Sunday, June 9, 2013

Day 28 - Glass Blowing

I have never learned how to blow glass. As something that has always appealed to me, glass blowing has been a skill I wanted to learn more about since I was very little. The periodic glimpses of the art form I caught through personal experiences over the years consistently enticed me, but I never acted on my desire to experience the art in its full form. Although it may be assumed this delay has been a result of challenges locating a forum to learn more about glass blowing, my procrastination is especially absurd given the fact I have known a world class glass blower, Wes Hunting, for a good portion of my life.  In fact, his protégé and son, also a Wes Hunting, has been a close friend of mine for many years. Over the years the junior Wes and I have spent plenty of time hanging out in the glass blowing studio, talking about the trade, and discussing he and his father’s works, but I never took the time to observe or partake in their art, even after Wes’ multiple offers to help me learn. Realizing how foolish this was, I decided to take Wes up on his long-extended offer on our way back to Madison today. After years of delay, I was going to learn how to blow glass from one half of a glass blowing duo known around the world.

The furnaces

My glass blowing adventure began early this afternoon when Rachael and I met Wes at the glass blowing studio on his father’s property just outside of my hometown of Princeton. After chatting awhile outside, Wes invited me into the studio to get our project underway. Together we entered the studio’s worn, grey metal door and stepped foot into a space littered with shelves and tables of glass vessels in various states of completion. A massive furnace positioned near the studio’s back wall whirred from a constant flame of burning gas, which filled the space with stuffy, hot air that immediately struck me.

The Seam...
I looked around the works before me and took time to analyze the details of the completed vessels near the door before I walked back near the furnace to find Wes preparing various tools and equipment. The heat intensified as I moved into the workspace closer to the furnace, which was emitting an intense orange light around the seams of a square metal door. I took in the sights and sounds around me, noting the foreign apparatuses and glass components lining the shelves and walls. Curious, I paced around the space picking up items with uses unknown while Wes lit two more uniquely shaped metal structures tied into the gas lines. I stood observing his activity while Wes rested a line of metal rods on a rack, exposing their tips to the flame in the smallest furnace component. Wes began explaining the purpose of the rods, with tips now glowing orange, and walked me through the general process for gathering glass from the largest furnace, manipulating it with the available tools, and adding color and structure to the glass. I listened, standing stationary until Wes called me over to his location near the largest furnace.

I walked over to his location as he threw open the furnace door, revealing a huge glowing mass resting in a chamber surrounded by intense flame. Scalding heat rolled over every exposed part of my body as Wes explained the glowing mass was an immense ball of liquefied glass from which we would pull the material for our work. Weighing the foreign environment, the unknown tools, and the glowing 2,000 degree medium before me I felt nervousness building. I trusted Wes and his guidance, but for the first time I realized the dire consequences that would come of any rookie mistake I made during the process. With my heart rate increasing, Wes closed the furnace door and turned toward me. “Alright, you ready for this?” he said with a hint of enthusiasm. Doing my best to dismiss the sense of hesitation building in me, I looked at the furnace containing the crucible of molten glass one more time before letting out a subdued, “Yeah…”

Molten glass
Acknowledging my obvious signs of uncertainty, Wes explained he would walk me through the process of making a vessel by having me observe him making a simple piece before I tried it myself. Over the next 15 minutes I watched as Wes gathered luminescent gobs of molten glass at the end of a long metal rod and worked the glass into various forms. Wes changed and manipulated the glass slowly, rotating the metal rod at all times and reheating the glass in the third cylindrical furnace after each step. He rolled powdered color onto the glass and then reheated it. He twisted and formed the glass on a metal table and then reheated it. He sat, rolling the rod across a metal rack while gathering the molten glass in wet wooden tools and then reheated it. He blew a small, forceful breaths into the end of the hollow metal rod until the glass started to swell and then reheated it. In a matter of minutes Wes had heated, manipulated, and cooled the glass multiple times, with each step revealing a more intricate and complex hollow structure at the end of the rod. A twisting pattern of color emerged as he continued rolling the glass while working the material with narrow metal tongs, handled wooden cups, and a thick was of singed wet newspaper. Rapidly, he controlled the flame and the force of gravity to create a molten glass form to the exact specifications he was discussing throughout each step. It was apparent I was in the presence of a burgeoning master of glasswork; a man I’m lucky to call a close friend.


Gathering glass
After a few more minutes of watching Wes work, he asked me to help with a few simple tasks. I held the metal rod as he flipped the vessel to its opposite side by transitioning it to another metal pipe, and sat, rotating the molten glass on center (as best as I could) as Wes manipulated the vessel’s opening. I watched as Wes decided in a brief moment to add a handle to his creation, grabbing more molten glass, forming it into a narrow c-shaped rod, and attaching it to the vessel in a matter of seconds. After letting the glass cool for a few minutes Wes walked over to a "cooling" container heated to a little less than 1,000 degrees, opened the lid, and placed the rod into the center of the unit. He gently tapped the metal rod until the completed piece of glass broke off and fell onto a padded area on the bottom of the container. Closing the lid, he turned to me and said, "There we go! Now it's your turn..."

Wes placed the now-empty metal rod into a bucket at the corner of the room and pulled another out of the smallest furnace. It's tip glowing from exposure to extreme heat, Wes moved the rod toward the largest furnace as he flung the door open again. "I'm going to gather some glass and then hand it to you, ok?" he said as he plunged the rod into the center of the molten glass orb at the center of the furnace. "Go sit down and grab the small block" he continued as I backed toward the work bench with my eyes fixed on the furnace. I fumbled through the tools half submerged in a tank of water attempting to determine which tool I needed. Finally, I grabbed the handle of a small wooden tool with a cupped block at the end. I lifted it out of the water and asked cautiously, "This one?" Wes nodded his head and turned toward me with a glowing ball of glass perched on the end of the metal rod. He set the rod across the rack directly in front of me and lifted my hand toward the glass until the inside of the wooden tool wrapped around it. Together we rolled the pipe of the rack forming the glass into a smooth tear-like shape as heat pummeled our hands and arms. Moments later, I struggled to keep the glass on center as Wes turned more control of the movement over to me. Focusing intently on my movements, I almost failed to recognize the glass had cooled and hardened to a point it could no longer be manipulated. Just as I began to realize the limitations of the material, Wes grabbed the rod and placed it into the cylindrical furnace to heat it once again.


Starting with the basics

Wes and I worked together, repeating all of the steps he showed me earlier when he was making the first piece of the day. Throughout the experience he guided my hands and directed my movements, slowly turning more control of the work over to me as I gained more comfort with the tools and the material. Eventually, Wes had me heating the glass in the cylindrical furnace and moving the rod to and from the work bench. He directed me to blow air into the glass as needed, which felt like blowing into a stubborn balloon. In time, the piece of glass I was working with began to resemble a vase without a top, albeit a slightly lopsided one.

We continued with Wes walking me through the process of flipping the enclosed piece of glass to its opposite side by connecting it to another heated rod. For the first time, I was left at the work bench in complete control of the loose mass of liquid glass as Wes prepare the transfer rod. Seconds later, the vessel had shifted further to one side than I intended. With the tip of the transfer rod orange with heat, Wes quickly directed me to let gravity put the glass back on center. I rotated the pipe and watched the glass slowly sink back to an equalized form. "Start spinning" Wes said firmly. I rotated the rod across the rack in one full rotation before Wes said, "Alright, stop" and pressed the transfer rod into the direct center of the now balanced piece of glass. With a few file marks on my end of the piece and some light taps on the rod in my hands, the glass piece broke cleanly away from my rod and raised upward now stuck to the rod in Wes' hands.

Glass blowing pipes at the ready
After the application of more heat, Wes brought the piece back to me, set it on the rack before me, and directed me to start forming the opening of the vase with a set of long calipers at my side. My first attempt led to a wildly uneven hole at the top of the vessel caused by uneven pressure as Wes rotated the rod over the rack. Wes moved the glass back to the heating furnace and asked me to do it one more time. Equally unsuccessful at making an even opening on my second attempt, Wes said, "No big deal... we'll blow the top out." Unaware of what he meant, Wes plunged the glass back into the cylindrical furnace and handed me the rod. He opened the hole slightly wider causing overwhelming heat to pour out and strike my body. "Spin it fast" Wes said as my head cocked backwards from the heat. In response, I began spinning the rod, doing my best to adapt to the force of the heat firing back at me. 

In seconds I could see the top of the vessel start widening in the furnace. It expanded outward far beyond the base rapidly as I spun. Wes quickly directed me to pull the rod out of the fire and dangle the glass toward the floor. He guided me, making small sudden rotations to the rod as the glass cooled. Before my eyes the top of the vase began to fold in at points, making smooth rounded waves at the vessel's opening that mimicked the petals of a tulip in full bloom. Amazingly, Wes's direction had turned the vessel back into a centered piece with a beautiful appeal that made it anything but ordinary. In seconds, he turned my lopsided, goofy vase into a centerpiece vase suitable for any bouquet of flowers. As I came to terms with what I just saw, Wes grabbed the rod from my hands and made his way to the cooling container. He placed the vase into the chamber and placed the empty metal rod into the bucket in the corner. "That one was for fun. Now, let's do the real thing" Wes said smiling.

Forming the vessel
During the next hour Wes and I applied all of the techniques he show me to make a unique, low bellied vessel. As a good friend, Wes gave me access to the trademark glass colors and patterns of the Wes Hunting Colorfield series that is shown in galleries across the world. We worked the glass, added a layer of color, added another layer of glass, added unique linear, checkered, and candy cane patterns to the vessel's surface, and blew the glass into our desired form. The process was laborious, and with it came a sense of amazement. We were taming heat and gravity to design something unlike anything else in the world, something only Wes and I would create in that moment. I distinctly remember thinking about how important it was to never forget that realization as Wes and I stood in the studio, sweating before our piece of art spinning in the depths of the furnace. Time seemed to slow as we toiled over the vessel, forming its curves and attaching its base. We worked together, Wes periodically correcting my mistakes, to achieve a uniform creative goal based on our collective vision. 

Finally, I sat, slowly turning the rod across the rack at the work bench staring at a hardened piece of cooling glass. All of the colors we had worked with started to appear as the orange glow faded from the work and we prepared to place the vessel in the cooling chamber. I couldn't believe what I had just helped create as Wes closed the lid of the container now containing our glass vessel. Excited, I asked Wes how long it would be until I could see the completed piece. He explained the piece had to cool down to room temperature inside the container over a 24 hour period, which meant I wouldn't be able to see it for some time given my forthcoming trip back to Madison. Now, I wait in anticipation to see our completed piece of art from my first glass blowing experience.


Almost there... The blue is starting to show through

Today presented me an opportunity to experience something unlike anything else I have done in my life. Wes and his father are truly masters of their craft (check them out here) unlike any others in the industry. I'm just lucky to know, and now learn from such talented people. I don't know when I will get the chance to blow glass again, but this is something I would do in a heartbeat if the opportunity presented itself. It is a creative outlet unlike any other, and I'm grateful I had the chance to gain such a unique experience.


One week later... The finished product!

1 comment:

  1. Its really very good information,This s the first time i m seeing and thanks for sharing the information with us.
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