Posted June 21, 2010

Aspiring glassblowers feel the summer heat

Glass Blowers

Although outdoor temperatures this summer seem to range from “unseasonably high” to “nearly unbearable,” they’re nothing compared to conditions inside the Tyler School of Art glass studio, where students in Daniel Cutrone’s summer workshop literally handle heat up to 2,100 degrees — all in the name of art.

“In glassblowing, heat is everything,” said Cutrone, a Tyler assistant professor. “Understanding the relationship between heat, mass and shape — those are the three fundamental things.”

For three weeks, Cutrone’s students “worked out their chops” as glassblowers and learned how to harness the heat to create fine works of art. But their first lessons focused on the fundamentals.

“The very first thing I deal with for new students is to teach them how to sit,” said Cutrone. “It seems silly, but when you have molten glass in your hands, sitting is not silly. Safety is a priority and learning how to navigate this space is really important.”

The students learn to work together in groups of up to five using three different furnaces. The first, simply called “the furnace,” contains a crucible, or container, of molten glass; the second is used to reheat the piece after it has been shaped; and the third is used to gradually cool the piece over a period of hours or days.

When a piece comes out of the furnace it is “dripping like honey,” said Cutrone, and needs to be rolled and shaped quickly before it cools and becomes unworkable. Gaffers — the main glassworker in charge of the team — use a blow pipe to create an air bubble inside the glass to give it shape — “Kind of breathing life into it,” he said. They then refine the piece using a variety of tools, reheating it throughout the process to maintain malleability. Finally, when the shape and color are perfect, the glass is transferred to a special furnace to set and gradually cool, starting at a chilly 950 degrees.

Cutrone likens the glassblowing process to a dance between an artist and his medium.

“You need to learn to read your partner … and use that knowledge to direct the glass where you want it to go,” he said. “It’s a super-intense experience.”

Cutrone’s students worked six hours a day to master every step, all the while mindful that a miscue could cause the molten glass to drip on the floor. But, in glassblowing, the stifling heat and feverish pace come with a high reward. And those like Cutrone who master it develop a zen-like view of the creative process.

“I like to say you let the heat pass through you,” said Cutrone. “Don’t fight it.”