects of art adorning the home the same way jewelry would adorn a woman’s body, helping to add that special visual accent or looks that helps to make the dress, or evening.  This is how we adorn our lives through intelligent designs that help shift how we look and how we respond to a space.  We can add any number of looks or sense of taste to a space depending on what we choose.  Good design matters, and handmade matters most!  Okay, so now  its the next big thing….is it history?  or do I delve into the forms themselves?  Good museums for glass to go to?  Other artists?   A blog on the renovations going on at the studio?  A few videos?  Hmmm….there is a lot to consider.

(All images are my own, and if you would like to use them, you have to ask permission)

©Parker Stafford, Stafford Art Glass

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