Tacoma, Washington’s Museum of Glass is a premier contemporary art museum dedicated to glass and glass-making. In addition to growing a permanent collection that chronicles the development of modern glass, the museum also hosts engaging artist residencies, national traveling exhibitions and unique programs for local residents and visitors. The museum was developed by two friends, Phil Phibbs, who had recently retired as president of the University of Puget Sound and glass artist Dale Chihuly who had grown up in a neighborhood near the campus and had attended the university.
I had recently visited the museum for the show of Preston Singletary’s work (see that blog post here); but this time I was visiting to watch my grandson, Jack Spitzer, who both works and blows glass in the museum’s hot shop.
Jack works there as a member of Hilltop Artists, a non-profit that “uses glass art to connect young people from diverse cultural and economic backgrounds to better futures”. Hilltop Artists runs hot shops at Jason Lea Middle School and Wilson High School as well as a flameworking studio at Ford Middle School. Jack began working with glass at Jason Lea.
I arrived during set-up and thus had time to take in the setting and tempo of the work.
While most spectators take a seat in the amphitheater, the museum does permit people to circle around the work space on a balcony walkway. I did some of each, finding that multiple viewpoints were needed to be able to clearly see the various glass-handling processes, especially since many of them involve two or three people around the work.
After setting out his tools, Jack “gathers” some molten glass from a continuously running furnace (in the background) on a blowpipe and then uses the heat from the Glory Hole – running at about 2000 degrees, to bring it to the right working temperature.
A wide variety of techniques are used to shape the glass in addition to blowing through the pipe. Some involve cutting or crimping – above – or rolling on a “marver” steel table as seen below.
As you can see from the body language, there’s a lot of comraderie in the teamwork and a fair amount of casual banter. This turns out to be an important ingredient in the success of the work, since in the next piece someone else will be leading and Jack will be assisting.
One of the mysteries of glass work for me comes from the fact that often the initial shapes bear little resemblance to the finished pieces. Clearly, the artist has to have something in mind and, most importantly, the steps involved in getting there.
When elements need to be added to the initial form, the dance between the two workers begins. In case you haven’t figured it out, there’s a Santa hat developing.
Now that the white ball has been added to the hat, the bottom can be opened with tongs as the shape is rolled back and forth against a wet cherry board. It’s easy for the viewer to lose track of how hot that piece of glass still is – and, ironically, for the glass worker to lose track of how fast the glass is cooling down.
Occasionally localized heat is re-applied to keep things malleable. Then, when the piece is deemed ready enough, it’s removed to a warming oven to wait for stage 2.
Phase 2 could be the Santa that wears the hat – but it’s not; it’s a salmon ! ( December in the Pacific Northwest = Santa Salmon, what else ? )
At this stage the basic glass gather is first rolled on the marver and then in glass beads that coat the exterior. At a later step it will be rolled across the line of red beads farther up the table to add an accent line.
To keep the shape from drooping as it’s worked, Jack rolls it inside a wetted wooden scoop shape that gives it support.
In this piece there’s a bit of actual blowing through the pipe, though most of the sculpting was done with tongs and shears.
At this point a number of step sequences get repeated – applying heat, shaping with tongs, firming up the form.
Now the real sculpting starts, with addition of the head, shaping of the mouth, and addition of the various fins.
The fins require individual shaping and crimping. In case you were uncertain, Jack said it was a Chinook salmon.
It took several rounds of this to get each fin located, attached, crimped and shaped. Finally, the Santa hat came back out of the warming oven, was placed, heated to soften it for shaping, and fitted over the Chinook.
And here he is, ready to deliver presents to all the waiting smolts.
One last, not very glamorous but VERY critical step – getting the piece into the oven that will help it cool slowly for a day without shattering.
One of the assistants, clad in a heat-resistant jacket and gloves will make the delivery.
And at the end, a bit of chatting with family and friends in the audience.
Always nice to have a few fans around to appreciate your work.
Just so you have a sense that Jack does other things than fish, I’m including a sampling of his work that his mother put together. He’s come a long way in a short time.