May 12 2009 07:19 PM

Talking dirty with UCSD's masters of glass


Paddling the bottom. Jacking off. Giving a bench blow. With such suggestive terminology, you might start to wonder what kind of hot shop UCSD is running at its Crafts Center.

Get your mind out of the glory hole. It's just the lingo of glassblowing.

Lauren Stewart, a 22-year-old student and hardcore devotee of the art form, seems to relish the innuendo, no matter how innocent the actual meaning.

“Glory hole,” she explains with a grin, is the glassblowing furnace that burns blazing hot—around 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit. “Paddling the bottom” means using a cherry-wood paddle to shape a piece. “Jacking off”? Closing your bubble accidentally. And “giving a bench blow”? Blowing air through a pipe while another artisan works the glass.It's Saturday afternoon, and midterms are approaching, but Stewart, a creative-writing major, will be spending most of her weekend at UCSD's hot shop, where she's racked up hours of blow time as a teaching assistant in beginning glassblowing classes.

“I study late at night,” she says. “I read on the shuttle. It's hard to get any work done around here because someone always needs a paddle, or a bench blow, or a punty.”

A punty (or puntil) is a small glob of glass on the end of a thin steel rod. It's used to help the glassblower work the opening of the piece, acting as a joiner for a new pipe and the bottom of the piece. The delicate punty will eventually be broken off when the piece is complete.

If all that sounds confusing, imagine having to do it for the first time. Stewart remembers what it was like when she first started four years ago as a freshman.

“Everything is unfamiliar,” she explains. “All the tools, all the names for everything. One of the things I've figured out about TA'ing is to ask [students] what they think the next step will be. I follow them to the glory hole after we do something. Sometimes they're right, sometimes they're wrong.”

Despite the fact that they're holding a pipe topped with molten glass, most students—who range in age and are not all students at UCSD—escape relatively unscathed.

“I burned myself once,” Stewart admits. “I was making a goblet foot and jerked my finger by where the glass is. I've never done it since.”

From beginners to veterans, all the glassblowers in this hot shop were lured to glass for different reasons. Some of the students were ceramicists and wanted to try something new. Some were just crafty and curious. Stewart first became interested when she accidentally broke an irreplaceable piece of her grandmother's chandelier.

The hot shop, by the way, is exactly that. Though the sides of the studio are open-air, the heat is withering, especially when you get within a pipe's length of the orange-glowing glory hole. It's like standing in front of an open oven during a deathly heat wave.

“That's probably the hardest thing to get used to,” Stewart says. But it's not hard to get hooked, she adds. “Once you're in the program, you hang out here a lot.”

On this afternoon, Stewart is helping another student, 20-year-old Russell White, who studies biology and music at UCSD when he's not at the hot shop. It took him a good half-hour getting his piece started. Beginning with a glob of glass on the end of a pipe, he's added color and texture, moving back and forth between the glory hole to the bench, heating, shaping and re-heating, turning the pipe methodically the entire time.

Stewart steps in as White's assistant—at UCSD, glassblowers always work in teams—giving bench blows and holding various water-soaked paddles, against which White shapes the bottom of his piece. She then helps him transfer with the punty so he can use pinchers to shape the opening of the piece, which he describes as a Chihuly bowl.Chihuly refers to Dale Chihuly, one of the most famous artists in studio glass today. Chihuly's massive, vividly colored pieces are at museums worldwide, and the artist was the subject of a 2008 documentary, Chihuly in the Hotshop.Stewart isn't a huge fan of Chihuly, however.

“It's a lot of glass and a lot of color, and that's cool. But I really prefer the fine delicate goblet work, with lots of small details done with tweezers. I like the little stuff like that. Getting a piece of glass too hot and spinning it out [like Chihuly] just really takes a lot of muscle.”

Stewart's heart belongs to the Venetian tradition, which has been around since the 14th century. “Italian work is so precise,” she says. “There's just so much history behind it.”

And when she talks about her favorite glass artist, the Italian master Lino Taglipietra, Stewart sounds like a groupie. “He's been the best glassblower in the world since at least the '70s. He tries something new every day. It's so cool.”

Not that UCSD doesn't have its own stars. Buzz Blodgett, one of the advanced instructors at the Crafts Center, has made custom pieces for the White House (check out his work May 16 and 17 at Blodgett Glass in Leucadia). And Stewart describes another teacher, Clay Logan, as “badass,” a guy who might just know more about glass than anyone in Southern California.

“I found out recently that Clay, the modest son-of-a-bitch, worked for Lino,” Stewart marvels. “That's like finding out that this guy you hang out with every day trained with Michael Jordan.”

Of course, not all glassblowers can make a living at it, but Stewart—a wisp of a girl with signature gold sneakers and a fearless attitude—plans to try. “There's a career in glass, but it takes a really long time to get good enough to have that career.”

Stewart has already spent hundreds—maybe thousands—of hours in the hot shop, and she's not even out of college yet. She may not be the next Lino Taglipietra, but you probably wouldn't mind having a few of her gorgeous goblets in your art glass collection.


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