Credit to Author: Mary Beth Roberts| Date: Fri, 16 Aug 2019 13:00:38 +0000
I’m a little nervous as I arrive at Robert Held Art Glass in Parksville, where basketball-sized glass bubbles sway in the breeze and the walls are lined with vases, tall and squat, angular and round, all adorned with colourful flowers.
Why the anxiety? Well, today I’m going to learn how to make art glass and that means roaring fires and breakable things and a certain amount of hand-eye co-ordination. But the gallery offers these “Hot Glass Experiences” all the time, and they’re especially popular with families, so how hard can it be?
All I know is, art glass is having a moment right now, and I want to learn more about it.
Maybe it’s the times we live in, where everyone seems so angry and everything seems so fraught, but there’s something soothing about glass. It’s smooth and cool to the touch. Transparent. Colourful. Sparkly.
Or maybe it’s just our fascination with subcultures of people who are obsessed with making things with their hands.
Whatever the reason, it has made an unexpected hit this summer of Netflix’s documentary series Blown Away, a four-parter about a glassblowing competition. (Then again, perhaps it’s just the show’s said-with-a-straight face double entendres: the winner is Best in Blow, for instance, and the kiln where they fire the glass is called a glory hole.)
And it has made international stars of glass artists like Seattle’s Dale Chihuly, famous for ornate sculptures that feature masses of glass tendrils, petals and curlicues, and Held, who has been a glass blower for nearly four decades, mostly in Vancouver and, for the past five years, in Parksville. (“I followed a woman,” he says with a laugh, referring to his fiancée Irene. “I love it here.”)
Held uses techniques that date back 4,000 years, but his style ranges from the classic to the contemporary, many of his works inspired by artists such as Monet, Klimt and Tiffany. His goblets have graced the Governor General’s table and a piece called “The Northern Lights,” a stunning glass bowl of 23 karat gold and dichroic glass, is part of Queen Elizabeth’s collection.
We are not going to be making anything quite so fancy today, though. Our choices are a starfish, a paperweight or a glass ball; I choose the paperweight because it looks the easiest.
Bhoy Siscar, a glassblower for 21 years, will be helping me. And by “helping,” I mean doing pretty much all the work, though he keeps assuring me that “12-year-olds do this all the time.” Whatever.
We start by selecting colours from large jars of pink and blue and green and orange granules. I choose cobalt, turquoise and light blue, and Siscar pours them into three little pools on a bench.
He takes a metal rod, gathers a blob of white-hot molten glass from the furnace on one end, and then dips it into the coloured granules, swirling it around a little.
Then he hands it to me and has me put it back into the fire, rotating it cautiously until he takes pity and grabs it back. (Technically we’re not blowing glass, we’re “hot sculpting” it.)
Siscar hands me some giant tweezers and demonstrates how to pinch and pull bits of the molten glass to create bubbles. Then back it goes into the fire.
By now I’ve just let Siscar take over; thankfully he doesn’t seem to mind. “It’s very challenging,” he says. “It’s an amazing job.” At one point, Held himself emerges from the depths of his studio to check on our work with a cheerful smile.
Siscar buffs the paperweight until it’s smooth, popping it back into the fire as needed, then flattens one side so it can sit on a desk. He plunges it into water, then places it into an oven to cool overnight.
When I pick it up next day, it’s beautiful, a perfect little orb capturing bubbles and swirls of blue and green, serenity frozen in a piece of glass.
The “Hot Glass Experience” is offered by the Robert Held gallery in Parksville on Tuesdays and Saturdays, by appointment only, for a cost of $75. Visit robertheld.ca for more info. For info on travel to Parksville, go to VisitParksvilleQualicumBeach.com.