Hot Stuff

The Art of Glass-making

There was something in the woods and plains of South Jersey that seemed to build towns all by itself. Some natural matrix for civilization.

It brought people together, threw up towns. It opened shops and streets, sent the roar of factories echoing through the woods. By the dawn of national life it had already transformed a loneliness of coastal forest to a throb of industry. It did all this by its very nature, by being simply where it was in the confluence of earth, and water, and human aspiration.

That something was sand.

Those people came to make glass.

In South Jersey there is hardly a town that does not owe its existence to glass. Some of it or all of it. Glass built towns in all of the southern counties, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Delaware River. It built Wistarville, now called Alloway in Salem County, where the first successful glass factory on the American continent opened in 1746. . It helped to build Glassboro, Millville, Estellville, Elmer, Malaga, Newfield, Magnolia, Mount Holly and many more.

Glass furnaces stood like a latticework through the whole of the coastal plain. Glass filled the woods with the whir of constant fire, the rush of mill races and the babble of commerce.

When the iron furnaces blew out forever around 1850, ending a century of booming production in the pines, glass stepped right in and lit those fires again, and kept them going up to the present day.

Maybe nowhere in the geography of human creativity has a place better expressed the genius of its native element.

* * * * * * * * *

The first hardship you face when making glass is the heat.

It hits you like a wall, more than 2000 degrees of hissing red heat just a few feet away through an open furnace door. Yet you must approach it and parlay with it. You go in with a prayer and blow pipe and gather a molten orange glob, and this may eventually become something beautiful. But you deal with the heat again and again. You are never far from the heat. The heat alone provides all the suffering a suffering artist could want.

Pat Howe never got used to it and is still not used to it. But many days a week she is still in the devil's eye of that inferno with her tools in her hands and the vision of something extraordinary in her mind.

Howe came to glassblowing from an entirely different place - she was an auditor. But like a lot of glassblowers, once introduced to it she could not get the idea of glassblowing out of her mind.

"Glass is so versatile," Howe said. "You can etch it, cut it, gather it thick, blow it thin, color it, make it translucent, burn it with acid and blast it with sand. That's why I love it."

Howe began volunteering at Wheaton Village in Millville, where a full staff of glass artists make beautiful pieces of glass every working day throughout the year. She started as a volunteer narrator, the speaker offering running commentary during the three-times daily demonstrations at the glass factory.

Eight years later, Howe became one of those staff artists and now gets to make bottles and bowls and vases all day long at Wheaton - in addition to her own artistic glass, which can often be seen at places like The Other End Gallery in Millville.

But a visit to the factory persuades you that no one does anything for herself in glassblowing. It's all a cooperative undertaking, cooperative to the level of choreography.

In the center of a great room, a furnace rises like a great alter from the dirt floor up to the ceiling and out through the roof. Several arched doors in the round front of this furnace reveal the white incandescence within, and it is to this white lava the artists perpetually return. The audience watches from the gallery as if called to witness a sacred ritual.

On the floor, glass artist Don Friel takes a glob of white from the furnace door on the end of his blowpipe, introduces a puff into the pipe to make a bubble in the glass. He gives only a puff, because more than this would blow the piece out. He then windmills the blowpipe several times with the glass at the end, to elongate it.

Following this the pipe gets rolled along the edge of a table, to widen and balance the glass glob. Then it gets thrust into a cup containing powdered gold, which will redden the finished glass to a translucent rose. But the color will be visible only later. At present the thing only looks like a glowing glob with powder all over it.

Back into one of the furnace holes goes the glob, and comes out bright with heat. Now Friel rolls the tube along an arm jutting out from his bench with one hand and shapes the bubble with the other using shaping tools. The tube rolls one way along the arm and then the other. The blob spins along and acquires a contour. At one point Friel picks ups a wet wad of newspaper and holds it against the glass to further shape and cool it. Then back into the furnace hole again.

A piece may take a few minutes or it may take an hour, depending upon its maker's intention. This bubble seems to be headed in the direction of a decorative bottle, and to get it there will require a bit of choreography with Friel's assistant Jennifer Pagliarini.

Now Pagliarini dips some molten brew out of the furnace floor, just as Friel takes his piece and spins it more, while moving to his bench for a pair of shears. Pagliarini takes out her bunch, spins it to widen it and, as Friel stands his pipe on end with his glass on top, Pagliarini lowers her dollop of glass to it, where it sticks. Friel cuts his own end loose with the shears and takes Pagliarini's pipe which now holds both gathers. Friel spins the new construction into a state of balance. Then back into the furnace.

Out again, and the double bunch of glass spins on Friel's bench while he flares the bottom glob with a tool, then flares the top into the shape of a bottle head. Pagliarini, meanwhile, prepares first one little ingot of molten glass and then another. These Friel takes, attaches one end of the top of the bottle, then pulls the other end with a pair of grips and attaches it to the shoulder of the bottle. When this is finished, he holds the piece aloft at the end of the blowpipe to show the crowd: A rose-colored decorative bottle with two glass handles and a tiny bowl base. A tap on the blowpipe detaches the bottle into Pagliarini's heavy gloves, after which it goes into an oven where it will cool for a day. Tomorrow it will go on sale in Wheaton's glass shop.

* * * * * * * * * *

The end of so much labor, so much practice, so much heat - so much sand - often turns out to be something light and airy.

Like the Christmas ornaments that Richard Federici makes.

Federici, too, came to glassblowing from elsewhere - airplane mechanics. He also got his start volunteering at Wheaton. But his career since then shows how far the art has come from its functional origin.

Not the bottle, not the heavy bowl, but the fine filigree of a Christmas ornament, are the cast sculpture, show the directions glass has taken.

Federici walked out on a family business in 1995 to become a glassblower. He worked for two years as an assistant in another studio, then negotiated a thicket of zoning regulations to get a furnace on his property in Vineland.

Now he and his wife Karen produce a line of glass items - vases, paperweights and Christmas ornaments - that they wholesale to galleries. Karen produces her own line of glass marbles. Ornaments made by the Federicis have twice been chosen to adorn the White House Christmas Tree, once for Clinton and once for George W. Bush.

Every month Federici pays an incredible gas bill. But he knows he's doing the right thing.

"Glass is a very good art to practice because it's so immediate," Richard Federici said. "My wife has worked a great deal with clay and insisted that I make something. Well, I did. I threw it, trimmed it, fired it, glazed it and fired it a second time.

"And I realized that this process takes two weeks and you have at least five chances to screw up. With glass, if the piece is going bad, you can throw it away. I know within a day if the thing I'm doing has worked."

© Rob Laymon

Return to Editorial Writing