Working the Glass, 2012
My wife and her sister took a glassblowing class at Norfolk’s Chrysler Museum last weekend. If you went to a public elementary school in Virginia it’s a pretty sure thing that you took a field trip to Jamestown Island that included a stop at a glassblower’s workshop. I can tell you with some certainty, though, that the field trip to Jamestown wasn’t what inspired my wife and her sister to take this class.
I have much better memories of visiting glassmakers on the island of Murano, where generations of Italian craftsmen have created practical, artistic and what I’d call confectionary glass pieces. By “confectionary” I’m referring to those fragile Glass Menagerie-like figurines of stallions and jumping fish that seem to be made with as many Rococo flourishes and curlicues as possible.
If you pick up nothing else from a trip to Murano, it’s that glassblowing’s hard work. The mechanics aren’t too difficult to grasp, but call for strong upper body muscles, good lungs, good concentration and the ability to pay attention to about a dozen things at once.
Experienced glass blowers do this with the dexterity of surgeons and the fluid motions of dancers. They’ve been handling glass so long that it’s second nature to feel the mood of the glass.
The newcomer, on the other hand, has neither the muscle memory nor the deeply worn habits of the centuries. I won’t bore you with some of the terms my wife had to learn in the course of the class other than to say that out of the glassblowing context some of them are words that couldn’t be published in a family newspaper.
And then there’s the heat. The furnaces are kept at more than 900F. I don’t know what to relate that to other than to say it’s damned hot. Standing where I was, a good twenty-five feet away from the action, it was still damned hot.
And there’s the glass, of course. In its raw form it’s a thick molten pool of red-hot sludge that’ll burn your skin and singe your hair if you get too close. Once out of the furnace glass hardens quickly as it cools. The glassmaker has to step lively, keeping the canna da soffio—the blowing pipe on which the glass is “gathered”—constantly moving to keep the whole affair from losing its center of gravity or, worse, falling off onto the floor. While this is happening one also has to envision how the glass will be shaped and which of the metal and wooden tools will be used to achieve this shape. For newcomers, by the time you reach that last point the glass on the end of your blowing pipe has probably cooled so much that it’s unworkable. You have to put it back into the furnace, heat it up again and start all over.
It goes without saying that glass is fragile. The instructor warned the members of my wife’s class not to get too attached to anything they made because it might not survive the final processing. Indeed, a lot of glass was broken during the class, including what I’m told was a breathtakingly beautiful bell jar made by my sister-in-law.