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Glass Blowing
a hot creative art form for students

by Jayme Haitsuka, staff writer

   

Long before the time of Christ, a Roman man sat alone on a beach in front of his fire to prepare his evening meal. He set his cookware on natron stones, special stones used to embalm the dead, and when his fire began to heat the stones, as well as the sand beneath them, a strange clear liquid began forming. According to legend, and the Web site www.neder.com, this was the first time glass was produced by man.

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In Mesopotamia 5,000 years later, a man managed to form a glass tube and blow a small bubble out of the other end, hence the first blowpipe. After this discovery, glass was used to reinforce pottery and was made into small ornaments. The “new technology” soon spread throughout Europe and Asia.
 

In the late Middle Ages to early Renaissance Era, glass transitioned from a practical art to a spiritual one with the production of beautiful stained glass windows and art pieces with religious significances. The Industrial Revolution, with its inventions and advances in technology brought change once more. With the discovery of an economical way of plating glass, glass art fell second to its more practical applications. Since that time, only factory workers and those who were taught the trade by family members or close friends understood the scientific aspects of glass production and art. In 1962, Henry Littleton reversed this trend and initiated a “glass renaissance” when he discovered a way to melt glass at a low enough temperature that it could be done in small home and studio furnaces. Because of Littleton, universities across the United States began integrating glass production into their art curricula.

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In the 21st century, and closer to home, glass blowing in Honolulu is an underground art form with a solid following and immense creative potential. Rick Mills, University of Hawai‘i Manoa professor and director of the glass program there, said each semester he has at least 45 students in his glass classes and each semester three or four graduate with a BA in this art.

“With glass blowing you have the opportunity to cooperatively produce something exotic and visually attractive with another person,” sad Mills. Glass blowing is usually done with two people. He emphasized that glass blowing is a team effort that requires clear communication to achieve the artists’ goal.

The first thing the artist has to do is decide whether they are going to use a punti or a blowpipe. Both are long steel poles. The difference is that the core of the blowpipe is hollow, and it is used to hollow out the glass instead of leaving it a solid piece as the punti would.

Pacific Glass Works, located in Kailua, is one of two independently owned glass working studios on O‘ahu. Owner Lionel Prevost, allows artists and amateurs to rent studio time to hone their trade. Housed in an airplane hangar-like structure, heat emanates from the studio’s few open furnaces, giving it an industrial feel reinforced by scant furnishings and concrete flooring, juxtaposed to the strong sense of creative and artistic knowledge displayed by its inhabitants.

“These guys have been working with glass for a few years,” said Prevost, watching instructors and part-time artists Thomas Zeldl and John Blake prepare themselves to work with the molten glass. “They pay for their studio time by teaching classes [at Pacific Glass Works], and make their money selling their pieces in stores.”

The pair donned dark sunglasses to protect their eyes from the blinding heat and light of the furnace and Zeldl collected an initial gather of liquid glass with the heated blowpipe.

According to Prevost, before glass becomes glass, it is actually silica or silicon dioxide. When these powdery crystals are combined with magnesium or carbon in an electric furnace and heated to about 2000 degrees Fahrenheit, the result is liquid glass.

After heating the gather in the glory hole, a separate furnace kept at a constant 2000 degrees Fahrenheit, Zeldl methodically blew into his blowpipe, swinging it in a low perpendicular arc across his body.

Each additional breath Zeldl put into his pipe resulted in the formation of a small, translucent simmering glass bubble on the other end. And each time he swung it across his body, the bubble became slightly more elongated and solid as the passing air cooled it.

The cycle of blowing, swinging, and reheating was continued until Zeldl was satisfied that his bubble, then one to two inches in diameter, was perfectly round. Prevost said that the formation of the bubble is the most crucial stage of the blowing process. If the bubble is disproportionate, it would need to be abandoned because it would cause the final product to be unbalanced.

Once the bubble was completed, the next steps became more cooperative. Using a series of grunts and short phrases, Blake instructed Zeldl to the pace and angle at which he should roll the glass on the marver table, a metal table that is cool to the touch, and used to shape the glass further.

After that, Zeldl resumed blowing into the pipe to enlarge his bubble to about seven inches. Once satisfied with the size, Zeldl and Blake decide to add color to their transparent piece. Blake arbitrarily sprinkled red- colored powder and blue pieces of granulated frit, small glass pieces, onto the surface of the piece. The cooperative aspect of this art form is apparent as these two worked together.

Forty-five minutes later, the two have completed their piece, a small red and blue vase about seven inches tall. Gingerly, wearing thick, soft gloves, Blake held the bottom of the piece as Zeldl dropped a small amount of water at the point where the pipe and glass connect. With a hissing sound, steam was released as the water penetrated the glass making it weak enough for Zeldl to separate the vase from what was left of the gather.

Once separated, the glass piece is transferred to an annealer, a small concrete, unheated “oven.” If the glass is cooled too quickly, Prevost explained, it could pop and shatter; therefore, the annealer serves to slowly cool the piece over a 24-hour period.

Currently on O‘ahu, if one wants to get involved in glass blowing but doesn’t want to enroll at the University of Hawai‘i Manoa to do so, he or she has two options: Pacific Glass Works in Kailua or Hot Glass Hui at the Honolulu Academy of Arts. Both are independently owned, and both offer introductory classes, for about $250 for four three-hour sessions, and open blowing for about $25 per hour.

“Art is fun!” Blake said. “After all, anything that combines fire with being creative has to be a good time.” Others seem to agree, according to Prevost, who now has about two dozen students enrolled in his introductory classes.

“It’s all about fire and gravity,” said Prevost.

Mills agreed that blowing glass is a great creative outlet. He believes that glass blowing is attractive to first timers because of the instant results they get. “Students are able to blow their first real bubble, or create a solid color paper weight after only a few hours of class,” Mills said.

 

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