Monday, June 14, 2010

29. Try Glass Blowing

My trip to the Pacific Northwest is winding down. My sister and her family, Katrinka, Brian and Tigist, shared their vacation with me, and we had a fabulous road trip to Idaho together. Tonight we're back home in Tacoma, and tomorrow I'll spend on planes and in airports making my way back to Burlington. A lot of the trip was actually about "old" things -- especially seeing old friends and familiar places from high school and college, which was wonderful, of course, and I just had to throw in a picture of Tigist and me standing in front of the spectacular Snake River Canyon just outside my hometown of Twin Falls, Idaho. But my brother in law Brian and I also did get to slip in another New Thing that's been sitting on the list for a while -- trying glass blowing.

While we were visiting my sister's good friend, Sarah, I had mentioned my disappointment that we hadn't been able to schedule the glass blowing class in Tacoma, which is a sort of world glass art center. Sarah solved that problem in about 30 seconds by pointing out that Boise had its own very fine glass artists, and sure enough, we called and scheduled a class for Brian and me the next afternoon at the Boise Art Glass Studios ( with the owner, Filip.

The first decision we had to make was: furnace or torch work? In torch work you sit on a bench over a torch and make lovely delicate "breakables" (as Brian put it); in furnace work you alternate between turning a long pipe with a ball of glass on the end into a 2000 degree furnace and working the glass ball with instruments that get so hot they literally catch on fire and you have to dip them in water. Guess which one Brian picked? The furnace intimidated me a little but I'm hugely glad that's the way we went.

It was definitely a learning-by-doing experience, and after demonstrating how to make a paperweight, Filip had Brian and I each make one. Basically, you dip the pipe into a pool of molten glass and get a blob of it on the end. Then you go over to the furnace, and turning the pipe constantly, heat the glass some more. Then you take it to a table and dip it into little bits of colored glass called frits, then heat in the furnace again, and then sit in a seat where you basically play with your glowing superheated glass blob with pliers and other instruments, twisting and pulling and shaping it. Then it gets another coat of clear glass, then goes back in the furnace and then gets rolled in a hollow wooden mold. When it is scored and knocked off the pipe, it gets put in a kiln overnight.

The vases we made were more complicated, with extra steps, particularly involving the actual glass blowing which, like everything else in this art, is much harder than it looks. Filip had to blow the initial bubble that turned the blob of glass into a hollow vessel for each of us -- it takes a long time to learn just how to do it so that it's centered and of sufficient volume. Each of us took a turn blowing more air into the vase form, and it was a little humbling that, just as I thought I was about to blow a lung out, Filip told me, "You can go ahead and blow a little harder."

If I were a scrabble player -- and I'm emphatically not -- I'd have gotten another bonus from the experience in terms of a whole new set of vocabulary words. In addition to the frits, I learned two new verbs, merbering (which is rolling the glass blob on a merbering table to shape it) and flashing (which is moving back and forth from heating the thing you are actually making to also heating the moil, which is the additional blob of glass that is holding your project onto the pipe).

I'd say anyone considering a career in glass blowing should be advised of the following: first, it's an art, and like all arts, takes a super-long time to learn and perfect. Second, if you want to do it well, you need to be both regular and methodical (constant turning is what makes the glass pieces uniform) and quick and decisive (I thought the glass would be pliable like bread dough and but actually you have to really dig into it with the tools to make it bend and move). And finally, glass blowing is not for the timid or those who can't take the heat. Standing in front of a 2000 degree furnace is a little freaky, and also, not surprisingly, uncomfortably hot. As you can see from the pictures, we're all wearing glasses, which we donned after Filip pointed out that it was our choice, but most people like to have something between their eyes and the super-heated glass in case of any mishaps. But having said all that, I strongly recommend that everyone take a lesson. Brian and I are still raving about what a marvelous experience it was. We had a great teacher and a great time, and as you can see from the picture, are quite pleased with our vases. Do give it a try.

52 Ways to Say I Love You

No language with this post because I learned some new English words instead.

Coming Attractions

Nothing makes travel plans seem as tangible to me as buying the actual plane tickets, and the day I got to Tacoma I was finalizing itineraries and charging my plastic with the reckless abandon that makes credit card company CEOs sing with joy. So, below is the travel line-up, as well as some plans for New Things that I hope to fit in between the travel dates.

Saturday, June 19 - Friday, July 2. Head to Amman, Jordan with Connor and Siham to start learning about water scarcity in the middle east and explore the possibility of teaching for a semester or a year at the University of Jordan, and see Petra, among other things.

Sunday, July 3 - Friday, July 9. Fly from Amman to Entebbe, Uganda to speak at and attend an international workshop in Kampala on religion, AIDS and social movements in Africa. I'll have 8 hour layovers in Cairo in each direction, so if anyone has any thoughts about how easy it is to be a tourist for a day there, I'd love to hear them. Then I fly back to Amman for one more night and get back in the US on July 11.

Tuesday, June 15- Friday, June 18. Want to try to get in at least one hike or bike ride to somewhere new, so if anyone's up for either one (likely new hike possibilities: Stowe Pinnacle or Mount Hunger or if either Lucas or Ashley were up for it, an Adirondack 46er). Also I really want to try rock climbing outside, and that opportunity would trump any other, so let me know if anyone feels like doing that one.

Monday, July 12 - Saturday, July 24. In Burlington, and looking to do any of the new things listed above, plus climb Mount Washington with Kristin and try sea kayaking on the actual ocean (and continue to work on ice skating, so anyone who wants to skate in the summer, let me know!). Then I leave on July 25 for a couple weeks combining work (co-presenting a paper with my friend Jerry at Cambridge University) and travel to new places, including the Isle of Skye in Scotland, and Denmark and Sweden.


  1. Impressive, as always. Great pictures of Tig and the end results of the glass blowing experience.

  2. When you get back from your travels in July I would love to hike/rock climb! And hopefully by then I'll know if and where I will be headed in the Pacific Northwest in the fall and you can give me some deets.