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Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Heart of Glass

“Are you sure you haven’t done this before?” asked Adam Aaronson as I twisted my iron in the glory hole.
“I’m sure.”
“Then what else do you make? You make something.”
“Not really. Actually, when I try to make things, they generally end up quite wonky.”
“In that case, you’re a dancer,” he said decisively. “I can tell.”

I booked my three-hour introductory glassblowing workshop at Aaronson Noon after several false starts. I kept looking it up, deciding it was too expensive (£195), writing it off, and then looking it up again. Just before I quit my job I decided I’d better go ahead and book, whilst I still had a salary to abuse. And although pricey, this course was significantly cheaper than the only other one I could find in London. When it came to it though, I wasn’t much looking forward to the experience. I’d massively over-booked myself for the weekend, and getting up early to schlep across London was the last thing I felt like doing.

I arrived in a bit of a flap just before 10am, having waited an inordinately long time at Earl’s Court for a train going in the right direction. The District Line really is a bit strange, isn’t it? The glass on display at the studio was beautiful, bonkers and inspiring. For example:

There were vases and finials and doorknobs and paperweights and crazy sculptures and glass glass glass everywhere. It glistened, fragile and cold, swirling with bubbles and colours. I felt the first stirrings of excitement, but a little voice in my head piped up with a pragmatic warning. “Remember” it said, “that you are not an artist. You have very good intentions, but when it comes to making things you kind of suck.”

My fellow students were Carol, an accountant, and Nick, a purveyor of second-hand books. Carol makes glass beads and had worked in stained glass before, but other than that we were all newbies. We were shepherded into the kitchen for a safety briefing and the signing of a waiver that I decided it would be best not to read. We were handed some groovy yellow Kevlar sleeves and a pair of sunnies each, before receiving a potted history of glass from our teacher, Adam Aaronson.

Widely cited as one of Britain’s leading contemporary glass artists, Adam Aaronson is a man who knows his glass. It quickly became clear that he is both passionate about his medium, and about sharing knowledge with his students. 

The glory hole (left) and furnace (right)

The workshop housed many weird and wonderful things. A glowing furnace, a pot-bellied glory hole, tools of all shapes and sizes, bins and buckets full of glass nuggets, and drawers and drawers of colours. We had been warned during the safety briefing not to touch any of the colours, since many of them contain nasties. Arsenic makes a lovely emerald green, apparently…

We were to make three things over the course of the morning. A paperweight, a small sculpture, and, finally, a blown piece.

Before being handed any red-hot iron rods, we all had to practice holding and twirling a cold one. You may think it unnecessary for three grown-ups to practice carrying sticks, but these rods get damn hot when in use, and it is amazing how tempting it is to grab right down the business end. We practiced sliding the rods in and out of a cold furnace, twirling at all times, simulating the collection of the glass. It was also key to learn to walk around without jousting anyone with a molten ball of glass death, and to move from the furnace to the glass-working bench swiftly and safely. There is a clear choreography to this, which is not exactly intuitive. We all danced around for a while, spinning our test rods and getting up and down from the bench. I imagine we looked very silly, especially in our yellow sleeves and dark glasses. 

Nice outfit, hotshot...

Adam demonstrated the paperweight three times, talking us clearly through the process and reinforcing the key points. Then it was our turn. “Who’s first?” asked Adam. “There are three of you, and you’re making three things, so whoever goes first now won’t have to go first again.” Excellent logic, but I had no intention of volunteering. Adam made it all look far too easy. I wanted to see how someone else got on. Fortunately, Carol was brave…

I went second, and just before the red-hot iron rod was placed in my hands I felt a surge of adrenaline and fear. But then, somehow, the glass took over. Adam and his teaching assistant Sayuri provided constant guidance and protection, making me feel completely safe.

The paperweight process went more or less thus, if I remember correctly. Which I probably don’t.

·     - Pick up bloody hot iron rod. Not near business end.
- Dip and twist into the furnace to collect glass. Do not forget your dark glasses, as if you do you will        
  be seeing multi-coloured clouds in front of your eyes for a good few minutes, as I discovered.
- Twist. Do not stop twisting.
- Dip glass into little metal containers of colour. Red, yellow and orange for me.

Dipping into the colours
- Insert into the glory hole to melt the colour.

Twisting in the glory hole

- Take your glass to the bench. Sit down without getting confused.
- Pick up some wet newspaper.
- Keep twisting and rolling your iron rod on the bars of the bench.
- Be brave. Put your hand, covered in wet newspaper, under the molten ball of glass death.

- Roll and shape, by gently moving your hand. Don’t push the glass. Caress the glass.
- Take your glass back to the glory hole to make it soft again.
- Return to the bench, take your tweezers (which are significantly larger that the ones you might use on your eyebrows) and twist up the colourful bits to make swirls.
- Collect another layer of glass from the furnace.
- Shape your paperweight with wet newspaper and your hand.
- Use metal jacks to move glass away from the rod. It’s possible that this also happened a bit earlier, but - I was confused because of the multi-coloured clouds in front of my eyes.

At work with the jacks

- Use jacks to mark the base of the paperweight. Sound simple? It isn’t.
- Stand up and look pleased with yourself.
- Give the hot iron rod to Sayuri (who is also a dancer, by the way). She will score the base of the   
   paperweight with a knife, and then let you hit the iron rod with a stick. This will cause the  
   paperweight to fall off in a most satisfying manner.

- Sayuri applies a blowtorch, and then pops the paperweight in the annealing oven.

- - - 

----- --- Ta daa!!

So, my paperweight isn’t exactly spherical. OK, so it actually looks a lot like a Smurf’s hat, if the Smurfs ever got into tie-dye. But hey, I’ll bet it holds down a pile of papers!

A few days later... For the grooviest Smurf in town.

Next up was sculpture, and a choice of freeform or figurative. We were all a bit predictable and went figurative. That little voice in my head told me that if I attempted freeform I would probably end up with something resembling a spiky glass turd. Nick and Carol both chose to make penguins, whilst I decided on a heart. A bit cheesy, but I had seen Adam’s glass hearts on sale in the gallery and found them enormously pleasing. I wanted to own one, and what better way to own one than to make it myself?

Working on my heart

The process for the sculptures was very similar to that for the paperweight. The tweezers were used to pull out, respectively, the beak, tail and wings of the penguins, and the pointy bit of the heart. I also had the added tasks of flattening my glass ball into a disc with the heel of my hand, and then taking a meat cleaver to it, for the indentation. That’s right, I meat-cleavered some glass. How hard-core am I? 

Two tones of Jade for my heart

Nick's penguin.

Carol's penguin

Hot hearted
By now I was a little more familiar with the feel of the molten glass, and I was really falling for its allure. It drew me in, moving like caramel, twisting and snaking and changing shape. I liked the weight of the iron rod in my hands, and the glowing, undulating colours. Perhaps it’s the yoga, but I’m starting to find meditation opportunities all over the place... It sounds very strange to say this, but I am pretty strange sometimes so: I kind of fell in love with the glass. There’s something truly magical about it.

A few days later. I love the colour!

After a cup of restorative tea it was finally time to make our blown piece. My earlier refusal to go first now came back to bite me in the ass. Blowing glass is, unsurprisingly, more involved and complicated than making hearts and Smurf’s hats. The iron rod now has a hole in it. It is wise to blow down this to make sure it’s not blocked, before you go dolloping glass on the end. To get the blowing started, you send a little dart of air down the pipe and trap it by covering the top with your thumb. Once you have a bubble, you twist and blow and shape and blow and twist and occasionally pay a quick visit to the glory hole to keep your glass hot. Adam talked me through, and I was almost in a trance, just following his instructions and seeing the glass stretch and swell before my eyes.

Once you have a good globe, you use your tweezers to guide a punty -another iron rod with a tiny piece of hot glass on the end - on to the base of your glass. Don’t, for Pete’s sake, stop twisting. The jacks are then used to score the glass where you want it to separate. Next, give your rod a sharp tap with the end of the tweezers. Ideally, this will cause your globe to separate from the original rod, but remain attached to the punty, which is being expertly handled by your lovely assistant. Does that make any sense at all? No? Well, I would caution strongly against using these descriptions as any kind of a ‘how-to’ guide. You are likely to end up with third degree burns, little coloured clouds dancing in front of your eyes, and a spiky glass turd…

Sayuri attaches the punty to the bottom of the glass vessel

Anyway. I knocked my blown piece off rather neatly, and then took it back to the glory hole. It was now attached to the punty at the bottom, leaving the top open. At this stage I had a mini-panic because I didn’t know if I wanted to make a bowl, a glass or a vase. It’s never a wise idea to start these things without knowing what you want to end up with. I opted for a vase. Back at the bench, I widened the globe by inserting jacks and gently letting them open as the glass turned around them. I messed up a bit by widening too much. Unless someone starts giving me very short, fat bouquets of flowers, I’m not sure it’s going to be used as a vase all that often. It’s more of a slightly wonky bonbon bowl. But, hey, I made it myself, dagnammit! And I used the tweezers to make some little peaks around the edge, which was almost artistic of me.

Stop Jojo, that's wide enough!!

Carol made a lovely vase for a single bloom. Nick’s piece needed a small rescue, as he bashed his rod a little too sharply when separating it from the blow iron, causing the edge to shatter. This led to a perfect demonstration of the wonder of glass: with a little heat, mistakes can be remedied, and he ended up with a very stylish bowl.

Sayuri, Adam, Me, Nick and Carol.

And then, just like that, it was over. I was hot, and starving, but I honestly could have stayed in that workshop all day, watching Adam create amazing things, and practicing my simple techniques. I felt like I wanted to play and to experiment, and to make glass hearts for everyone I love in this world. That’s £195 more than well spent, I should say. Worth every penny.

The vase. Bowl. Thingy.

I spoke to Adam after the course, as he sneaked in a well-deserved sandwich outside the heat of the studio. “The more I learn about glass” he said, “the more I realise how little I know. The possibilities seem almost infinite.”

About once a year, I get an artistic itch. I gather together some materials; paints, beads, moulding clay etc. and I start to create. Two or three hours later, I remember that I’m not an artist. I throw away whatever monstrosity I have ended up with, and pack away the toys. Well, I’m still not an artist, but somehow I feel like hot glass and I could get along. I think it’s because, even though it ends up cold and rigid, I know its secret: There is magic and movement in that glass. It, like me, loves to dance.

 Twenty-two down, eight to go...

1 comment:

  1. Absolutely love your post. Suppose I should go on this course too, as the g-g-g-granddaughter of a glassblower. It sounds huge amounts of fun. So on to your next one...