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Baptism by Fire: Glassblowing

Class teaches a beautiful, demanding art form

The assignment for today’s class is to whip up a hamburger, a hot dog, and fries. “I’m going to blow the hot dog,” announces Amy Rosenberg. It is not a prediction of failure.

She grasps a long metal rod, plunges the tip into one of five ovens lining the workshop, twirls it, and extracts it, with a light bulb–ish blob of molten glass clinging to the end. After she rolls the rod on a table, she puts her lips to the other end of the hollow rod and blows a forceful phhtt to better shape the nascent frankfurter.

“Oh, it’s a little bit lumpy,” frets Rosenberg (CFA’17, CAS’17). Her partner, Aakash Gupta (CAS’16), blows more slowly and steadily into the tube. More dips into the oven and some shaping with a tong-like tool slim down the wiener. Gupta and the third team member, Olivia Sage Hamilton (CFA’18), have been doing similar work to make two bun halves and some ketchup, the latter simulated by rolling molten glass in colored glass chips and heating it to a tomato-like crimson. The students ladle the syrupy glass components on top of each other and clip the pieces off the rods with shears. The hot dog’s girth might lead you to mistake it for a corncob, but a second effort comes out more Oscar Mayer–slender.

Tools used for glassblowingGlassblowing class at Boston University

Some tools of the glassblowing trade (above left). BU students learn to blow glass at Diablo Glass School (right).

Other student teams in this 10-person class labor over the hamburger and fries using the same techniques, taught by instructor Chris Watts at the Diablo Glass School in Roxbury, Mass., where the College of Fine Arts has offered Glassblowing since 2007. The class, a CFA elective conferring sculpture credit, might more accurately have been titled Glass Working, as glassblowing is just one skill taught. (Others include flame working, which involves making smaller figurines, Watts says.)

And while Diablo staffers work minor miracles in this medium—it took Watts just minutes to craft a glass cat for visiting elementary school children before a recent BU class—many Terrier students say the class makes them feel like rank amateurs.

“I don’t usually think in terms of making 3-D objects,” says painting major Taylor Smith (CFA’15), “and glassblowing, technically, is just so difficult.” For one thing, artists aren’t accustomed to keeping the medium they work with at some distance from their body—a necessity when ovens heated up to 2,200 degrees make glass searing hot. Like a Bengal tiger, glassblowing is beautiful and potentially dangerous; few course syllabi tell students to bring safety glasses while leaving any open shoes, flip-flops, and synthetic-fiber clothes at home.

“You can’t manipulate glass with your hands like you can most other materials that we work with,” says Smith. “My painting work is very tactile.”

That difficulty is exactly why CFA offers the glass class. “Glass is a bit of a mystery,” muses School of Visual Arts director Lynne Allen, “how it can be melted and formed, and offers so many avenues for art students to create, no matter what their specific major is. We offer this course because we believe art students should have access to all materials.” CFA also offers an elective course in glass working in Venice, Italy, and Diablo makes a good precursor or follow-up to that, Allen says. CFA uses Diablo’s facilities, so students must trek to Roxbury for the three-hour class plus one studio session a week, because the school lacks space for a glass furnace. Another reason: “Diablo has excellent instructors,” she says.

Students learn about glassblowing at Diablo Glass School on Friday, February 20, 2015.

Ovens heated up to 2,200 degrees make glass run like syrup in CFA’s Glassblowing class.

When he got to BU, Gupta, this semester’s lone non-CFA student (he’s premed), searched every department for any eye-catching class he could find, which is why he’s blowing hot dogs this wintry day in Roxbury. “Every semester since I got here, I’ve been begging the director to let me just do it if there’s an open spot,” he says. CFA students have priority, then others can sign up. He has taken or plans to take such nonscientific classes as cooking at the School of Hospitality Administration and acting at CFA, and he got his chance at glassblowing this winter.

While classmates are struck by the difficulty of working with glass, Gupta speaks in awed tones about being able after just two or three classes to make vessels “that you can actually drink out of.…You just take out the glass from the oven—it’s literally as soft as a blanket.…You have a very small period, maybe even 10 to 30 seconds, but in that period, you can do literally anything you want to it. It won’t shatter, it won’t break, it won’t stretch out too much. For some reason, it’s like superstrong, but also supersoft.” 

Watts says that in the class they try to forge what he calls “unplanned synapses of thought” in students, where they’re encouraged to incorporate the glassware they create with other media. Some years back, he recalls, one student who loved video games crafted her favorite characters in glass for her final project. “Because of the shiny twinkliness,” Watts says, “the kind of surreal quality of the glass, it really reflected that same glossy, otherworldly quality of the video games.”

Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

3 Comments on Baptism by Fire: Glassblowing

  • Duo Li on 03.24.2015 at 11:05 am

    Where can I take this class? Do I need to pay extra for the class?

    • Rich Barlow, BU Today on 03.24.2015 at 11:39 am

      For information on when the class will be offered again and under what terms, contact the School of Visual Arts (617-353-3350).

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