Heart of glass: the intricate and delicate art of glass sculpting

Tucked away behind the college's Art Building, in what looks like a highly renovated garage, come the somewhat alarming sounds of shattering glass, hammering on pipes, and flaming wind tunnels. On any given weekday afternoon, a team of people, reminiscent of the coal burners pictured in the belly of the Titanic, fearlessly place rods of steel inside of a 2,000 degree flaming furnace in the wall. From within the furnace, a melting glass prize rich with color and brilliance shines at the end of the long metal rods.

This is the unbearably hot world of glass blowing at SMC. On a daily basis, elaborate multi-color bottles, bowls, jars, plates, vases, pumpkins (for the recent festivities), jewelry, and other pieces of art are being molded and pulled into unique forms.

Like so many of the various and interesting classes at SMC, the Glass Sculpture classes offered are open to all levels of experience. Terri Bromberg, the glass sculpture professor, teaches general techniques to advanced students who can form elaborate vases, and beginners who are mastering simple table objects.

Among her students this semester, one beginning student in particular shows surprising progress and skill. Stell Bahrami, a UCLA graduate, does glass blowing at SMC as a hobby. "She is a beginner who has advanced faster than other beginners," says Bromberg. Though she only began this semester, she has so far designed cylinders (cups), bowls, caterpillars, and a pumpkin, all with intricate and advanced individualistic designs.

Bahrami agrees with Bromberg, who calls glass blowing an "artistic sport.” "You have to keep going from start to finish, even if your shoulders get tired of holding the heavy metal blow pipes, otherwise your piece will break and you will lose all the work you have [been] doing for that day," said Bahrami.

She explained that glass blowers are very patient with their art because it takes very precise and refined movements with the hands to mold the glass with tools and movements into the desired shape or object. However, speed in this field is absolutely necessary because the melted glass is constantly moving, forcing glass blowers to keep rotating the material before it cools. Workers use wet wooden tools such as paddles and blocks to center the glass and gently reform it before they place it back in the furnace.

For Bahrami, what helps her be consistent is having confidence and being calm and patient. She also notes that it's important to be dynamic at the same time. "Knowing that you are going to control the glass; the glass is not going to control you,” she said.

All the while, certainly expect to be heavily sweating, just due to the proximity to the furnace, known as the "glory hole." The temperature in the room can be from 85 to 100 degrees depending on where a person is standing. The temperature can dramatically increase once a person steps even one foot beyond the red safety line that designates the five foot radius around the furnace.

Because of the danger present, teaming up with classmates when one is glass blowing is crucial. Working with others also helps construct a family atmosphere where everyone shares ideas with each other. Bahrami explains, “It helps create trust with yourself as well with your partners and builds the atmosphere with energetic collaboration.”

According to Bahrami, to be a great glass blower, fully understanding safety measures and avoiding accidents is a crucial starting point. In the "hot shop," it is safer than sorry to assume that every surface is hot, and broken glass is a common occurrence. Glass can snap suddenly from the pressure at the end of the blowpipe and shatter into pieces.

“Before taking this class I would jump at the sound of a plate breaking," said Bahrami. "Now, if I break a plate at home I don’t even flinch at the sound of glass breaking. I have become desensitized to it."

Glass that falls off of the blow pipe and breaks can still be up to 1,000 degrees, causing shards to melt into the sole of shoes and give off a burning rubber smell. The possibility of being burned by shattered pieces are certainly real in this environment, which is why refrigerators nearby are stocked with burn cream and ice pops to put over burns.

In addition to the heat, the “hot shop” can also become quite deafening with the sounds of perpetual crunches of glass being stepped on, clanks of metal poles and metal sheers banging together. The furnace alone sounds like an unrelenting ocean of fire to anyone not used to it. “It is like being in a wind tunnel,” said Bahrami of the furnace. Teaching in the "hot shop" actually requires an instructor to use a PA system to instruct the class.

The Glass Sculpture class has extended into a club on campus, allowing old and new members to understand and watch the glass blowing process. They meet on Thursdays from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. in room 102 in the Art Building.

The ending result of the endured sweat, exhaustion, and close proximity to a hole in the wall reminiscent of the eye of Sauron from the Lord of the Rings movies are truly individual and delicate works of art that can never be created the same way twice.