A Factory Artform: My Experiences Glassblowing
It’s no secret that we are constantly surrounded by art in the modern world. We can naturally recognize the artwork that goes into a painting or the shape of a sculpture, but there is much more art around us than we immediately acknowledge. For example, the carpentry that goes behind crafting every wooden chair and table often go forgotten as art. The architectural calculations and drawings that it takes to construct any building is art. Perhaps the reason that we don’t often recognize these paradigms as art is because we associate them with factory work. The indents in the legs of our table don’t remind us of the master carpenter who initially designed this angular work, but rather it reminds us of the factory where these designs are now mass produced. Similarly, nobody gets to see the hundreds of pages of blueprint work that it took to raise a building. The only part of the process that’s ever seen is the mechanical construction of the building. For these reasons, it’s very hard to constantly remind ourselves that factory work is still masterful artwork.
Perhaps the most powerful example of factory work that is also artwork is the art of glassblowing. Glassblowing is the artistic process that goes behind creating glass objects, from windows to decorations. I got to spend last month apprenticing at the East Falls Glassworks studio in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I originally only went to the glassblowing studio for the sake of recording the work they do there for a film project, but on my second visit they let me practice blowing the glass a little. Over the course of the next month, I ended up going there many times just to practice molding glass with them. Working there, I got see the spectacular procedure that it takes to create glasswork, and experience firsthand how incredible the art of glass is.
The process that goes behind each piece of glass is fairly complex and hard to explain without actually being present in a glassblowing studio, but I’ll do my best to explain it simply. Projects typically begin by setting up the gloryhole oven, which is a gigantic heated chamber that reaches temperatures of 2400 degrees Fahrenheit. While the oven is heating up, we would typically use a blow torch to preheat whatever piece of glass we would be molding. The glass has to be preheated before entering the oven because placing it directly in the oven would cause the glass to get so hot so quickly, it would melt off its shape entirely.
Once the glass is ready to be placed in the oven, we would connect it onto the blowpipe. The blowpipe is a key tool in the process, as it forks onto the glass and allows glassblowers to stay at a safe distance from the molten object at all times. Then we’d throw the glass in the furnace, and the heat would make it mendable. Once the glass is mendable, the true artisan work begins. Now that the heated glass can be mended, (the glass is no bigger than a water bottle at this point in the process) the artist in charge of this project would sit down with it and start molding it with a block. A block is a Cherrywood tool that looks like a spoon that we’d use to shape and center the glass.
Using the block takes a while to get used to. Not only are you dealing with tolerating the intensely hot glass rod, but you’re also trying to correctly mold it into whatever shape you want it to become. Molding vases is especially hard, as you have to gently caress the glass in your hand to get the curves of the project just right. By the end of the month I was starting to get the hang of it.
Of course, a lot of the projects we worked on were bigger than little pieces of glass. That’s why at the end of the blowpipe is a hole for a second glassblower to physically blow into. This blowing releases a burst of air into the molten glass, which expands it. While its expanding, the first glassblower has to continue to mold it throughout, making sure no unnecessary bubbles of air or imperfections show up.
Also, the heat is continuously dying down, so throughout the process we were constantly going back and forth from the workbench to the oven, making sure the glass was staying constantly heated and mendable.
Depending on the scale of the project, sometimes there were extra steps. For curved surfaces, we’d have to slide them across a solid surface to guarantee the curves were perfectly circular. Larger objects were especially hard. I recall one project was a 30 pound decorative orb, which got so large that it took two people just to hold it. It also got so hot, we had to place it in a spherical metal chamber and rotate is fervently just to let it release some of the heat while keeping its shape.
After the projects are done, we’d have place them in garage ovens, which are big containers that keep the glass hot while it settles into its final shape. After 24 hours, the finished product can be taken out. It’s very interesting that this process sounds so intense and factory-like, but at the end of it, all that emerges is a serene and beautiful ball of glass, vase, bowl, or window. When we eat from glass bowls or decorate our houses with china and vases, we rarely consider the amazing circumstances that created them. It is an amazing craft that magnificently combines the acts of heat tolerance, artistic craft, and beauty.
For me, this glassblowing experience was really just an experiment with an artform I’ve always been interested in. But for the guys who work there on a daily basis, it’s an entire lifestyle. I found it both fun and interesting, and I’d love to return to it one day, and I high recommend it to anyone looking to experiment with a new art form.