Posted by Sheila Connolly
I'm writing a mystery series featuring Tucson glassblower Em Dowell as my protagonist. The "hook" was handed to me by an editor, and, in the interests of full disclosure, I told her "I don't know much about glassblowing." Apparently that wasn't a problem for her, and I hope that meant she had faith in my ability to bone up on a subject, even though she had never met me and had seen only fifty pages of my writing.
I had taken stained-glass-making classes years ago, but that's a very different craft and there is little overlap. So I set about learning about glassblowing. I had actually seen it done on more than one occasion, and had even once made a detour to West Virginia to check out Blenko Glass, which produces a lot of the flat glass supplies used in making stained-glass objects as well as blown glass. The glassblowers at Blenko were fun to watch, because they definitely played to their admiring audience.
But I needed to learn about hands-on glassblowing, fast, so I could make my heroine Em sound like a real craftsperson, not a dilettante (or worse, a klutzy idiot). Did I mention there are very few women glassblowers? One person I talked to estimated about one in eight are women. I'm still puzzling about the reasons for that. I hope it's not just that glassblowing is hot, sweaty work, and requires some muscle (although not a lot).
Luckily I live near Cape Cod, where there are several renowned glassblowers. My first stop was Pairpoint Glass, which bills itself as the oldest continuously operating glassworks in the country, founded in 1837. They have a large and active studio where you can watch multiple artisans at work. They are, in effect, the equivalent of big business in the glassblowing field (the artisanal side, not the automated), with a showroom and a parking lot large enough to accommodate tour buses, and an active website. What's more, I lucked into talking with their only female glassblower, and she gave me a lot of wonderful information which I could use for my heroine.
But Em is a solo operator with her own shop and studio, so I needed to talk to glassblowers who operate on a smaller scale. And that led me to McDermott Glass, not far from Pairpoint, a two-person studio belonging to David McDermott and his wife Yukimi Matsumoto. They put it together themselves, literally in their back yard, and they turn out beautiful glass pieces (and I own a few now). They also give classes, which gave me the wonderful opportunity to play with hot glass myself. They make it look easy; it isn't.
This weekend they hosted their tenth annual "Glass Jam," which also celebrated the fifth anniversary of opening their studio. They invited glassmaking friends from all over, and not just blowers, but etchers, bead-makers, and lamp-workers. The public was also invited, although vastly outnumbered by the artisans. Of course I had to be there.
Which (finally) leads me to the topic of this post. This was an all-day event, with people drifting in and out, but somewhere around two o'clock something interesting started to happen. One glassblower began a piece. I won't give you all the step-by-step details, but this was more than a simple gather of hot glass. This craftsman was making something special, involving multiple colors and layers and things I can't even describe. He started slowly, working with the McDermott's apprentice Bryan (many glass operations require more than one set of hands). A few people drifted over to watch, drifted away. The phase of the process took quite a while, as the man added more colors, tweaked his shapes. What emerged was an embryonic vessel with four complex flowers.
Then David McDermott took over the shaping process. And this was where things started getting exciting. More people gathered to watch, keeping a respectful distance. David added more glass, and began the blowing process, starting with mouthblowing. Since it was a large piece, he also used compressed air to expand the bubble. He and the originator (whose name I did not get, alas) consulted about the planned shape, which they had sketched in chalk on the concrete floor. More air, more glass, more time in the glory hole–and more people coming over to watch. The whole process, from start to finish, must have taken an hour. At the peak, toward the end, there were three people working together, their movements quick and well-choreographed. The piece acquired a foot, a rim, handles. And when all agreed that it was finished, it was detached from its rod–and slipped quickly into the annealer, so it wouldn't shatter as it cooled. Sorry, folks–no pictures of the finished product because it had to cool overnight.
But the point was, when it was done–the whole crowd applauded. The people gathered there, glass artists and admirers alike, had watched the entire process in reverent silence, and they recognized that something special had happened.
Making a glass piece is always a drama. Even in the hands of a skilled craftsperson, there is a lot that can go wrong. That's the wonder of glassmaking: little has changed since it was invented centuries ago, and there's always an element of risk. There's something primal about the glowing, living glass in the studio–so much potential, so uncertain. I'm very glad that I was given a heroine who is a glassblower, and that I've had a unexpected chance to learn something new and to meet some very talented people. I hope I can do them justice.
If you want to see a bit more, here are the websites: