I recently went to a Glassblowing workshop at Playing with Fire in Toronto. Glassblowing is terrifying, thrilling, and so much more stressful than a glass artist makes it look. Given the opportunity, do it.
Our teacher, Minna Koistinen is a member of the Geisterblitz Glass Studio, an internationally renowned partnership of glass professionals, artists, and designers. She has her own line of glass fine art, sold Canada-wide. She makes glassblowing look effortless, like the most natural thing in the world is to swing a blowpipe just so to make that small lumpy piece of glass into a thin, elegant vase, all without setting anything on fire.
Her assistant, Andrea, is apprenticing in the art form. There are very few trades (or so it seems to me) that still use this as a means of instruction, but most art forms seem to need that time observing and helping out to really learn the techniques. Especially when it comes to things like glass-blowing, where learning to get a feel for the material is a big part of determining just what it is you will make.
Minna walked us through the equipment we would be using, and then ran through each exercise, while maintaining a steady stream of comments and instructions for us. She and Andrea helped each of us through the exercises, which is good because the minute I got the rod in my hands, the only thing going through my mind was a kind of dull roar of “MAKING GLASS!!!”, mixed with paranoia at potential death by fire. Step by step instructions were enormously helpful!
When you’re dealing with a material whose temperature starts off at a molten yellow glow above 2000 degrees Celsius, safety is a very important feature. Even after it is cooled to the point of solidifying, the glass is still hot enough to cause severe burns and nerve damage. Throughout the entire process, all I kept thinking to myself was Don’t Touch the Glass!
I was a little bit concerned that I would do something that would cause shattering of glass, set something on fire, or just plain experience some of that terrifying nerve damage. I am not exactly graceful.
Another distinct possibility was getting that oh-so embarrassing teacher feedback of “well, isn’t that… special. I had no idea you could make that particular shade of brown out of such pretty starting colours of glass.”
We each made a clear-glass ornament by letting strings of glass slip off the pipe and swishing the stick around to create a pattern. Next, we made paperweights (all the pictures show this), with coloured glass inside them. All the movements that appear to come so naturally to Minna are considerably more difficult than they appear. Focusing on not burning oneself while also keeping the rod turning to catch the molten glass that wants to slide to the floor, and following instructions – it’s all a bit stressful! It’s also amazing. As an art-form, I found glasswork to be a terrifying rush that I have never encountered while doing watercolours. There’s the time-constraint of rapidly solidifying glass, the paranoia about catching things on fire* and the thrill of making something that will be completely individual to me, even if the next person makes the exact same moves as I do, uses the exact same colours.
All the coloured glass burnt red-orange when it was added to the original molten clear glass. The art of glass blowing doesn’t end at the point of tapping off – the glass has to cool very slowly and evenly, or you risk it shattering, or, at the very least, cracking into pieces. Yes, my other fear apart from fire was explosion. The last I saw of our paperweights that day, they were orange-filled, despite the fact that only one of us actually put red and orange tones of glass into her piece.
A few days later when I went to pick them up… well… judge for yourself!
If you’re in the Toronto area, I highly recommend taking an afternoon to try Playing with Fire and make your own completely unique creations. If you aren’t, but see something like it offered in your area, try it!
*the number of times I’ve mentioned it, you’d think I regularly accidentally set things on fire. Not true, but the paranoia remains. Also, word to the wise, do not put a muffin in the microwave for ten minutes.