As far as we know, glass blowing was invented by the Phoenicians somewhere along the Lebanese coast a little more than 2000 years ago. I’ll be honest – in my opinion, it has to be older than that.
You can imagine some ancient seamen, hungry, preparing a meal on stones over a fire, noticing that the sand, or portions of the stone melting. That or ancient potters fusing minerals and sand over an intense fire making their clay into a glaze resembling glass.
There is a collection of glass blowing waste – fragments of glass tubes, small bottles and a few other items – that were dumped into an abandoned mikvah in Jerusalem around 40 BCE that is probably the oldest firm evidence of tube-blowing, a primitive and experimental form of glass art. The earliest evidence perhaps but it is clear that, by that time, glass blowing had been around for awhile. When the Romans saw people blowing glass they took it and ran with it.
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I took the kids over to Taos Plaza to see glass artists Tony Jojola, Ira Lujan and Robert “Spooner” Marcus work their magic in a public, nighttime glass blowing demonstration.
Tony Jojola, originally from New Mexico’s Isleta Pueblo describes glass as clay that can’t be touched. “But like clay,” he says, “anything can be made from glass.”
Anything? That’s impressive.
Jojola, one of just a handful of Native American glass blowers, studied under famed “pirate” blower Dale Chihuly and was instrumental in bringing glass to Taos. Jojola’s works clearly grow from traditional New Mexico Pueblo cultural forms: the seed jar, the olla and basket forms. Dragonflies, thunderbirds and water serpents also grace his work.
Taos Pueblo’s own Ira Lujan agrees with Jojola’s take on the connection between glass and clay.
“Like clay, it (glass) is an art form that combines all the four elements of fire, water, wind and earth,” he points out in his artist’s statement. “This seems so elementary, but in actuality is a pretty complex choreography which becomes a fascinating art form.”
Glass blowing starts with the placement of blowpipes about 4-foot long into a furnce where the glass has been melted at about 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit. The blowers dip the pipes into the melted glass, rotating them until the pipe has gathered a ball of molten material the consistency of honey at the end. This is called “gathering”.
Pulling the molten glass from the crucible, they roll the material on a steel marver table. This process evens out the blob of glass and begins to smooth it. The glass artists we watched also used wet wooden blocks to help smooth out the sides of the glass. Using “jacks”, or giant tongs, they defined the lip of the vessel they created and then opened it further in various places by blowing.
At this point, the glass artist blows through the pipe to create a little bubble on the inside of the ball of molten glass. At the same time, they have to maintain an even temperature for the glass to avoid cracking if too cold or “blowing out” if too hot. They continually re-inserted the piece they were creating into the oven to maintain that perfect temperature.
As Tony explained, this part isn’t easy. If the glass artist blows too hard, the walls of the glass become too thin and unable to hold the additional layers of glass. After this, colors and shapes can be worked into the glass using quick, powerful bursts of air pushed through the pipe. After the addition of layers the artists inflate the glass further and then begin molding it.
Tony, Ira and Spooner also demonstrated for us the art of mold-blowing wherein they poured the molten glass into a mold, maintained the heat with blow-torches and then placed the mold in a kiln, heated to about 900-degreees, where it could cool slowly to avoid the cracking that comes with rapid cooling.
One of the most difficult aspects of glassblowing is keeping the temperature at the correct level. At this stage, the glassblower is constantly regulating the glass by reheating it when necessary. This allows the artist to shape the glass into the form they desire, but at the same time, it’s a delicate balancing act: if it gets too cold, it cracks, and if any part of it gets too hot it blows out quicker than the rest.
I can’t remember who said it but defining the glass blowing and glass art we saw as “the shape of light” could not have been more perfect.