Yesterday several members of the Turning Arts Group and friends from both the Northeast Florida Woodturners Association and the Northeast Florida Sculptors visited the studio of Thomas Long, a well know and respected glass artist. We were treated to a tour of his studio and a demonstration of his amazing skill with glass. Thomas has been blowing glass for 24 years and has developed a specific style for himself.
He started the program by discussing this style he has developed and showing us two pieces in process. One of these pieces needed another element, which is what he was going to do for our demo.
After seeing art glass work on TV, I was really excited to see a live demo. Thomas explained the whole process we would see before we started. He said this was because it may be hard to hear, but it wasn’t because of the traditional roar of the gas fired furnace, since he has converted to electric furnaces some years ago. It was going to be the music he was going to play that would make it hard for him to talk over. Thomas really likes to get in the “zone” when he’s working on each element of a piece and music really helps him do that. He put together a great soundtrack for the demo.
He has two electric furnaces, one with the glass pot, maintained at 2000ºF and a second furnace at 2200ºF. There is also an annealing oven to allow the finished hot piece to cool down without adding stress to the glass.
Glass blowing is not a solo endeavor. Through the whole process he was assisted by Lauren Shirer, who has a MFA in Glass Arts and has been assisting Thomas for the last two years.
Thomas works with a initial “gather”, building an initial shape onto which he will add in sequence a series of three colors. The colors are added by small, uniform pieces of colored glass. The glass must be returned to the hot oven repeatedly to maintain the glass at the right temperature and to melt the colored glass. Once the color has been added, additional gathers of clear glass are added. The glass had to be shaped between each gather and when he finally had the colored core properly shaped, he put the glass into a mold to align the colors and allow him to create color bands. Once he was satisfied with the color distribution, he added more and more clear glass. Since the piece he was going to make would be about 30” in diameter, it would take a total of about 20 pounds of glass.
More shaping followed until everything was just right and then he had Lauren begin to do the glass blowing. He would direct the strength and duration of the blowing until he got the piece to the right shape. The shaping process gets Thomas pretty close to the heat, so Thomas’ son manages some paddles to help block the heat from burning his Dad. The piece then had to be transferred to another punty (pontil). For this Lauren got a small gather on a new punty and Thomas then fused the hot glass to his blown piece and then broke the piece off the original punty. Once done, the piece was opened up and black glass for the rim was added.
More heating and more shaping until it was ready to spin into a disk. Thomas got the temperature just right and then pulled the piece out of the furnace and began to spin it pretty quickly and the blown ball just opened up into a disk. He had to constantly keep the piece moving to keep the 30” disk from slumping, but once cooled down a bit (still well over 1000ºF) he did the final shaping of the rim with a carbon paddle.
When it cooled to about 1000ºF it is now “cold” glass and can maintain it’s shape, but had to get into the annealing oven before it cooled too much. Thomas and Lauren then did a little dance to break the disk off the punty so that Thomas could get it into the oven. After 14 hours in the oven, the piece will be finished.
You can tell that this was a lot of intense work for the hour it took to make the piece and he made it look so easy. However, that was the 24 years of experience on display.
Thomas answered questions, but as he was talking we could see that his youngest son, Coen, wanted to ask him something. It turned out that he wanted to do a little of a demo on his own, so they decided to make a fish. Thomas did most of the basic shaping and Lauren added the fins, but Coen shaped all the fins and added all the texture and added some lips to end the process. We didn’t get to see the final fish up close, since it too had to go into the annealing oven, but there was an example of one he had made before for us to check out. Coen was so cute and the fish was so pretty that Turning Arts Group member, Bob Hunt couldn’t resist negotiating with Coen and bought the piece.
Watching the whole process as very interesting, but it was clear that there are some design similarities with woodturning. In fact, Thomas did a lot of woodturning when he was younger and acknowledged that design concepts like the Golden Mean and Fibonacci Sequence apply to both art forms.