Sometimes things don’t do what they are supposed to do. They seem to break the laws of life and possibility.
Such as glass. This week, I held a sphere of glass in my hand in a piece of wet newspaper and squeezed it, feeling it change shape like a chunk of thick dough. I grasped the end of it with a pair of clippers and twisted it over and over, making spirals of glass. It felt utterly surreal.
In my life, my experience of glass has always been as a solid, cold, unchangeable material. In a glassmaking workshop, however, I experienced the weirdness of the molten world.
Much of the experience felt profoundly unnatural. I could hold a stainless steel rod with my bare hands, poking the other end into a furnace until it was red hot, and feel no heat. I could dip the rod into a pool of shiny molten glass, twisting it onto the end of the rod as if it was a thick peanut butter, spinning it as it wobbled and drooped.
There’s a magical moment out of the furnace when glass is no longer liquid, not quite a solid – it’s soft, and twistable. I could dent it with a sharp piece of metal, pushing bubbles into it that would forever be trapped inside. I could swirl it to turn chips of colored glass inside into elaborate contrails.
The process is one of continual turning; molten glass droops if gravity is not used as part of the artistic process. Turning, dipping, and turning some more, glass is trapped under another layer of glass, building a layered artwork where every element is blended into the next, where the blending is part of the beauty.
It would be easy to forget that this beautiful material could be lethal. The glass when being worked looks like yellowish ice. But looking closer, I could see the waves of heat shimmering from it. I saw that the metal pole inside it was glowing orange. In shadow, the glass glowed too. I saw a wooden work bench smoke and blacken when the pole was laid on it. I saw wax smoke and flame when used as part of the shaping process. I smelled wet newspaper char as I shaped the glass with it. The only time I really understood the intensity of what I was working with was when the furnace door was opened to collect more molten glass. The wave of heat made my hand feel on fire if I was a fraction of an inch too close, and the scorching air felt dangerously crisp on my eyelashes. My body told me firmly, this is unnatural, get back. It’s not a heat that humans could survive for long.
I knew that a glass workshop would be an experience to work in. I expected the waves of heat and bright glow of the furnace mouths. I expected metal shaping tools. I loved seeing tiny shards of colored glass scattered over the floor. I loved rolling a hot sphere of glass in shards of color, poking it into the furnace and seeing those shards flare bright orange then melt into the body of glass, widening and blurring. I understood the need for constant turning movement, like clay on a potter’s wheel. This was, somehow, all expected.
I did not expect the use of wood and paper, the slow charring of materials that never caught fire but resisted the heat, blackening, flaking. In total contrast to the shiny, glistening, elegant artworks created by the process, I left feeling grimy, smelling like I’d been too close to a campfire. I also felt a little sad that I’d left a place where magic seemed to happen. Glass no longer twisted and dented; the universe was back to the one I knew.