Alchemy > The Alchemy of Glass
In 1954, my great teacher Roger Darricarrere started a hot glass studio in Los Angeles for the production of artistic flat glass. It was the first in America since Louis Comfort Tiffany’s stained glass studio closed in the early twentieth century. Darricarrere was a Basque painter who came from France with the idea of creating dalle-de-verre windows, installations made of inch-think colored chunks of glass set in cement. Since he could not find the same glass in America that he had used in France, he started making his own—re-melting bottles, adding oxide colorants, and pouring the glass into small blocks.
When I met Darricarrere twenty years later he showed me how light can play on dalle-de-verre. I saw the depth that could be created inside a thick glass body. Never mind the huge graphic production of his colored glass windows, I gazed for hours into the small chunks of colored glass, looking at the little worlds inside the best of them. Darricarrere's work is very much under-appreciated, perhaps because he was not in the academic line of studio glass work that developed in the early 1960s. He had focused on making art and installed huge stained glass and dalle-de-verre windows including the brilliant, 100-foot “Light of the World” that had been featured at the New York world’s fair in 1964 and is now in a church in Tujunga, California.
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, transparent or opaque; it can even look metallic. It can take any number of surface treatments and textures, and it can shine like a diamond in the light, a beacon of any color and many colors.
Hot glass is completely magical. Heated incandescent orange, it can still be transparent. It can be worked at any number of temperatures giving many different effects. Glass techniques are so ancient that a huge variety exists for extremely varied possibilities: from hot and runny to so cool that it barely moves. Further, there are many glasses, which have differing properties, even among those suited for making art. Lead glasses are bright and sparkly when cut and polished, having a high optic index. Borosilicate glasses, like Pyrex, can resist heat and be put outside, even as massive pieces. Our common soda-lime glass, as seen in bottles, windows and most artistic glass creations, has amazing flexibility. It can take a huge array of colors and can be quite predictable for crafting.
Metal, stone or clay need to be wrought into some kind of perfection. Glass, a human invention, is perfect from the time it is made. A raw lump of glass is fascinating to the eye. Almost anything done to it can ruin its natural beauty. Bronze has to be smelted, poured and polished. Marble has to be dug up, chiseled and shined to reveal its nature. Clay looks like shit in its natural state and almost anything done to it makes it more interesting. What attracts artists to glass, and maybe not the most creative people, is that its raw state is beautiful. Beyond the seduction of the material both hot and cold, it takes patience and study to bring out the natural qualities of the material and let it sing a song, have human meaning.
Another problem with glass, although also a very beautiful thing about it, is that it is completely at the mercy of how light plays on it. Light, in some ways, is two-dimensional. From its source, it shines in one direction. When placing a piece of glass in light’s path, let’s say a transparent, colored piece of glass, the light passes through the glass and can 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 feature being stuck between two and three-dimensions. Because of the way the light plays directionally, flat glass can have a three dimensional aspect and transparent sculpture can be somewhat two-dimensional.
I love working with the interplay between glass and light. By adding an opacifying agent to the glass, you can stop the light inside. 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. Light makes glass come alive.
My discovery of the possibilities of hot glass started in Roger Darricarrere’s studio. When I worked there, fresh out of college, I made a window out of pieced-together dalle-de-verre and cement. I wondered at the time if it would be possible to make the whole design in one piece of glass without any obstruction of cement, epoxy, lead or glue. Little did I know the complications and the rewards.
My own experiments with glassmaking continued as a junior employee at Genesis Glass Company in Portland, Oregon, in 1976, one of three new makers of stained glass sheets in that city. I stirred, mixed, cast, stretched, threw, and broke the hot glass. In a factory given to pioneering sheets of color, I discovered the joy of making lines of colored glass; I trailed out scoops of hot glass onto the table and have used these kinds of pieces in various ways ever since.
A year later, I started my own studio, casting sheet glass and dalles in Santa Cruz, California. I experimented with fusing my own pieces together. My efforts paralleled those of Boyce Lundstrom, one of the founders of Bullseye Glass in Portland. Each year we compared fused plates and windows. I was invited to work with Bullseye to put serious effort into learning how to methodically fuse the glass and develop techniques and a vocabulary for teaching when my “Ruthglass” studio closed in 1982.
The wonder of fusing is that it can erase your tracks. I like to compare my compositions to those of the pop painter, Roy Lichtenstein, whose different patterns were collaged together. My sculptures are collaged together using pieces of glass, perhaps done in different techniques and temperatures that are then melded together to make hard and soft edged windows of colored glass. I discovered that a fragment of glass with a small streak of color, will fuse into the clear block of the whole, becoming a colored mark suspended in the space. Of course, the “space” is solid clear glass.
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 can actually be made in a tough material such as glass. As I later evolved into watercolor and acrylic painting, I came to see that the transparency of these water-based media could mimic the pure tones and light transmission of glass.
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.
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.
Creating those internal spaces came with some problems. Other than telescope mirrors, I did not know that anyone annealed glass in a kiln for more than a day or two. When pieces cracked after five days of cooling, I could not believe they would need even more time. The tragedy quotient was huge for this type of technical exploration, and that is well before any exploration of internal space as poetry. While some sculptures I have made have been in the kiln for as long as two months, most of my recent pieces cook for two to three weeks, for slow, steady annealing and cooling.
The last piece of the puzzle is to reveal the interior. I studied traditional techniques of grinding and polishing small surfaces of glass, mainly with big upright sanders, lapidary wheels and upright stone wheels, and later diamond wheel lathes. These machines are great for small pieces but cannot do the job on larger pieces for the simple reason that it is difficult to bring a heavy piece of glass to the machine. In the late 1980’s, while living in France, I met a company of stone workers who could polish my large kiln-cooked surfaces completely, in the course of a day. 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 texture and form. 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 and forklifts.
When I returned home in 1990, I equipped my studio in Oakland, California, with a number of stone working tools, including a large flexible shaft grinder I had purchased from Roger Darricarrere’s studio after he passed. Smaller hand-held grinders proved to be even more effective in carving large pieces. Eventually, I installed a marble and granite surface polisher, 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.
Lately, I have been thinking of the glass body as an alternative space. When you stand next to one of my blocks or slabs, a form appears that cannot exist in our air and gravity universe, yet there it is, suspended in the glass body like a three-dimensional painting. My sculpture, Temoé (see page X) uses an alizarin crimson brushstroke in an enclosed, three-dimensional space. It is suspended and perfectly immobilized except for the ever-changing light that passes through. The light fires the color to leap from the block into a colored shadow.
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 microcosm waiting 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 the universe.
The key to how an object gets made is to know first what it needs to do when it is finished. The process, developed by how and where I want to see my colors, is simply one of building up forms that are fused together using individual pieces of trails, surrounded by lots of small clear pieces. Polishing the cooked surfaces after cooling results in a finished piece, cutting away any obstructions of the view of the interior.
But the true finish is found when you see light coming through my sculpture. If you are thrilled by the sight of that bright color and form emanating from my sculpture, if you are drawn into the void and find a world, then I have done my job.