By MARGIE O’LOUGHLIN
The Vandalia Glass Works is a public, state-of-the-art glassblowing facility located in the Vandalia Tower, 550 Vandalia Ave. The spacious second-floor studio offers space for teaching glassblowing, is available for rent to more than a dozen glass artists working on their craft, and houses an inspired art gallery of glass items for sale by resident artists.
Bryce Borkhuis, one of two studio managers at the glassworks, said, “We’ve been in this space since last April, and the requests for lessons keep pouring in. We offer two crash courses: our beginning students make a paperweight, and our intermediate students make a short drinking glass.”
Photo left: Bryce Borkhuis, studio manager, shaped molten glass with a hot pad made from newspaper pages. Glass artists don’t wear gloves, even though they’re working with a material that has been heated to more than 2,000 degrees. (Photo by Margie O’Loughlin)
“During after hours,” Borkhuis explained, “we have 15 regularly-scheduled resident artists who rent space from us at the rate of $35/hour. That fee includes the cost of molten glass, and the use of our pipes, furnaces, and tools.”
The practice of glassblowing may seem cutting edge, especially if you’ve just discovered it, but the technique has been around since the time of the Roman Empire. The first century B.C.E. Syrians are widely credited with the discovery that glass could be blown from the end of a hollow tube into different shapes. While new technologies have introduced modern equipment, the fundamentals of glassblowing remain the same.
“People are drawn to glassblowing because the final product is so beautiful, but also because the process is so challenging,” Borkhuis said. “It takes a long time to become a skillful glass artist.”
He explained that “the process starts out by dipping the end of a 4’ long metal blowpipe into one of the two furnaces here. Each furnace has a cauldron of clear, molten glass inside. It’s kind of like sticking your fork into a plate of spaghetti, only a lot hotter. The furnace temperature is raised to 2,050 degrees Fahrenheit. You never, ever stop turning the pipe in your fingers, so that the molten glass doesn’t fall off.”
Photo right: Borkhuis re-heated the glass he was working in what glass blowers affectionately call, “The Glory Hole.” The temperature here is 100 degrees higher than the furnace. (Photo by Margie O’Loughlin)
Once the pipe is removed from the furnace, the glass starts to cool at the rate of 50 degrees per second. Before it hardens, the molten glass is dipped into crushed bits of colored glass, called frit, on a table several feet away.
In addition to the regular classes taught by staff, Vandalia Glassworks occasionally brings in visiting guest artists. Grant Garmezy, who lives and works in Richmond, VA, creates highly realistic glass form sculptures influenced by his love of the south—and the animals that live there. Garmezy will be teaching a week-long workshop during the last week of April at Vandalia Glassworks, in which students will learn to use a variety of torches and sculpting techniques to bring their own sculptures to life.
One to two years of glassblowing experience is required to register for this advanced level class. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 651-744-0000 for more information.
Garmezy will create a sculpture of his own on Sat., Apr. 29, the weekend of the St. Paul Art Crawl. Stop by the studio between noon and 10pm to see this nationally recognized artist at work.