Glassblowing 101, The Third Dimension and a Glass Cadaver

DREAMS

I declared myself an artist when I was in grade school. I had this romantic notion of an artist’s life, perhaps in Paris, or even San Francisco, painting as performance, on street corners and hopefully selling enough for “today’s meal” ( Todays meal would always be spaghetti and wine, a loaf of bread for my dog) As I ascended through the grades, my resolve thickened to steel, although certain teachers tried to tell me otherwise, and today’s meal became organic, vegan, and for my dog and I, gluten-free.

At home on Woodstead Rd. in Country Knolls, NY, I made sculptures out of clay-dense mud and then dried my creations in the sun. My studio was a sunny place in the yard, safe from pets, and it was also where I made tea in a jar.In my memory of those long childhood summers is this clear vision of the Flintstone Characters made of mud (from a mold set given to me by my dad), drying in the sun next to a jar of tea bags and fruit slices dissolving in sun-baked water.

I used to write in that sunny spot, out in my childhood’s yard…

and typed and illustrated my own books about long adventures taken with my pets, stapling the binder carefully to hold and present my work. My topic’s origins were usually inspired in my dreams. One of which was a reoccurring dream that featured my pets and I running away from home, on long adventures. These dreams were often ongoing for many nights, and would pick up each night, right where I left off the previous, for a few days or even weeks.

My mother sent me to art classes during the summer, and I loved to paint, but as much as I loved it, I was mediocre at best. The third dimension is what gave me a voice in the arts and opened many new and exciting doorways in which to express.

My best grades were always in art, and I was proud of it. I did not realize in my youth that the scale is probably breached and any student who participated in any art project, got an easy A. It’s just art, subjective, and easy.

Having always been voted class clown and best artist by my classmates through mid and high school, and praised by my art and english teachers, I was surprised in the 11th grade when my ceramics teacher told my mother, during parent/teacher, that I had not the natural talent for fine art, and must not waste college money on that directive.

I was devastated, cried for a few days, but with my mother’s help and my natural stubbornness, I was eventually willing to hope I had some place in the art world and would find it.

I enjoyed writing and hoped to lead an interesting enough life to write well enough to publish when I got older, not imagining that someday I could attempt to attract readers on a vast social web.

Other than writing/literature, sports, and art, I struggled in school. I also struggled to make friends until middle school, but found my confidence in my interests. A guidance counselor helped me to plan my high school classes in such a way that I fulfilled everything before 12th grade except art, english, and sports, allowing me to take electives and classes that only bolstered my GPA.

My brothers graduated college while I was in middle school, a time before the many sad turns that changed our lives financially and split up the family. But I was always programmed to go to college and did not consider the implications of having to do it on my own, and just bullied ahead, because, by then I didn’t know what else to do. I filled out forms and signed promises I had no hope or expectation to understand and without a clear plan, I signed the promises.

I worked through high school for my dad as a waiter, and for other restaurants in which I made decent money, mostly in tips. My income was $300 too high for grants and, at the time I wished I received the grants, but understood I was lucky to have a skill and proud to have an income… so I acquired debt.

SUNY New Paltz

When I first entered college, I was amazed at the talent and multitudes of artists that were much better than I. Artistic talent, back then, and to some extent now, is defined by a person’s ability to draw. Drawing is the test by which we enter as an Art major. There are vast expressions of art that is meaningful, but most instruction begins with the natural talent to draw. So…

Figure Drawing 101, Painting 101, Perspective Drawing 101, Printing 101 the first semester. Then Figure Drawing 102, Painting 102, Perspective Drawing 102, Printmaking 102, the second. The following two semesters were Graphic Design, Calligraphy, Life drawing, and finally an elective toward a specialization.

During my 3rd semester, my teacher for Figure and Life Drawing advised me to realize I had not the talent to compete in the art world, and that I should consider another major. At $11,000/semester his advise weighed heavy. If I lacked talent, then I would never be able to pay my student loans with that very degree for which I was striving. I worked as a waiter at Digger’s Hideout, a local bar, and for the film department at school and was completely independent from my folks,  financially and literally, so his advise rang true…

I consequently enrolled in my fourth semester as a business major and it was a short but very sucky three weeks.

Summer 1985

I spent that spring and summer in Lake George, NY waiting tables at the Sicilian Spaghetti House and Peabody’s Bar and Grill, the former a high-end restaurant, the later a refreshingly casual and quaint bar and grill, in which the only requirement for employment was looking good in shorts. I lived in a tiny cabin, in a row of cabins full of college kids, with a shared refrigerator on the porch …and that craziness did not suit me one bit.

NEW HAVEN, CONNECTICUT

I then left NY for New Haven and enrolled as a Physical Education major and that was lots of fun, but became my minor, as I eventually found my way back as an Art major at Southern Connecticut State University.

Having completed most of my beginning courses previously, I was allowed to immediately get involved with the three-dimensional arts like Sculpture, Figure Sculpting, Pottery and Glassblowing. I did very well in school from this point forward, at least in my writing and art classes. I wasn’t the most talented, but often times exceptional, and wasn’t effected by my lack of talent anymore because I stopped listening.

I was then working full-time out of school as a waiter at a high-end restaurant called September’s, as well as in school as a lab assistant in the glass studio. I struggled to manage my time and decided to move in with a friend’s mom so I could concentrate on school. Saving rent like this helped me realize how better spent my time was and I eventually stopped commuting to her home and just lived in my truck. The time and money saved created the very best years of my life, and gave me time to be a kid, go to concerts, have fun and excel at glassblowing. That art department became my whole life, the students my people. We didn’t have to go out. Our party was in that glass shop.

Often I am asked:

“What made you decide to be a glassblower?”

In which I answer

“A cute boy in the glass shop in college”.

Which is true, but I knew immediately that this is what I was. After my second piece successfully puntied my teacher said proudly “Your going to be a glassblower!” and I knew he was right.

 

Penland, North Carolina

The summer of 1987, I went to the Penland School of Crafts. I paid a large portion of my tuition for a 3 week concentration course in the Blue Ridge mountains of North Carolina, working in the kitchen, prepping and serving. The food was amazing, organic and locally grown. Brian and I had our own room and our teacher was Paul Marioni, a well know glass artist and father of Dante Marioni, also a well-known, Venetian glassblower.

Paul made large freeform sculptures and that month he was making big, blue rocks for a zen garden. He was very cool, but unnerving.

 

Day 1- Introduction to Glassblowing

Oddly enough, that old hippy took us skinny dipping the first day of class- to form a bond between us…that BS would never fly these days…but it wasn’t too weird and we learned to not be afraid that day, and to get along.

We learned that there is a place in this world for all our art, since glassblowers are few, how to market, and some rare techniques, like casting, sand casting and Graal. We visited the great Harvey Livingston, the father of contemporary glass in the U.S. He introduced the medium at the first college to offer hot glass, and my teacher, Peter Pellitieri was one of his original students in the 60’s.

Harvey Livingston was 62 and I thought that was ancient!! He had two young, well-built men with a pole held between them and a contraption to hold Harvey’s  pipe as he moved through his stations, blowing a large vase.

I remember thinking… I hope I do well enough to have two young men help hold the pipe for me when I’m 62 …and I still have time to reach that goal.

We then sat raptured at his every word, on the floor around him, while he told us countless stories of his youth and years of experience. His home was full of display units with art carefully placed on the shelving within. He marked everything with an index card describing the medium, technique, the artist, and the date. It was like a museum, and when I visited Peter’s home years later I found his sense of design was very similar.

Ugly Glass?

Our first assignment was to make something ugly. This exercise was to prove to us that the medium is so special, we can hardly make an ugly piece. And he was right, everything we all attempted to make ugly, came out too nice to hand in. We all failed, (except Brian, who added a second medium of hairy fiber blanket that he accidentally picked up with a dropped gather) and that gave us confidence to appreciate our own ability to make art with this special and rare medium.

We all had our own furnace time. There were two glory holes* and we worked in pairs, scheduled around the clock. Brian and I worked 12-4 am, and the 24 hour constant use of that studio made the fire art building the party after most students, of other mediums, were done working.

We worked this crazy dangerous medium with little oversight and with lots of young adults drinking and dancing and carrying on…it was awesome.

And I only electrocuted myself once, got lucky, and learned to never use a metal jack to move around pieces in a 220 amperage annealer named Liam.

note:

Yup, glassblowers name their annealers and have dangerously obscene sounding vocabulary to describe techniques, tools, and furnaces.

*The Glory Hole is the working furnace in which you keep the piece warm while you are making it. The glass cools within a minute, so the glassblower goes back to reheat often in this 2000* furnace that has a hole in the center in which, while placing the blowpipe in a yoke,  and the glass into the opening to reheat the glass into a molten and malleable state.

 

The Glass Skull

Another memorable lesson I would like to share is when Paul described taking a commission from a patron, how to achieve what that patron describes, and his own way of succeeding, with one project in particular, and bringing it to marketable fruition.

Paul had a request to make @100 small skulls, set at different angles with interesting variety. Now to create one mold, out of graphite or steel, is a long and sometimes expensive project. But to create variety, this would require at least 20 molds, and was just not feasible to keep the project at the reasonable rate necessary to get the commission. Also, to create by hand sculpted wax skulls in which to cast the steel molds was a lot of work and time. So he taught us to think beyond our own hands, and to create a concept out of glass by allowing the glass’ natural flow help create the desired piece.

Paul decided to make one mold. He bought a plastic skull from a toy store and used that form to create the mold out of steel. Once he received the mold and started casting. he discovered that knocking the glass out of the mold at different times during the cooling cycle caused them to land on the marver at different angles, and the  glass would cool at that angle, slightly slumping the form but also making innumerable variations…off one plastic toy and a little ingenuity.

IMG_0759

I made this skull from his mold that summer.

GRAAL
Another assignment we worked on that summer was the Graal technique, this whale was my first

We  overlaid one color on top of the next to make a cylinder, sand blasted the form out of the cylinder and sand blasted the detail on the design. Once up to temperature, we rolled a cylinder of molten glass onto the image to pick it up, and then gather over, then blow into the final piece, with our carved design embedded in the surface.

IMG_0795

My whale overlaid on an aqua galaxy

The grand finale of these concentrated weeks of study was the
GLASS CADAVER

The final was a group project. In every one of Paul Marioni’s classes, the final project is a sand casted glass cadaver. He assigned the project between us all by cutting a  body shaped piece of plywood, and then cutting that shape into the many body parts. We each took our plywood body part and formed our designs with clay on the shape of the wood. Once dry, we then pushed our part into moist sand to form the mold. After a layer of carbon, we poured the molten glass into the sand form, removing and annealing when it cooled to a solid.

Once annealed we put all our individual parts together to make the one-of-a-kind glass cadaver. Each piece was unique and separate from the others, so the final effect was quite hilarious. Once the masterpiece was complete, we buried our creation next to other classes’ buried cadavers, out in a field on the Penland estate.

When this burying-ground is found sometime in the future, the confused discoverer will have a real belly laugh, we did.

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