Wednesday, April 6, 2011

In Practice

These days I haven’t been blowing glass all that often. I have some time at RISD on Tuesdays this semester, but so far I haven’t really had anything specific to make. In spite of this, I still make the effort to make the hour drive back and forth to Providence from Boston to exercise my glassblowing muscles. Like many manual skills, glassblowing is nothing like riding a bike. Sure, you can not blow for a year and you will still know which side of the pipe to gather on, but there are millions of little subtleties and reflexes that don’t come back so readily. That’s why there is a big difference between me and someone that handles hot-glass 5 days a week.

I became intensely aware of this for the first time about two years ago when I took a commission to make an elaborate piece of glass after about six months of barely any contact with hot glass.  Previous to my little glass-time-out I was very actively working with glass. I was teaching three different classes per week (and occasionally some private lessons), I had a six hour blow slot at RISD, and I was assisting other glassblowers doing production stuff at least once a week. At this point, I would say my skills were probably as good as they had ever been. I could casually make most typical forms and was pretty handy at both large and small scale. Then rather abruptly: nothing. I got busy doing other things, none of which were glassblowing.

Fast forward six months of no-blow, suffice to say things were a little rough. For a week or two it felt like someone had jinxed my tools and pumped my hands with novocaine. I knew how things should be working, but I just couldn’t put the pieces together. It was back to basics.

Now, where this is where I see people go wrong all the time. Say you want to make something elaborate, like a goblet. You don’t go about making the thing by trying to make the entire thing over and over again. You break it down and learn how to make the parts: cup, stem, mereces, avolios, feet etc. 
You learn them by repeating them over and over again until they become second nature. You gain control over the size, shape, thickness so that when you need to call upon a specific element it isn’t random or formed haphazardly, it’s a standard piece of equipment in your tool box. It’s nuts and bolts type stuff.  Once you have all of your parts, making the thing is easy, it’s just assembling right parts in the right order.

In rock climing “the crux” refers to the most difficult part of a climbing particular route. It’s usually the feature or set of features that will define the rating of the route. You can be flying through a route until you reach the crux and everything falls apart (pun intended). The point being if your smart you’ll know what and where the crux is and you’ll have prepared yourself for it. Just like making the goblet, you practice the most difficult parts time and time again so that your entire effort isn’t stymied by your weakest link.
In climbing, some people live for the crux. These people usually spend all of their time on overly contrived bouldering problems spending hours clinging to impossibly small “crimper” holds and twisting themselves in knots to finish a route that might never get more than 2 feet off of the ground. This was never the kind of climbing that was for me. I liked the long routes with the occasional dodgy section to get your heart-rate up. The same thing holds true for making things. I like to push my skills to keep things interesting, but at the end of day, I want to get the job done efficiently and reliably with the fewest unnecessary contortions(or carpal tunnel).

Anyway, this evening I spent my five hours in the hot shop making basic thin cylindrical cups. Cups are a great warm-up exercise, and regardless of what I am making I always warm up with a cup or two.  I decided not to anneal anything, I just knocked things off at the bench and let them break (some were thin enough that they didn’t, until they got kicked our hit with a hot cut off). Not boxing the glass keeps me from focusing on "finishing" something and having a pile of scraps to at the end of the day to chuck back into the furnace is pretty satisfying.
It’s only my third slot since starting to work again after the winter break (almost three months!), my hands are still a little rusty, but every cup (or pile of shards on the floor) is a step back in the right direction.

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