Glass artist Steven Webber holds the end of a five-foot metal blowpipe over a fire blazing in one of the reheat stations along the “hot wall” at his Humboldt Park studio. Sunglasses protect his eyes from the intense flame, which can reach more than 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit. Sweat rolling down his neck, he pulls the pipe from the “glory hole” (as glassblowers refer to the fiery opening), balancing a red glass glob the size of a fist on the end.
Bracing the pipe on a bench, he rolls it steadily with his left hand. With a wooden paddle held in his right, he shapes the molten red bulb, and small flames shoot up from the wood. He flattens the bottom and the sides, then returns it to the fire, still turning the rod so the glass stays evenly heated and doesn’t drop into the furnace. He looks like he’s roasting a marshmallow over a high-tech campfire.
Over a 45-minute period Webber plays with the color, shape, and size of what will eventually be a vase. During one trip to the bench he rolls the bulb in colored powders; on another he exhales into the blowpipe, inflating his creation. Later he holds the pipe above his head and allows gravity to elongate the piece. Each manipulation changes the transparency and color of the glass, which will stabilize only when it cools to room temperature.
To some the process is intoxicating, and not just because of the fumes the furnaces can emit. When Daniel Staples was seven years old, he was separated from his family during a visit to Knott’s Berry Farm for more than four hours, entranced by a glassblowing demonstration similar to Webber’s.
Now a computer consultant and glass artist, today Staples is working two glory holes over from Webber. Enlisting the help of another artist, Liz Fink, Staples successfully delivers a clean cut to separate his vase from the blowpipe without shattering the greenish black glass. Quickly but deliberately, he transfers the piece to an annealer–a computerized slow cooker that starts at 900 degrees and cools over a number of hours, bringing the glass to room temperature without subjecting it to the thermal shock that would cause it to break. Staples and Fink make the process look easy, but even after years of classes and practice, Staples says, his works don’t always turn out as he envisions them. Different colors of glass respond to manipulation in different ways, so an element of surprise is a fact of life for even the most experienced artists.
Webber, Staples, and Fink, along with three other artists–Brad Braun, Jamie Lis Stevens, and Kevin Ward–have all struggled over the years with the unpredictability of their medium, as well as with rising energy prices, the high cost of raw materials, and a shortage of specialized space. So last year the six–most of whom have day jobs–pooled their resources to build a studio with room for multiple furnaces, 125-pound batches of glass, and an exhibition space. This March they opened Chicago Hot Glass, the city’s first public access glassblowing studio.
“There is no question that a hot shop in the city only contributes to the sense that this is a vital movement–that there’s more out there than museum exhibits and [Chihuly],” says Ken Saunders, co-owner of Marx-Saunders Gallery. (The Dale Chihuly installation at Garfield Park Conservatory has drawn 300,000
visitors since it opened last November and was recently extended through September.)
In addition to work and gallery space, the west-side studio will offer several levels of classes and rent benches to artists already familiar with the equipment. Novices are encouraged to adhere to a dress code: closed-toe shoes, sunglasses, cotton clothes (melting synthetics can cause burns), and long sleeves. Classes, taught by Rebeccah Byer, begin at $250 for two introductory sessions and include a supply of the more predictable clear glass.
Chicago Hot Glass will host a free opening gala with glassblowing demonstrations, an exhibition of work by resident artists, and food, wine, and music on Saturday, May 25, from 4 to 10 at 1250 N. Central Park. For more information call 773-394-3252 or see www.chicagohotglass.com.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Drea.