Teaching the public about the art of glassmaking is our passion at the Duncan McClellan Gallery and the DMG School Project. Creating glass art is a complex and fascinating discipline, and we want to share it with anyone who wants to learn. Whether you are a student planning to take a class in our hot shop, a teacher looking to organize an event with our mobile glass blowing lab, or an aspiring glass artist, there are always new and exciting things to learn about this art form. Check out this list of five interesting and fun facts about modem glassblowing.
- The modern American Studio Glass movement started in 1960s
Glassmaking is an ancient art, but for most of history it was limited to a relatively small number of people because furnaces hot enough to melt glass were very large and very expensive. In the 1950s a ceramist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison named Harvey K. Littleton became the catalyst that began the studio glass movement in America. Littleton’s experiments with hot glass in his studio in 1958 led him to see the potential for studio glassblowing to become a force in American art. He worked with chemist and engineer Dominick Labino to host two glassblowing workshops at Toledo Museum of Art in 1962, which are now seen as the birthplace of the movement. The workshops featured a small, inexpensive furnace design which Labino had developed, that made the establishment of private and independent glass studios far more practical and affordable.
- The glass used in glassblowing is basically made from sand
That may be a bit of an oversimplification, but it’s essentially true. The glass used in most glass art is made by melting pure silica along with additives such as soda and lime, which increase viscosity and reduce the melting point of the material. The many colors you see in glass art are typically made by adding metal oxides to batches of raw materials, creating rods of colored glass called canes, which are then added to clear glass base during the blowing process.
- Glassblowing requires incredibly high temperatures.
In nature, glass is made under certain very specific circumstances – such as lightning strikes and volcanic eruptions. That should give you some idea of the temperatures required to turn silica (sand) or other materials into glass. In glassblowing studios, called “hot shops”, specialized furnaces are used to create temperatures as high as 2,400 degrees fahrenheit to melt raw materials into glass, or heat glass back up to around 2,000 degrees to make it soft enough to blow and shape.
- Glass art must be cooled very slowly
Glass artists must frequently reheat the glass they are working with to keep it soft enough while they are working with it. But it’s also very important to cool glass slowly under controlled conditions when they are finished working it. For this they use a type of oven called an annealer, which slowly cools the glass over many hours or even days. Glass that cools too slowly can crystallize, losing its transparency and become brittle, or even crack outright. Proper annealing cools and hardens the glass slowly to prevent this.
- Glassblowing is often a team effort
Glassmaking is a collaborative art, often requiring tightly choreographed sequences of precisely timed movements and techniques by a team of glass artists. The lead artist, usually called the gaffer, directs a team of other artists who fill roles such as assistant, blower, blocker, burner, finisher, all responsible for different aspects of the process.