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The Art of Glass Blowing

Glass, it’s a not-so-modern marvel, a typically clear amorphous solid. In simpler terms, it’s a solid that has a liquid state. In old ghost towns and glassworks of antiquity you can find examples of glass that has “flowed” over time. It’s not by any means a quick process but it’s part of what makes glass so interesting. The mass of the glass will slowly be pulled by gravity to the bottom of the pane. This results in the glass becoming thicker at the bottom and oftentimes milky or cloudy in appearance.

The practical and less than practical uses for glass are quite varied. From tableware, eye wear and decorative items glass is everywhere. Blown glass works and art objects have been discovered in archeological sites in the Jerusalem area dating as far back as 37 BC. Glass objects that have been cast, core formed or worked in other methods can be dated much farther back. The Roman empire is credited with the spread and enhancement of the glass blowing techniques that would eventually evolve into the methods used by artisans today.

The Artists

Around 1962 the studio glass movement began and artists like Dale Chihuly began to create fanciful creations as delicate as snowflakes. Chihuly’s works range from flowers to fish to amazing chandeliers that cascade from the ceilings to statues and sculptures that can be viewed in museums and public spaces like Abravanel Hall. After an accident that left him with only one eye and restricted use of his shoulder he took a small step back and now relies heavily on his team of glassworkers to help him bring his visions to life.

It’s a shame that the many amazing sculptors and artists who work in this medium are often overlooked in favor of more traditional artwork and Chihuly’s name is the only one really known to the general public. Here are the names and works of some of the great glass artists today. Hopefully the world of glassmaking can become as familiar as the works of Chagall, Picasso and Da Vinci.

William Morris: Though he started his career in glass works as a truck driver for the Pilchuck Glass School, he took courses and eventually worked his way up to instructor. During his time working with glass he was able to push the boundaries of how glass can be manipulated and created astonishing works that resemble bone, wood fibers and other natural elements. His works are inspired by ancient civilizations. His works can be seen in the Corning Museum of Glass in New York and the Metropolitan Museum of Art along with a number of other museums around the world.

Rick Satava: This artist started his career in highschool and went on to study the art of glass blowing at California State University. In 1977 he opened his own studio called Satava Art Glass. His one of a kind pieces are created from glass that he created himself. Some of his works were even featured in the film Guardians of the Galaxy.

Sonja Blomdahl: While studying art in college she was distracted by laughter from a glass blowing class. That jovial moment started Sonja on the journey to her glass blowing career. She attended the Orrefors Glass School in Sweden. Her particular style is eye catching and lets light flow through it in such a way that it glows. Some of her works can be seen in the Corning Museum of Glass and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. She even has a presence in the White House collection of American craft.

Glass blowing and you

Glass blowing is astonishingly accessible. It may seem like a task for only the most serious artists with no fear of the extreme heat and possibility of injury or disaster.

Red Flower Studios, in Park City Utah, offers their clients an opportunity to experience the art of glass blowing with a hands on approach. The owner and operator along with his friend started the studio only two years ago. Together they have over 11 years experience in the glass industry.

Picture of Nancy Lee rotating the glass punty

Red Flower Studio gets its name from the story of the Jungle Book when Mowgli meets King Louie and is asked about man’s red flower. The idea being that the flames in their furnace are a beautiful force of creation and power. The artists at Red Flower Studio are generous with their talents and welcome anyone who wants to give it a go. They welcome visitors who just want to watch the process and encourage you to ask questions and get involved.

There are a few places in Utah that you can purchase blown glass but there is only one place for a beginner to learn glass blowing without having to commit to taking classes. Red Flower Studios offers a paint night style approach, whereas if you wanted to get serious and approach glass blowing as a career opportunity you would have to search out a school to learn the craft.

How does it work?

First you book your appointment. Then when you arrive at the studio you choose what you want to create. They offer a fun variety of ornaments, vases, candy dishes and other art objects. Then you choose the colors you want to use in your creation and then the creation begins.

The furnace, which is almost always running, has a pool of clear molten glass in its center. The glass will be around 2000 ℉. The artist will dip the end of the blowpipe into the molten glass and twirl or spin the pipe to gather the desired amount of glass for their project. Glass blowing is largely a team effort. The artists that create with glass typically have an assistant to help with things like opening the door to the glory hole.

The artist, Nancy Lee, working with the glass furnace glory hole

Once a sufficient starter has been gathered the artist will roll it on a marver, a table or plate made from graphite, steel or brass. This helps shape the glass and distribute the heat evenly into the glass.

Then back into the glory hole to bring it back up to heat. The heating process is similar to roasting a marshmallow, you must keep the tube rolling and moving at all times or the glass will flow and pool.

The artist will then dip or roll their starter in shards or finely ground pieces of colored glass. By now the glass has cooled somewhat and it will need to go back into the crucible to be heated.

Adding color to the molten glass on the marver table

Once the colored glass has melted sufficiently, roll it on the marver again. This will even out the glass and make it easier to blow. Then, using a stand or just holding the pipe, the artist will blow into the pipe simultaneously rotating and blowing until the desired shape or size has been achieved. This process can only last for 10 to 15 seconds before the glass has cooled too much and must return to the crucible for heating. The heating and blowing process is repeated as necessary to achieve the desired dimensions for the creation.

There are many tools that a glass artist will use to shape and craft their work into bowls, vases, light fixtures, ornaments and thousands of other creations. When the artist has finished working the glass they will carefully cut it off of the blowpipe. This is a tricky process because the glass is too hot to hold and is still malleable enough that using a tool to hold it can leave marks. Heat resistant gloves, like those used by welders, are used to catch and carry the glass artwork to an annealing oven or kiln. The initial heat should be around 960 ℉.

Shaping the curl on top of the glass globe

Once all of the creations are in the kiln the heat is gradually turned down while the glass rests in the kiln for at least 14 hours as it slowly cools to room temperature. This annealing process helps prevent cracking, shattering and promotes the strength of the glass. Finally the artwork is inspected for sharp edges and a grinding block is used to polish them away.

Glass blowing can be very dangerous and that can be off putting. But in the capable hands of the artists at Red Flower and other glass blowing schools it can be as easy as 123. Don’t forget to wear closed toe shoes and cotton based clothing. Safety First.

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