The Alchemy of Glass

by David Ruth

My great teacher, Roger Darricarrere, started one of the first hot glass studios in America since Tiffany for the production of artistic, non-production glass in about 1954. A Basque painter, he came from France with the idea of creating dalle-de-verre windows of thick chunks of colored glass set in cement. Since he could not get the glass that he had seen in France, he started making his own, re-melting bottles and adding oxide colors and pouring the glass into small blocks. In 1974, he showed me how to make the colors and I saw the depth that could be created in a thick glass body. Never mind the huge graphic production of the stained glass window, I gazed for hours into the small blocks, looking at the little world inside the best of them. Roger’s work is very much under-appreciated, perhaps because he was not in the academic line of studio glass work following Harvey Littleton. But he made huge stained glass and dalle-de-verre windows, mostly in the Los Angeles area, including the 100-foot “Light of the World” that was part of the New York world’s fair in 1964 and is now in a church in Tujunga, California.

While I worked in Roger’s studio, I made a window out of pieced together dalle-de-verre. I wondered at the time if it would be possible to make the whole design in one piece of glass. Little did I know the complications, and the rewards.

My discovery of the possibilities of hot glass started in Roger Darricarrere’s studio and continued through my own experiments on glassmaking and then as a junior employee at Genesis Glass Company in Portland, Oregon, one of three new makers of sheets of stained glass in that city. I stirred, mixed cast, threw and stretched the hot glass. In a factory given to making areas of color, I discovered the joy of making lines of glass; I trailed out the scoop of hot glass onto the table and have used these kinds of pieces in various ways ever since.

After I started my own studio, making sheet glass and dalles in Santa Cruz, I started to fuse my own pieces together. My efforts paralleled those of Boyce Lundstrom. Each year we compared fused plates and experiments. After this studio closed, I was invited to Bullseye Glass Company back in Portland to put serious effort into learning how to methodically fuse the glass and develop techniques and a vocabulary for teaching.

The wonder of fusing is that it can erase your tracks. I like to compare my compositions to the pop painter, Roy Lichtenstein, where different pieces are pre-selected, perhaps done in different techniques and temperatures, and melded together to make hard and soft edge windows of colored glass. Further, a piece with a small amount of color in a clear body will disappear into the clear block of the whole with only the color suspended in space, seeing to float inside the clear block.

I became a graduate student in 1983 under the glass-blowing pioneer, Marvin Lipofsky, who pushed me away from glass. During that time, I studied painting and sculpture much more than glass. I came to see where my work would fit in the contemporary scene, and I learned how to draw out my ideas. So many more things can be put on paper than to actually make them in a tough material such as glass. As this later evolved into watercolor and acrylic painting, I have come to see that the transparency of these water-based media could mimic the pure tones and light transmission of glass.

During graduate school, my experiments with sheet glass and fusing led me to try to make the glass thicker to see more interior space. One professor pointed out that I was working with a metaphor, for which the internal space of the glass was the equivalent to the internal life of the mind. This became my operating mantra, but forced me to come to terms with the casting of thick sections of glass.

Creating those internal spaces came with some problems. Other than the telescope mirrors, I did not know that anyone annealed the glass for more than a day or two. When pieces cracked after five days in the kiln, I could not believe they would need even more time than that. The tragedy quotient was so great for this type of technical exploration, and that is well before any exploration of that internal space as poetry. While some sculptures I have made have been in the kiln for two months, most of my recent pieces cook for two to three weeks, for slow steady annealing and cooling.

However, I had an epiphany when I visited Corning Glass Works after a glass Conference. An engineer, Elton Harris, of the Corning Research Division, was leading a tour of a dinner plate making facility. Bored with being assigned to be a tour guide, he asked what our group did. I showed a picture of one of my large-scale castings, Zaurak, about 1000 pounds of mixed colors, polished so you could completely see into it. He asked me to leave the picture so he could show it to the other Corning engineers. When I asked him about it later he said that that type of work was out of their experience, but that no one in his department had raised objections to the possibility of that the techniques could work as art. “That’s pretty good for Corning, you know.”(!) Following scientific principles, combining old ideas, new forms can be devised and physical problems can be methodically overcome. The combination of art, science and alchemy drives my work.

Lately, I have been thinking of the glass as an alternative space. When you stand next to one of these blocks, there is a form that cannot exist in our air and gravity universe, yet there it is suspended in the glass body like a three-dimensional painting. Raiatea and Taha both take an alizarin crimson brushstroke and put it in an enclosed, three-dimensional space. It is suspended there and perfectly immobile except for the ever-changing light that passes through. The light fires the color to jump from the medium.

This is not negative space. In recent art language, alternative spaces have been designated as places where non-standard or experimental ideas can happen. Here is a space where different laws of gravity apply. Painting can become three-dimensional and a paradoxical world can be created. It is, after all, inside a solid, stone-like material that is transparent. Inside is a little piece of world to be discovered. With the application of light, those colored ribbons, events placed inside the block, can project outside in startling color patterns that reflect back our own reality in the light of the changing hour, day and season, the planetary evidence of our place in he universe.

The last piece of the puzzle of making the pieces is the cold working. In school, I studied traditional techniques of grinding and polishing surfaces of glass, mainly with big upright sanders, lapidary wheels and standing stone wheel, and later diamond wheel lathes. These machines are great for small pieces but cannot do the job on larger ones for the simple reason that it is difficult to bring a heavy piece of glass to the machine. While living in France in the late 80’s, I met a company of stone workers who, completely in the course of a regular day polished my kiln-cooked surfaces. This was a revelation because now the interior could be revealed and total control could be exercised on all aspects of the sculpture, building the interior, controlling the surface. Additionally, working the glass with stone tools made me that much more aware of how much like stone this material is: solid, heavy, brittle, and able to be worked with chisels and abrasives.

When I returned home, I equipped my studio with a number of stone working tools, including a large flexible shaft grinder I had purchased from Roger Darricarrere’s studio after he died. Smaller hand-held grinders proved to be even more effective in carving large pieces. Eventually I installed a marble and granite surface polished, which gave me direct control over the quality of the surfaces of my large slabs, allowing them to take their place as architectural units with polished plate glass surfaces.

Glass as a material is like magic. No other material has its range of possible looks. It can be bright or dull, hot color, cold color, no color, or black. It can look metallic, take any number of surface treatments and textures. It can shine like a diamond in the light, a beacon of any color and many colors.

Hot glass is completely magical. It can glow bright orange an still be transparent. Working it can take place at any number of temperatures giving many different effects. Glass has been worked for so many centuries that a huge variety of techniques exist for extremely varied possibilities. Further, there are many glasses, which have differing properties, even among those suited for making art. Lead glasses are bright, having a high optic index, Pyrex glass can resist heat and be put outside, even in huge pieces. Our common soda-lime glass, as seen in bottles, windows and most artistic glass creations has amazing flexibility, and can be very predictable for crafting and can take a huge array of colors.

Warning! Glass can be a cruel mistress! Mistreated, or mishandled and it breaks; it is very expensive to follow your dreams with this material. It can demand the highest perfection.

Other materials need to be wrought into some kind of perfection. But glass is perfect from the time it is made. Almost anything you do to it makes it worse. Bronze has to be melted, poured and polished. Marble has to be dug up and chiseled and shined to reveal its nature. Clay looks like shit when it is in its natural state and almost anything you do to it makes it more interesting. What attracts people to glass, and maybe not the most creative people, is that in its raw state it is incredible. When it’s molten in the pot, it can be incandescent and transparent at the same time. A raw lump of glass is fascinating to the eye. Almost anything you do to it can ruin its natural beauty. Beyond the seduction of the material both hot and cold, it takes patience and study to bring out the natural beauty of the material and let it sing a song, have human meaning.

Another problem with glass, which is also a very beautiful thing about it, is that it is completely at the mercy of how the light plays on it. Light, in some ways, is two-dimensional. It come from there and passes one direction. When you put a piece of glass in its path, let’s say a transparent, colored piece of glass, the light passes through the glass and will cast a colored shadow, possibly without illuminating the glass very much at all. You can see the color if you look back towards the light, but it may not be that apparent looking directly at the glass. I call this problem being stuck between two and three-dimensions. Flat glass is a little bit three dimensional because of it and transparent sculpture is still a little bit flat or two-dimensional because of the way the light plays.

I love working with this. By adding a opacifying quality to the glass you can stop the light inside the glass. You can control how much color will pass through into the shadow and how much will stay in the object and glow. Different things come out as important depending on the quality of the light hitting the glass. Front lit, back lit, diffuse, or point source.

top of page