I have an uncle who is a glass artist. When I was a kid, I never really had much appreciation for his work
but I used to love walking into his studio. This is not like any other studio I have seen. It had what I can only describe as a glass studio smell. Slightly acrid. But clean. The place always had a sense of calm. Three or four rooms. Bigger than any other studio I’ve been in, come to think of it. Electric and gas kilns. Within these – fire, intense heat.
A sense of danger narrowly avoided whenever I walked into the main kiln room and saw its large lid hanging heavily. Perhaps some melted colourful artworks laying inside, cooling after having been in the violent, furnace-like temperatures all night. Melted from jagged piles of glass shards and pellets into truly beautiful rainbow coloured plates, platters, fish, panels and the like. 3 phase electrical cabling snaking to fuse boxes, the sense of a complex, technical operation that my grandfather, an electrical engineer, needed to help set up.
After growing up, I remember being proud to have him as an uncle because he had some success as an artist, with commissioned works in a number of buildings in the city. I remember my first job out of university, doing disability support pension assessments. When I walked into the foyer of the big building where I was working there were three of his works on pedestals in the middle of the space, lit up. It felt special having a connection to these large artworks which the thousands of people who used the building every day must have seen.
None of this is about the actual activity of glass artwork, though. This is because, for most of my life, I never really knew what that was like. I only ever saw the products, like a large tall fountain in his garden with many long, elegant glass rails vertically arranged so the water came out the top and trickled down them. These sorts of objects were large, impressive – but not so much as to make me keen about being a glass artist. When actual glass art is being rendered, it is one of the most intense, impressive displays of skill you can imagine. I’ve only mentioned kilns so far, but glass blowing is another main way to make glass art. Imagine this. The artist gets a metre long metal tube. A gob of molten glass is attached to the end of it. They then insert this into a white hot furnace, rotating the rod to make the glass hot again. Then comes the awesome bit. The glass artist then takes it out of the furnace, puts the other end of the tube to their mouth, and blows a bubble into the glass! Yes, hot, molten glass gets blown from the end of a metal tube. Whoever initially thought of this must have been written off as a crazy. When trying to recruit their first students, they must have been accused of looking for victims.
To watch a glass blower is to watch someone playing on the edge of a cliff. Another thing is that you touch the molten glass. Almost. You put a wad of wet padding in your hand. And roll the rod to smooth the glass and shape the bubble you are blowing. All that is between the artist and a trip to hospital is a steady hand and good communication with your assistant. You go back and forth between this blazing furnace, paying close attention so as not to make it too hot and lose all your work in one quick sorry slop of molten liquid into its white hot, roaring depths. You might want to give the bubble a distended shape by making it really hot then swinging it. Yes, the artist stands there in his studio swinging molten glass around with just the right force so it doesn’t fly off the end of the tube and hit a bystander in the face but changes shape into the makings of a nice vase. Then one might wish to add layers to the shape, like some thin strands of coloured glass followed by more shaping with a wad protected hand. A keen sense of timing is required. The artist displays a impressive awareness of how quickly the glass cools, and what can be attempted sensibly during the brief window when the glass is at the right temperature. It is amazing to watch a piece take shape from such a dangerous medium. All of the tense, precise action of a glass sculptor makes their clay, stone and bronzework counterparts look like whimps, painters like timid, mute ghosts.
They get to break the glass. It gets cracked, gently, off the end of the rod. This is done with water. Rotating the rod, you chill a thin band of the glass at the end of the tube so a fracture appears. Then it easily breaks off.
You have an artwork, born from fire, sweat and danger.
Then you get to give it a name. Then you get to put it in an exhibition. If you used a new style, you get to name the style and that will be included in the description of the work in the gallery. People look at what you have done. Large gatherings come to the opening, speeches are made, conversations, ideas, laughter and wine flow. People buy your artwork and are proud to display it in their homes and offices. You get interviewed. My uncle was even interviewed for the national archives.
This makes me think about my own life and the reasons behind my chosen profession. Now, after 2.5 years of study and 2.5 years of experience I am finding none of this excitement and notoriety. I expect none in the future. I have written a poem even about how mine is a life of unerring conscientiousness. When I was deciding what to study, I had a fear that I must avoid being looked down on. That I must avoid being seen as stupid. Even if it meant I overlooked doing what I loved. What I respected others for doing. If I’d been without that fear I probably would have done an arts PhD and become a professor.
Then I remember something my cousin, his son, said when he chose to study economics and avoid the art world, despite the benefit his father’s talent and knowledge could offer in an embarking on an arts career. They were always poor. I guess that would definitely be too hard for my fragile ego to handle. I wanted to be rich and respected. I felt that I was neither when deciding what to study at university.