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Meet the Alchemists of Glass

Imagination is Their Only Limitation

Is Apprenticeship Dead?

In the spring of 2005, the first YouTube video was uploaded, and for thirteen years since, that platform has acted as a substitute teacher. From self-defense tutorials to how to fold your laundry properly or learn a foreign language, its lessons are yours for the taking. With the click of your mouse, you can sift through hundreds of thousands of tutorials on how to blow glass. For world-renowned glassblowers Jason Harris and Charles Lowrie, apprenticeship required an expensive plane ticket to another part of the globe and an unwavering desire to apprentice under a master.

Harris landed in Mainz, Germany, around 1996. “When I started making glass, there was no internet … I read the name on the side of a [glass pipe] box, and it said Mainz. So, I went to Germany and got a room at a hostel,” Harris recollects. A young Harris, of the famous Jerome Baker Designs, marched straight to the door of a giant factory embellished with enormous smoke stacks and introduced himself to the gatekeeper as “an American flameworker” dying to see the process. “They brought me in and I saw the whole factory, and that’s how I learned. I immersed myself,” Harris shares of his first few days as an apprentice.

 

Lowrie’s experience wasn’t all that different. As he tells me matter-of-factly, “It is absolutely important to work with a master in any endeavor. [It took] thousands of years of tradition and alchemy to get us here … working with the masters is really the only way to transcend and take it to the next level.” As for YouTube as a teacher? “Pre-YouTube was the living, breathing, sweep-the-floor experience — now your fingertips allow you to travel the world in a millisecond and arrive in Murano, Italy, and watch a master create a piece before your very eyes,” he states with a wide-eyed expression. He concedes that, while YouTube is beautiful, it’s an extreme shortcut, and one that will result in many people missing the “point.”

For Dan Coyle, apprenticeship came in the form of education. As a graduate from the renowned Salem Community College’s Samuel H. Jones Education Center, Coyle took a different route than his apprenticing predecessors. When it comes to working with borosilicate, or boro, as it’s called in the glassblowing community, Coyle is a force. Harris affirms Coyle’s ability, saying that keeping up with Coyle’s imagination when it comes to flamework is like trying to stay with the peloton.

Glassblowers and Ballerinas

“Proficient glassblowers have often said that glassblowing is not about blowing the perfect piece of glass, but coming up with effective solutions to all the problems that consistently present themselves in the process of glassblowing.”

– Erin O’Connor, Ethnographer

Coyle, Harris and Lowrie are all present in the hot shop of Brooklyn Glass on an atypical, sweltering New York day in June. The studio, located in Gowanus, is equipped with two furnaces — crucibles capable of melting 2,600 pounds of glass at upwards of 2000 degrees — and five glory holes that, when active, emit waves of arid, desert-like heat capable of evaporating the beads of sweat on your forehead instantaneously.

This dream team of glassblowers have congregated in this harsh environment to blow and construct The Freedom Bong — a larger-than-life bong bedecked with Uncle Sam-inspired marbles and sculpted hot glass handcrafted in the hot shop and flameworking studio, respectively. As a spectator, what ensues is a carefully orchestrated, choreographed dance between the team. It’s like watching a sweaty Swan Lake on steroids.

“The dance we do in the studio is like a ballet. People move around without speaking, no one gets burned — everything moves fluidly, and it’s magical to watch,” Harris says, reciting the choreography from memory.

Lowrie seconds that sentiment: “While we’re working, there is a dance that happens, a conversation with the glass that happens simultaneously.” Harris, acting as conductor, and Lowrie as gaffer and head glass blower, know that the success of a project of this caliber hinges on asking the glass for permission. Will she oblige? “She [glass] has a lot of different rules, but she is very versatile. There is this fluidity and flow that has to happen, because when things go wrong — and they will go wrong — it may not be obvious to the viewer,” Lowrie asserts.

The number of people involved in a project of this scope is jaw-dropping, and every role, no matter how simple it may appear from the outside, is critical to the success of the bong. Harris likens it to a guitarist: “You [any member of the team] learn how to play the chords, the scales, and get the material down. You learn over time in the studio and through repetition.” It’s through this practice that the crew members begin to predict the moves, needs and desires of their “bandmates.” Harris reiterates, “That’s why these people can dance around. They are one step ahead. You’ll watch [this dance] happen when we work. Someone will go up to the bench and place a tool down ‘cause they know this next guy is going to expect it and pick it up in that exact location. Somebody is going to go open a [glory hole] door before the guy gets over there, because he senses he is about to come in ahead of time.” When these predictions don’t occur as expected, ripples happen. This is where the head glass blower, Lowrie, comes in. Lowrie is the head chef, and if there is a problem in the kitchen, you can expect he’ll be waiting in the wings with bated breath to extinguish any fires.

If You Can’t Handle the Heat, Stay Out of the Kitchen

This trade — this lifestyle — isn’t for everyone. As the components of The Freedom Bong are being blown, there is a moment where Lowrie snaps at his right-hand man, Scott Fouche. Fouche’s official title in this project is Lowrie’s assistant, but that term doesn’t do Fouche’s role much justice. The gaffer’s assistant has a complex set of responsibilities. To begin, Fouche must gather glass onto a blowpipe, or punty, by lowering the blowpipe into the furnace with a cadence and patience perfected by years of experience. Once removed from the furnace, the molten hot “lollipop” is twirled at a steady speed over to the bench, where Lowrie awaits in a seated position.

The bench is Lowrie’s workstation where, with Fouche’s assistance, he will roll the punty on rails — comically long metal chair arms — attached to the bench. The gathered glass at the tip of the punty is rolled along the rails while it cools, awaiting another dip into the pool of molten liquid. Each dip allows the gather to grow and, surely enough, dip after dip, the orb expands. The gather will weigh in at nearly 80 pounds before being hauled to a V-block that will be used to mold the molten glass into its desired shape — in this case, a cylinder reaching six feet in height. It is destined to become the chamber of The Freedom Bong.

“As a spectator, what ensues is a carefully orchestrated, choreographed dance between the team. It’s like watching a sweaty Swan Lake on steroids.”

The process described above is one step of many in a series that will result in one of the world’s largest bongs. When probed as to what type of person can stand up to the heat, so to speak, Harris quips literally and figuratively, “You have to have some thick skin. Boxing. We are going to get in the match, spar, talk turkey and then go out to the movies … everyone has a different reaction to getting burned or overwhelmed.”

Lowrie agrees about having thick skin: “Timing is everything in glass. So yes, yesterday the shit hit the fan a few times. The talking, yelling and intensity and perseverance, was, ‘We got it in the box, and it was an okay piece, and it’s gonna work.’” Put simply, a ripple had occurred and, in an effort to stop it in its tracks, Lowrie had to bring out the “fire extinguisher” and make the piece work. Coyle got caught in some ripples as well, and it was Lowrie who was there to calm the waters. As someone who spends most of his time in the flameworking studio, Coyle’s hours in the hot shop have been limited in comparison to his peers that afternoon. This Jerome Baker Designs event gave Coyle a unique opportunity to learn from a handful of accomplished glassblowers.

A Dying Breed of Craftsmen?

Without glass, and glassblowers for that matter, entire academic research institutions would be at a standstill — albeit temporarily. In basements across U.S. college campuses, craftsmen are at work blowing, to specification, glass laboratory equipment. Despite schools like the one Coyle attended churning out glassblowers capable of such detailed glass feats, many students and apprentices are opting to go other routes; one of these paths is that of a pipemaker.

As someone who had the option of going into the field of scientific glassware, Coyle states, “The main reason [scientific craftsmen] are on the decline is due to outsourcing, and a lot of the jobs for scientific glassblowers went away.” Coyle used to be a member of the American Scientific Glassblowers Society (ASGS), founded in 1952. Today, the ASGS has approximately 650 members. “Back in the ‘50s, the ASGS had maybe 1500 to 2000 members, and now it’s down,” Coyle remarks.

When asked his thoughts on the decline of these craftsmen, Lowrie shares, “It’s interesting,
we all know what machines can do yet with the complex apparatus we find in the scientific industry it requires a finesse and dexterity that can only be achieved by hand.” Lowrie believes that the progress of our society and human existence is dependent upon what human hands can create. “It goes back to the ancestral knowledge, and the dying out, and the loss of old knowledge. It’s unacceptable, in my opinion.” This is why Lowrie is so insistent upon apprenticeship: “If you find one kid today that is passionate, you let them get right in the heat and you nurture that kid, because they are the future.” The applications of glass are innumerable, and we take its many uses for granted.

“Glass is essential for society,” Harris interjects, “whether it’s light bulbs, car headlights, tubes in an amplifier or TV, fiber optic cables, fiberglass insulation for houses, condom molds — I could go on and on.”

Coyle, Harris and Lowrie remain hopeful about the future of their craft. At the epicenter of this lives a desire to create art in all its forms, as well as an appreciation for cannabis. It’s more mainstream than it ever has been, and whether the fine arts community’s involvement is something you love or hate, they are changing the way glass is perceived.

High Art or Fine Art?

Lowrie declares that he “ … likes the awakening” of the fine arts community’s involvement in, and acceptance of, the glassblowing space. In the fall of 2017, Lowrie was commissioned to make designs for conceptual artist Aïda Ruilova, specifically a transcendental, metaphorical installation in which Lowrie constructed a clear glass pipe in the shape of a woman on her knees — a vessel of sorts.

In an interview, Ruilova stated that the female figure is clear so that you can be “conscious of when you use them … This idea of using them to escape because you don’t want to be present. Or because you need to be somewhere else in terms of a psychological space.” Though she’s not a cannabis consumer, Ruilova’s concept of this installation required collaboration with a glassblower.

“She doesn’t even smoke anymore, and this is her fine art. So yeah, I am excited about it. Very excited about it. Why? Because now it doesn’t have to be separate. Pipemaker, artist, bongmaker? No, we are humans having a human experience, and we are expressionists,” Lowrie asserts. He’s excited to see the walls between the taboo world of cannabis or pipemaker and artist coming down. They in fact can be one in the same. “That’s one reason I am loving doing these [projects], because it is not about smoking and it is so about smoking. Spirit!”

“There is something mystical to manipulating this molten magma.”

– Jason Harris, Glass Artist

Coyle and Harris’ thoughts on the topic run in a similar vein to Lowrie’s. “The pipe in and of itself is a piece of art … Like wheel ceramics, there is an alchemy to it [pipe making]. There is something mystical to manipulating this molten magma,” Harris echoes.

When Coyle tries to explain what it is that he does for a living, people often conjure up their own definition of what it means to be a glassblower. “A lot of the pieces I make are showpieces that you put on your shelf — they’re sculptural and pop culture-ish. Cannabis has done a lot of good things for this [glassblowing] industry,” Coyle affirms. More blowers and lampworkers are in the space now, and glass color options, due to demand, are on the rise.

As cannabis becomes more commonplace in mainstream culture, it only makes sense that we should see a greater appreciation for the glassblower as artisan. More opportunities in the glassblowing industry are bubbling to the surface, and social media’s impact on glassblowing is undeniable. If there is one lesson we should take away from the best in the business, it’s that apprenticeship is not dead — it is necessary to the culture of the glassblowing community, and in ensuring the survival of master glassblowers across the globe.


Charles Lowrie: Gaffer / Head Glassblower – @charles_lowrie | transcensions.com
Jason Harris: Conductor
Scott Fouche: Assistant to Charles Lowrie – @fooshboosh
Daryl Smith: Gaffer
Dan Coyle: Flamework / V-Block – @coylecondenser | icecoldglass.com
Gina Karaba: Marble Maker – @ginakarabaglassart | theglasspumpkin.com
Brian Gonzalez: Doors
Joe Pecoraro: Doors
Benjua: Doors

@jerome_baker | jeromebaker.com
@morganpetersondesign | morganpetersondesign.com
@brooklynglass | brooklynglass.com

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Andrea Larson

Andrea is a Seattle native with a passion for the storytelling process. When she isn't curating content for DOPE she can be found binge listening to podcasts, skiing at a local PNW mountain or catching a drag show at Le Faux on Capitol Hill.
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