Glass blowing is not a particularly new art form. In fact, historians can trace the origin of modern glass blowing back two thousand years or more, starting in the Middle East and throughout the Mediterranean civilizations. Even earlier, glass beads were created almost 5000 years ago on the subcontinent of India.
There are two main types of glassblowing techniques practiced even today, which are free-form glass blowing and mold glass blowing. For both techniques, a glob of molten glass is placed on the end of a hollow pipe, and the glass blower puffs gently into the other end of the pipe. The air causes the glob of molten glass to expand like a balloon would.
For free-form glass blowing, the glass blower rotates the pipe to allow the effects of gravity and his or her gentle puffing to create a desired shape. Mold blowing is simpler to a degree, in that the glob of molten glass is placed into a mold and blown to the interior shape of the mold.
Yes, glass is primarily molten sand, caused by inserting the raw materials into a very hot furnace with temperatures of up to 2400 degrees Fahrenheit, or several hundred degrees above the heat found in many modern day pottery kilns. When molten, the glob has a plasticity that allows it to be shaped by the glass blower with different metal rods and tools. Care must be taken to keep the molten glass at a high enough temperature to continue the shaping process, and this requires frequent returns to the interior of the furnace.
Artistic glass blowing may have reached a zenith with the Italian glass works of the island of Murano, where some of the most elegant and artistic glass has ever been created. Later in the 20th century, the use of smaller furnaces by artists caused the artistic aspect of glassblowing to explode worldwide, as seen in some of the works by artists like Dale Chihuly.
Michael and I have had many opportunities to participate in free form glass-blowing workshops over the years, creating vases, beer steins, Halloween pumpkins, Christmas ornaments, and a variety of other items from our experiments. We very rapidly learned the basics, but also very rapidly learned that executing complex shapes required many years of dedicated training, much as is the case for almost any other part of life.
Over the past decade or so, we have also noticed a number of Native American artists moving into the glass blowing world, though the lack of furnaces and tools is a significant hindrance. Ira Lujan of Taos and Ohkey Owingeh pueblos is a frequent artist at national Native American art shows like Indian Market in Santa Fe. He has been a glass artist since being introduced to the medium in 2000. Another artist who shows his ability to work in different media is David K. John, who has gained international recognition as an acrylic painter, but who also creates incredible pottery and glass dance masks as well.
At a recent MIAC dinner and auction, one of the items that drew significant attention was a blue glass bowl blown by Native American glass artist Preston Singletary. He draws deeply on the cultural elements of his Tlingit people, and also collaborates closely with other Native American glass artists from around the Pacific basin. Due to a lack of a pottery tradition in the Pacific Northwest, Singletary draws from his awareness of basketry and wood carvings for inspiration, often transforming these cultural icons into elegant glass representations. He has also collaborated extensively with Dante Marioni. As teenagers, the two learned glass blowing skills together in the Seattle area, and have continued that relationship for the past several decades.
I have gone down to the Blue Rain Gallery in Santa Fe to see some of Preston’s works (both glass and bronze) and they are truly stunning in their execution. Kudos to Blue Rain owner Leroy Garcia, who has given these glass artists and many other contemporary Native American artists a platform to demonstrate new techniques and styles. And please forgive the plug, but Blue Rain has an upcoming glass blowing demonstration and artist reception in August for Preston. I do plan on attending, as I find this work simply stunning. Some of the work is even by Leroy himself, as he has become a glass artist among his other varied artistic expressions.
Glass catches the eye, as it moves light from uninterrupted directions into new, fluid and graceful movements. It is expressive, emotional, and often breathtakingly beautiful. As more and more Native American artists are able to utilize the equipment necessary for glass sculpture, I expect to see even more stunning pieces being created. Art begins in the soul of the artist, and the most talented ones are able to communicate quite well with their audiences.