Blow It Out Your Glass

So you’re on the market for some fine art in glass form. Maybe you just have a thing for glass. It’s shiny. It pings! It can hold wine really well — if not for very long. And if you know your glass, Venice or Prague may be first on your list. But what about…Norfolk, Virginia?

After an ill-timed vacation to the southern Virginia shore that fell smack in the middle of a hard frost, I gave up on the beaches of the Old Dominion and set up shop just inland in Norfolk, a town more famous as the largest naval station in the world than for…well, anything else. And while I, as a good gay man should, do love a man in uniform, the rest of the rest of the city was a blank. But I’m young! I’m adventurous! I’m clueless!

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No relation; I’m from the Honolulu Perrys.

So I did what any other young, adventurous, clueless person would do: I hit up the concierge! And way to go, Sheraton Norfolk Waterside! Your very well-versed employee recommend the Perry Glass Studio (among other things) to keep me busy for the morning. It also set me on my journey to learn about all things glass. It’s more complicated than you think.

How Norfolk got glassy-eyed has a lot to do with Walter P. Chrysler, Jr., scion of the car manufacturer. Wealthy and single (he was gay), he poured his money into a fabulous art collection that just so happened to include a lot of glass — 8,000 pieces of it. Perhaps it was because Chrysler was childhood chums with Louis Comfort Tiffany that set off the collection spree, but whatever the cause, when Chrysler felt his final days approaching, he gifted the entire collection, glass and all, to the local museum in 1971, which promptly rebranded itself the Chrysler Museum. With all that glass, the city, follie aux deux-style, picked up where Chrysler left off and has been collecting or making glass ever since. The Perry Studio, opened in 2011, is the museum’s adjunct. Glass had become Norfolk’s artistic “thing.”

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These will eventually become the swirls and blots the will color my candy bowl.

So, bundling up against the it-should-not-be-this-cold-in-southern-Virginia-in-May chill, I made the easy walk to the studio and signed up for a glassblowing class. The first thing I learned was WOW are glass studios hot. Remember all that bundling? Yeah, that was a lousy idea. I was peeling layers like an onion.

If you have never seen molten glass, the only way to describe it is that it looks like liquid light. It is clear, but it is incandescent. All glassmiths use three furnaces. The first is called “the furnace” (original, I know), and it is here that the raw glass is kept in a gooey state. Terminology gets much more lively with the second furnace, which is called the “the glory hole” and I swear I am not making that up. The name comes from the large, circular hole glassblowers use to reheat their glass as it is being worked. Because one glassmithy tends to have several pieces being done at a time, the glory hole is the busiest spot in the studio (*snort*). The final furnace, the lehr, is actually a cooling station; glass stays hot long after it stops glowing, and will shatter if cooled too quickly. It has to be eased down to room temp over the course of 24 hours.

There is surprisingly little prep into glassblowing, at least for one-go amateurs like me. After throwing on some goggles and learning the weight of a glassblowing pipe (which is about as long as I am tall), my mentor put a dollop of golden-glowing glass on the end and let me have at it. The first step, while the glass was still sticky, was to color its surface, and for that, I, with blowpipe oh-so-carefully in hand, dabbed the hot mass in a series of bowls with crushed glass particles in different pigments. Easily done. Sorta.

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Coloring my bowl. I went with green, the color of living things. 

Now came the hard part. While glass stays hot for a day, it looses its malleability fairly quickly, so I had to rush to the glory hole (hee-hee) and stick my pipe in (ho-ho), turning it round and round all the while to keep the glass on the tip and to let the particles melt into it. The glory hole blazes at 2,000 degrees, so I had to keep spinning my pipe or the glass would become lopsided and fall off. From the glory hole, I zipped over to a what looked like a bident with ball bearings on either prong. It was here that the “blowing” part kicked in while at the same time I rolled the glass into a sphere with the help of a large wooden spoon — soaked in water, of course — and used another tool to push an indentation on one side to form the “cauldron” of the bowl. No, you do not suck the air back out to form the dimple, you’d be sucking in super hot air and burn something.

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Me at the glory hole AND YOU CAN JUST SHUT UP.

Once I had a nice little bowl, colored green, I continued to spin the piece while a glassmith used a set of metal tongs to make a neck between the bowl and the blowpipe. Eventually, the link becomes so narrow the thing just breaks off into a pair of well-insulated gloves. The final step, using another pair of insulated tongs, is to set the bowl on a small blob of motel glass which will serve as the base and voila! My own candy bowl. I picked it up the next day, and it sits happily in my kitchen.

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The finished piece!

It was an awesome way to eat up a morning. And I would find out that Norfolk has a lot of other things to do; the city is full-swing into a foodie revival, so I was enjoying the seafood if not enjoying the sea. But the glassblowing was a real highlight. I had no idea I’d be doing something like that, and how many surprises are happy ones?

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