Sunday, April 27, 2008

Public Glass

My brother’s coworker is a glass blower. So we heard about this event at Public Glass in San Francisco, and decided to check it out. The afternoon included a silent auction for many pieces, a live auction for some of the bigger pieces, and then some glass blowing demonstrations.

The Public Glass studio is located in a notoriously questionable neighborhood. (But isn’t that where large art studios are? In low rent districts?) A security guard was on hand to monitor the cars and the parking for the afternoon, in case that had been a serious concern for any patrons. We went into the industrial delivery bays, and went in search of Bob’s co-worker, Bruce. It was super helpful to have a guide, and he explained several stages of the process to us.

Two men began to work on a piece, and so we stopped touring and I took a seat on a folding chair to watch. What transpired over the next hours was nothing short of performance art. The two men, clearly friends, made the whole thing look effortless. The heat, the white noise, and the danger all blended together to make amazing art.

It starts with a small piece of glass on the end of a long rod. from the beginning the glass is in constant motion. The pipe is constantly twirled. First because they want the heat to be even, and second because the larger the piece gets, the heavier it is, and it will start to wilt under it’s own weight.

The pipe is heated in a series of huge ovens. They shape the piece, then they heat it, then they shape it a little more, then they heat it again, over and over. the delicate twirls and slow coaxing into a shape. The piece of glass is rolled and formed and put back in the oven. Then gently blown, then back in the oven. The pipe is always moving. The glass is molten, and red hot in color. It is only a little stiffer than honey.

These ovens are so hot that it is impossible to describe the feeling of being near them. The room is hot and dry. That alone is completely foreign in San Francisco, so the whole thing feels like a strange mini vacation. The main doors on the ovens are kept closed, but when someone goes to put something in, an assistant comes to open them, and it feels like approaching the surface of the sun.

The heat that eminates from this kiln piece makes the other ovens seem childish. The fire breathing machine throws heat out into the room, even when the door is only open a sliver.
The artist moves back across the room, twirling the new weight of the piece at all times.

At one point, there is an artistic decision made. A molten bulb is held, and the co-artist comes over with a separate rod of glass. The two are touched together, and one piece is stretched and becomes like toffee. After a moment, it is clear that the piece being added is white, and the body of the piece is clear. The whole project is moving together, the one pipe is rolling like a rolling pin, and the taffy white is being pulled and made into random patterns on the base. The two men were stretching, rolling and pulling all at the same time. The rolling motion was back and forth, and the design was running mostly vertically, so they had to stay together.

When they are happy with the shape the piece is taking, they add more glass to it. This invoves opeinging the door of a giant kiln filled in the bottom with molten glass. An assistant opens the door, and the artist comes over with the pipe with the piece on the end. The pipe goes into the heat, and the assistant closes the door partially. The pipe is turned, and a layer of glass is added. Any excess glass that is brought out on the end of the pipe is allowed to run off into a bucket that is waiting.
The molten glass bubbles angrily, and the water boils instantly. Then, the glass starts to churn uncomfortably in the water, and forms beautiful, dangerously sharp brittle glass bubbles.

More glass is added from the enormous oven, more excess fell into the bucket, more hissing a popping, and more blowing, and rolling. The motion was continuous. The pace was graceful and smooth, and the heat is over-powering. The heat actually took on separate qualities of its own. It became a sound track for the room, as if you could hear it. Bursts of heat lept out of the ovens as they were opened, and flashed across the room. It made everything more dangerous. It made the art more exotic. And it was a clear indication that this was not a casual art form.

When I thought it could not get hotter, they fired up blow torches, and applied heat to specific pieces of the project. They begin to transfer the bulk of the piece from one rod to another to give them access to the opening.

The roar from the blow torches was spectacular. The weight and size of the piece had increased, and more assistants had been added to this precarious dance.
The doors on the ovens open in concentric circles, growing increasingly large. By now the piece was so big, that the largest opening needed to be created, and there was still a risk that the piece will hit the sides. Every movement was graceful, and smooth, and intentional.

The blow torches added a level of intensity to the whole scene. The heat is staggering, the weight of the piece must be enormous, and the blasting flames licked the glass.

One of the men donned a silver space suit, complete with a helmet, and asbestos arm mits. I held my breath. Was he actually going to HOLD the piece.

In one instant motion, the twirling stopped. They had been making a crease in the piece at the ‘neck’. But it was just a ‘line’, nothing more. Without a verbal signal, the space man got close, and the other man tapped the pipe lightly. The piece came away from the pipe and was in the arms of the silver asbestos suit. He walked over the the Aneeler, and gently set it to rest and cool slowly down in there.

The room erupted into applause. I let out my breath. The one guy took off the silver suit, and went over and smiled broadly at his partner. The applause continued, and then they seemed to hear it. The cut- up, and pointed to each other, and smiled some more. They seemed like kids, unlikely characters. They had just done ‘what they do’. It was breath taking.