Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Don't Quit Your Day Job

Two demos and ten attempts, with a lot of help

31 October 2017

I'm not at work today. I'm out on the chilly back porch, with a thermos of coffee, the cats, and an emerging sore throat, while noise and sawdust emanate from within the house. There's not much for me to do but catch up on some reading and finally post this blog about glassblowing two weekends ago.

On a snowy weekend in February 2015 I drove out into the woods for a two-day glassblowing class.  Between then and now I've had almost no contact with melted glass. When I signed up for another two-day course with Don Gonzalez last winter the class was cancelled. I'd told him then that I'd wanted to make ornaments for Christmas gifts. When I signed up again this year he remembered. 

Four people had enrolled: me, a mother, and her two daughters. I arranged for Tom to take the ride I was supposed to lead. Two days before the class Don emailed to tell me that the other three had cancelled. He said he'd give me a one-day private lesson for the same price, and that when I returned to pick up my ornaments on Sunday I could see what glass casting was all about, as he had scheduled another private lesson.

I told one of my colleagues about the casting part. "You should cast a brain!" he said. He gave me a foam model, one that he's been using to top the lab's sorry little Christmas tree for the past two years. "I'll see what I can do," I told him.

Around 9:00 a.m. a text message arrived. 

Tom had convinced Ricky, Jack H, Bob, and Jim to raise their middle fingers to me for not being there to lead them. I texted back that I felt jealous and loved at once.

The studio is at the top of the second hill on Upper Creek Road in Stockton. At the top of the first, at around 10:45, I stopped next to some cyclists who had pulled over. "Everything OK?" I had a pump in the car but nothing else that would have been of any use.

"Wardrobe change," one of the guys said. "Avert your eyes."  The temperature had already jumped ten degrees since 9:00. I explained that I was a displaced cyclist today and was on my way.

The studio is in a barn at the end of an unkempt gravel driveway. I was greeted by three vocal sheep.

Martha, Don's wife and sometimes assistant, strolled over to greet me. The sheep were new, she explained, the old herd having been done in by a coyote. The new herd was protected by a fence. This was their first day out of the barn, and they were none too happy about it.

"That sounds like an old, red truck," she said as an old, red truck rumbled down the driveway. Don had been delayed at an unexpectedly popular hazardous waste drop-off event. As he had last time, he gave me a tour of his glass collection, pointing out the new sand-casted windows he made, some flea market finds, and an old piece of his bought on eBay.

Here are some of his hand-blown pieces. He's good at controlled, uniform shapes and subtle blends of color. While my tastes veer heavily towards funky rule-breaking, I know that I can't break the rules until I learn how to work within them. Right now my work is funky and irregular because I have little control over the hot glass.

When I took this picture of the woods from within the studio last time, everything was covered in snow. Now the top half of the barn door was open.

The bouquet of stringers was in the same place. I hoped to use some of them.

We didn't get started right away. First was a long discussion about the political climate. Don was afraid, afraid enough that he was seriously considering moving to southern Spain, where this summer he'd met for the first time some of his relatives and fallen in love with the mix of Moorish and Christian classical architecture.

I understood his fear. It must be worse out here in the back woods of Hunterdon County compared to the deep blue Princeton bubble I live in. "I'm gonna stay and fight," I said. He wasn't sure. On the other hand, he'd have to move his entire studio to Spain. That was keeping him  here, and grounded while he thought it over some more.

Not having handled hot glass in a year, I'd forgotten almost everything. I think he wasn't as patient with me as he was three years ago. Pressed for time, he decided it would be better if he took over the techniques I was having trouble with (although I'd done them well enough before, but I didn't say anything). So after I fumbled with the first two attempts at marvering, he gathered and marvered the glass for me, then let me work it at the bench.

The first ornaments were demos. I'd drawn a doodle of what I had in mind. One was of an ornament with glass threads inside. "That's easy," he said, and proceeded to blow a bubble, indent on opposite sides, and suck air back through the pipe until the indents touched.

"Leave it like that!" I said. He seemed perplexed, but he did and he finished it off. He did a second one, blowing it out again this time, and put that in the annealing kiln too. The next one I got to do a little more with, and he showed me how to get a crackling effect by dipping the hot ornament into cold water for a fraction of a second, then reheating it in the glory hole before finishing it off.

He had me try a crackle ornament for myself. It didn't explode on me, so it went into the kiln too.

We took a break for lunch. I sat outside on a rock, took pictures of the studio, and checked my phone for email and texts.

There was another picture from Tom. They were at their rest stop in Frenchtown, and had enlisted a gathering of complete strangers to join in with the middle finger raising.

Fine. Let's just see if Tom gets one of my ornaments for Christmas.

At the house, on the front porch, Martha spun sheep's wool into yarn on an antique, foot-powered spinning machine.

Next up, rolling hot glass in colored shards. I had no idea what would come out of it, and I didn't much care. It would look uncontrolled and funky, which would be fine with me.

The temperature outside had shot up another ten degrees. The afternoon sun beat down through the open half door, right onto the work bench. It got too hot for us, and I pulled it closed.

We'd forgotten about the foam brain. I retrieved it from the car. Don pressed it into a bucket of sand to see what kind of imprint it would make. "We can try it," he said, but the indentations in the foam weren't very deep. It might work, it might not. I didn't care either way.

A handful of students from his weekday workshop arrived to clean the sand off their casted pieces. While they did that I took more pictures of the studio.

We made two ornaments rolled in shards of colored glass.

Next I broke up some of the stringers. I didn't even try for a controlled pattern.

That one went into the annealing kiln. I wanted to try a ribbon of color next, so we began to heat a lump of glass while he attended to the students outside.

I took a sheep break. They came up to the fence and bleated at me.

When we got to work on the next piece the students came inside to watch. I put one of them to work with my camera.

To oxidize the metals in the ribbon, Don turned the flame way up in the glory hole.

Here I am helping him put the top on the ornament. I held a little blob of molten glass and he pulled it into a strand that he looped around itself.

We had six in the oven now.

I heated the ribbon glass again, then, following his instructions while he went outside with the students, got it hot enough to pick up a piece of glass with a second color. I moved it to the glory hole, where I stood, turning the punty slowly until the two pieces of glass melted together.

Don returned and gathered more hot glass. A blob dripped from the pipe and landed on the cement floor. Something there caused the blob to expand into a jellyfish. "I'll keep that!" I said.

We were in the middle of another piece, though, one that required both of us to be at the bench.


That was the jellyfish exploding.

"We could have saved it if we'd put it in the oven right away," he said. Oh well. I have no room in the house for anything I can't hang from the ceiling or a window anyway.

Seven in the oven.

Cat break. This is Sal.

Next, frit. I chose a mixture of amethyst and blues first, and then one of greens and amber:

Something clicked now, and I had much better control of the glass.

One of my ideas was to try a teardrop. He hadn't done one before, so he pulled the first one after I'd worked the glass a bit. I pulled the second one, where I mixed frit and shards just to see what would happen.

We had twelve ornaments in the kiln at the end of the day.

Outside, Maurice was my friend.

One of the little sisters was around:

Mario, the cat in the distance here, approached Maurice.

Hesitant at first, Mario became my buddy. He wouldn't stop dropping to his back on my feet for a tummy rub.

In a ditch by the side of a barn sat an old van, its weathered colors blending like the studio glass.

Don instructed me to return at 3:00 the next day to pick up my ornaments and watch sand casting happen.

I spent the morning on a Halloween ride with Chris and Sue.

The it was back to the studio, where Don had piled my mess into a box.

I spread them out to assess the situation. Of the dozen I would definitely keep the last three I made, and  maybe the indented demo too.

Meanwhile there were molds ready for casting. The student was making three plates, one each for his daughters. The mold was cast in sand and covered with carbon black to prevent the sand from sticking to the glass. On top of the carbon he had laid colored shards, which were all but invisible against the sand.

With Martha assisting, the student kneeling on the floor by the mold, and me tucked safely away, Don opened the furnace, 2500 degrees now (it had been a mere 2200 yesterday, and I could feel the difference all the way across the studio), and poured molten glass onto the mold.

White hot, it cooled to orange, then red.

Here's the second one. The layer of glass is visible in the sunlight.

Now the third one:

What was left in the ladle after each pour was dumped onto a pan, where it crackled as it cooled.

Something had gone wrong with one of the colors of glass. The heat had oxidized the deep blue into a coppery green, and the student didn't like it one bit. He didn't want to give the plates to his daughters if he himself didn't like how they looked. I tried to persuade him that his daughters might like them anyway. There's no accounting for taste in any direction. I thought it was pretty cool that the glass changed color. Uncontrolled. Funky.

Now it was time to pour the glass for the brain.

This required more finesse, a dollop of molten glass poured from a ball of cooler glass into the well:

The brain glowed in its well:

A thread of molten glass had hardened on the floor:

We'll have to wait a while to see how the brain turned out. Don is traveling. He'll mail the finished piece to me one of these days.

Meanwhile, here are the ornaments, at home, close-up (and now packed away from the dust and mess of a new floor).

Here are the two crackled glass pieces. The little one is the one I worked. Obviously.

Here's the demo that I halted halfway. I'm keeping this one.

Here's the other glass thread demo:

The first two pieces rolled in colored shards:

I crackled one of them just to see what would happen.

Here's the first one with a ribbon. Don turned the ornament while I held the ribbon above and let the green glass drip down as he turned. I might be giving this one away even though I like it.

This is the second ribbon piece, the one where I melted two colors together. Don started in on showing me how to make a peacock feather pattern, and I did some of it too. This is about where things finally started to click.

The first of two teardrops:

And the second, rolled in shards and frit:

I'm keeping this one:

Lest I get to cocky, and in order to give Don something like a tip for taking me on, I bought a wall vase from him:

He wants me to come back, but first I must spend a semester in Bucks County College's glassblowing class.  "I'm not sure I want to," I said.

"I think you do."

He's probably right.

[What I think I'm going to do is, rather than foist these irregular lumps onto unsuspecting friends, auction them off. The class was $250, so each ornament cost me a little over $20. Anyone who wants one of these can donate $20-25 to a charity we both approve of and the ornament will go to a good home. I'll do a separate post later.]