[Having inadvertently waded into murky legal waters, I have edited this post to remove names, faces, and artwork that isn't mine. All names that remain are of the instructors I've taken classes from over the years, all of whom deserve public credit for putting up with newbies like me.]
15 September 2018
"You should take a class at Bucks County then come back," Don Gonzalez said as I was halfway through attempting to make a dozen glass ornaments with his help in his Hunterdon County studio.
"No time," I said. That was almost a year and two Wheaton Arts classes ago. Too far away, too expensive, and too far between, anything I was learning would fade by the time I had my next chance.
The hell with no time. I'd make it work somehow. In April I applied to Bucks County Community College and became a non-credit, non-degree student in order to take Introduction to Glassblowing on Wednesday nights. We'd be required to choose a four-hour "lab" in addition to class time so that we could practice and complete our assignments.
From April to the end of July I was the only person signed up. The instructor wasn't entirely sure the class would happen. Then he was, as the 14 open seats fell to 8 a week before class was to begin.
I was the first student to arrive at 5:45 p.m., nervous, because I figured I'd be that stereotypical old person in a room full of 20-somethings. The instructor and an assistant were sitting at a sagging blue picnic table outside of the open, corrugated metal studio door. I immediately relaxed; both looked to be around my age. The next person to arrive was older still, retired. Two college-aged students, both men, trickled in by 6:15. The fifth registrant, a woman, never showed up.
We sat outside, going over administrative stuff, safety rules, and what work lay ahead of us. There was no glass in the furnace yet; it would be put in on Saturday and it would be ready for our first class the following week.
We were asked to introduce ourselves. My classmates were 1, a young, full-time student who had been a landscaper; 2, a retired Vietnam vet who already knew he'd be missing three classes and had been taking sculpture courses at Bucks; and 3, a full-time student at East Stroudsburg University, enrolled in 8 classes, who needed to fill an art requirement and liked what Bucks had to offer. Karl, our instructor, was part of a long line of American glassblowers.
I stepped back to take some pictures of the studio.
Our homework was to read a handful of textbook chapters and watch a series of instructional videos by the book's author. As I read and my muscle memory kicked in, I could tell exactly where my education had fallen off. As I watched the videos I got less confident and more nervous.
August 29 marked the beginning of another heat wave. I was too nervous to drive, lest I get caught in traffic on the way home from work. Instead I rode my bike to work early, when it was only 70 degrees, and home at 3:30 p.m., when it was 98 with a heat index over 100.
We sat outside for as long as we could. 3, the 8-class student, had dropped, as had the woman who never showed up. We were down to three.
The furnace was full of molten glass held at 2050 degrees Fahrenheit. It emitted a constant, high-decibel roar that melded with the two exhaust fans at the studio door. I fiddled with my hearing aids to figure out which setting would work best. My deficit is in the same frequency range as fans and motors; all of it gets amplified beyond comfort.
Mounted on a first aid box above a sink, about ten feet from the furnace, was a room thermometer. We were standing in 105.6 degrees.
There were two advanced glassblowers working at the other bench. My temporary lab partner was a fourth-semester glassblower. He wanted to make ornaments, which he said he'd never done before. This confused me because I had done it before. Well, not all of it. I'd never made the loops. It was then I realized just how slow the pacing would be, and just how much and how long it takes to really master the medium.
"It takes years just to get bad," said one of the advanced glassblowers.
While my temporary lab partner asked me to help him by blowing and turning the glass, when it came to my stem pulling, I was on my own. The heat was too much for him. He left for a while to return a library book. Sometimes one of the advanced glassblowers would offer a vague suggestion, but mostly I pulled without being able to figure out how to get a round end and a long stem at the same time.
It was so hot that we took frequent breaks, standing outside in the 90-something degree humidity to cool off. I watched everyone else.
I must have pulled 25 stems, 16 of which I thought would be good enough to show Karl, even though not one of them was correct. All of the ends were squashed. I didn't know what would be expected of me. (At home I turned them into a single pdf.)
We'd used so much glass that the level in the furnace had dropped visibly. Gathering was now a painfully hot proposition, as we had to reach deeper and there was more hot air to reach into.
Even though I was sweat-soaked and screwing up, I was having fun. My temporary lab partner had his share of mistakes too.
At the end of the night one of the advanced glasslbowers asked me, "Wanna make an icicle?"
This was easier than making a stem. All I had to do was stretch the glass out, fold it back on itself, grab the far end with tweezers, and roll the rod to twist the hot glass. He cut the glass from the rod and fire-polished the end. He let it cool on the bench, certain that it was small enough to anneal without a 24-hour cool-down in the oven.
When it was cool enough to touch he wrapped it in newspaper in case it decided to explode, and we all set about cleaning the studio, which had cooled to 97.9 degrees.
One of the assistants came in at the end to refill the furnace.
Wednesday was just as hot outside. Inside was only 104 degrees. I was now making a point to take a picture of the thermometer as soon as I arrived.
Next to our work bench was a sieve covered with chips of colored glass. I don't know what it was for; we were told we would not be working with color this semester.
2 had dropped the class. Now it was just me and classmate 1. We sat at the sagging, blue picnic table for as long as we could. Tom reported that his first lab went well and that his partner was a big help.
Wait, what? "I was left to fend for myself," I said. Karl was not happy about this. "I'm gonna yell at them," he said. "It's everybody's job to help the beginners. They know better." I hoped he was being hyperbolic about the yelling part. I didn't want to get anyone in trouble. At the same time, though, I was angry as well. I'm paying for this class, and it seems I'd wasted four hours of it.
I showed Karl the photos of my lousy stems. "I never got it right," I said. He reassured me that my real lab partner, whom I'd meet on Monday, was great.
Eventually we couldn't put off entering the studio any longer. Karl said he was going to grade us on our stems. We'd get one practice stem and one real one.
I squashed the ball again on the first one, but the length was good and the stem was smooth.
The second time the ball was good but the glass cooled before I could get more than an inch or so out of the stem.
He graded me first, then my classmate. We both did well enough, but he did better. All of a sudden I was a high school student again, angry at myself for imperfection, feeling stupid and competitive. I had to talk myself back to reality. For fuck's sake, I'm not even taking this class for a grade, let alone credit. Jeez.
I needed to be more like the rubber ducks chilling in the pipe cooler.
My classmate, left-handed, was trying to decide if he should switch hands. "Better to do it now before you get used to it. If you stay a lefty you'll never be able to work in another studio." For fun, Karl decided to try to pull a stem left-handed. "Don't pinch!" he yelled at himself as he squashed the end.
"Now you know how we feel," I said.
He was still sitting at the bench when I said something (whatever it was escapes me now, but it must have been one of my typical, nervous, insecure comments). He looked up at me in a way that was far too familiar, perplexed and humored at the same time.
I grinned. "What?"
"We're gonna have to work on your confidence," he said.
"I'm 52. Good luck with that."
"I like a challenge."
When I was a junior in college I took a writing class from a professor who told me, "Laura, you're the most peculiar mix of confidence and lack of confidence I've ever seen." I didn't like her much. "She deserves to be baffled," I told my roommate.
We were done with the stem thing. It was on to starter bubbles, jack lines, and flattening. Having done some of this before, I felt as if I were back on firmer territory, Karl created a demonstration piece, making the whole thing look easy. My classmate and I fumbled around again, making a few squat little bubbles.
We took a break at the picnic table, where the 90-something degree heat felt refreshing. I asked if Karl wanted to see our notebook drawings he'd assigned us last week. I pushed mine over. He squinted. "Too small!" He got up and dug out his own notebook, filled with sketches of pieces, one to a page. My classmate had forgotten completely about the assignment. He had yet to get himself a sketch book. Score one for me, competition-face.
Back in the studio we had another go at vessels. Karl corrected my rolling technique, and something he said to Tom made something click in my head about how to use a block. I felt more confident.
Karl drew our studio assignment on the blackboard, beneath his message to the advanced students who had scummed up the marver with water and colored glass frit.
Once again there were two advanced glassblowers already in the studio, different ones; let's call them A and B. My assigned lab partner arrived and I made sure to tell her that I'd need lots of help. I needn't have worried. She was, as advertised, great at explaining everything. Four years in, and coming back after a year off, she was feeling a little rusty herself. She decided to make a few practice vessels along with me.
She explained how to get an even starter bubble and why it was so important: mistakes stay with you and get amplified through the entire process. An uneven bubble at the beginning would mean uneven heating of the glass and an off-center piece.
We took turns. She made elegant, graceful practice vessels. I made a doorknob.
She made another practice vessel. I made a, well, a something.
The third time's the charm. I liked the shape of it enough that we decided to go beyond the assignment by affixing a punty, breaking it off the blowpipe, smoothing out the opening, breaking it off the punty, and putting it in the annealer. We got to the last step when the piece cracked.
She decided she wanted to make a pumkin. "Pumpkins are fun!" she said. We got it all the way to the punty stage. I stood up to carry it to the glory hole to warm it up and the piece fell off the punty, shattering on the floor. A, working at the other bench, lifted his feet as the pieces, still quadruple-digit hot, skittered across the floor. We swept up the scraps. "I owe you a pumpkin," I said.
Meanwhile, A was making hexagonal drinking glasses from a mold, and B was taking gather upon gather in multi-colored layers to create flattened vases with cris-crossing lines of color on an opaque gradient background. "This one is five gathers," he said.
He and A got to the last step, where the piece gets knocked off the punty and quickly carried to the annealer. I watched as A gently knocked the pipe with a wooden rod. The punty came away, but with it was a jagged halo of glass from the bottom of the vase.
"What happened?" I asked.
"The bottom was too thin," Jason said.
B wasn't going to try again. "One disaster a night is enough," he said, and got to work on something smaller.
Meanwhile, I made another vessel, longer this time. B looked over. "You have a really good feel for this for a beginner," he said.
I looked up sheepishly. "I've done this before."
It was getting late. We had less than half an hour left. "Let's pull some stems!" my lab partner said. Hers were, of course, perfect.
I did better than I had last week:
"Let's make caterpillars!" she said. Hers was, of course, perfect. I'd never done one before; she said it was pretty good for my first time. The glass got cold before I could put the last jack line in.
Meanwhile, A had made a large gather and was standing on the bench, holding the pipe over his head and letting the glass drip down towards the floor.
"You're going to need a bigger annealer," I said.
Karl taught us how to make punties. Having made a dozen or so down at Wheaton, I figured this would be easy work. Unfortunately, what Skitch had wanted us to make for him was not at all what Karl wanted us to make for class, and I had to start from zero. Fortunately, making a punty is easier than making a stem.
We made vessels again, this time affixing punties, knocking the pieces off the blowpipes, and opening the necks to make little bowls.
I was sitting next to the bench, as my classmate's assistant, while he was heating his piece at the glory hole. Karl was sitting near the other side of the bench. On the table behind him was a sculpture bowl with a reflective silver color in the center, a yellow lip wrap, and a gradation of orange to blue on the outside. He turned to look at the piece and wrinkled his nose. I can't show it, so here's Mojo instead:
"You don't like it?"
"Ain't nothin' wrong with it," I said. He shook his head.
My classmate came back and I helped him blow out the bubble. When he went to take another heat I caught Karl looking back at the bowl, sticking his tongue out at it.
My classmate came back with his piece collapsed onto itself.
It was my turn to be the gaffer. Things went well enough until I tried to open it up with the jacks. It went all wobbly on me. Clearly I was missing something about how to control the glass. I went to reheat it and Karl took over. He showed me how to get it hotter than I'd been getting it, how to heat only the part I was going to work with, and how to open the top by rotating the pipe with long, slow passes. He turned my lumpy mess into an even bowl.
We put it in the annealer.
My classmate took another turn and opened his bowl exactly as it should be done.
It was my turn again, the last for the evening. My second gather was smaller than I'd wanted it to be, but the small size gave me more control. I was able to lengthen it as I wanted to, and open it smoothly. It was tiny, but it was complete, and I'd done it by myself, save for the blowing, but even that had been at my direction.
My classmate tried again. I'd served him the punty a little skewed, and he'd affixed it without correcting the centering. He decided not to keep it. We cleaned up.
As we were about to leave a praying mantis flew in and landed far above our heads, on the supporting rods that held the vent above the glory hole.
Our assignment was to make more bowls. My ideas far surpassing my skills, I decided I would ask my lab partner if, time and success permitting, I could make a bowl from the pumpkin mold. I probably should draw some things in my notebook first.