An artisan’s sure hand and a dash of color, sparkle, or even a loved one’s cremated remains transform glass into a personal statement
In its molten state, every piece of glass in the world is red.
That’s not the sort of thing you might ponder when, say, choosing glasses. But that’s the sort of “gee-whiz” moment that may dawn on you when getting an up-close glimpse into the art and science of glassmaking.
Using both modern-day methods and some of the same age-old techniques borrowed from Italian artisans, glassmaking (or glassblowing) is a unique artistic alchemy that’s hard not to watch. Its practitioners carry out a ritualized choreography that combines the tactile and the visual — like sculpting with colors — as they create orbs, paperweights, curios, vases, stemware like stilettos and globes that seem as tenuous as soap bubbles.
“Seattle is like the biggest place in the world if you’re serious about glass,” says Brent Rogers, 29, who began learning glassmaking techniques at age 15. Today Rogers is the production manager at Glass Eye Studio, a magnet for creativity that produces about 1,000 finished works for the wholesale market every day.
Glass Eye is also home to a line of glass objets d’art known as Celebration Ashes, which targets the retail market with a product that looks at the past and the future at the same time: cremated ashes of loved ones encased in swirling glass hearts and globes — tributes perfect for proud placement in the home.
More than a dozen professionals can work in the Fremont studio’s “hot shop” at once. Observing the hot shop in full production mode is like watching a ballet unfold in slow, measured movements — except the dancers are all moving next to bubbling volcanoes.
Meaning, of course, the furnaces. There are several at Glass Eye, the largest of which holds 750 to 800 pounds of clear glass in a near-liquid state at a blinding 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit, Rogers says.
“It’s like a big pool in there,” says Rogers. “We go through one of those in a day.”
Smaller crucibles hold 275 to 300 pounds. One of those is designated the color furnace. During our visit the color furnace was filled with blue glass. (There is little need for more color furnaces, since artists apply most of their colors by hand.)
All the artists in the shop practice their craft with a careful economy of motion, gracefully gathering white-hot dollops from the furnaces, swinging their blowpipes carefully to workbenches where they shape them with specialized tools, thrusting them into a smaller, even hotter ovens, then finally disconnecting each piece with a tap…tap…CLINK.
The pieces are transferred to “annealing ovens” where they gradually cool in controlled conditions over many hours. The annealing oven is where the true color of the piece appears. The 100 green glass pickles crafted on the day of our visit won’t stay red-hot forever.
So, imagine you’ve just gathered a dollop from the big furnace on the end of your blowpipe. What will you do with it?
- You can add color to it. Color can be added by arranging colored strips on a work surface, and rolling the hot ball across them. You can also layer the colors or use specialized hand tools to swirl them. Another way to add color is to add pulverized pieces of colored glass called “frit.”
- You can make it glow in the dark. You can roll your hot glass across a layer of glow-in-the-dark particles, similar to frit. Rogers said Glass Eye makes the special frit in-house “because you can’t really buy it.” The Celestial Collection at Glass Eye is home to several luminescent pieces.
- You can add dichroic effects. Glassmakers use a material called “dichro” (meaning “two-colored”) to give their work a shimmering, space-age appearance. Dichro was first used in space-shuttle windows and astronaut helmet visors. Glass Eye buys the material in large sheets as well as strips. “It has a scientific application but you can basically coat anything in dichro,” Rogers says.
- You can add cremated remains to create a glass memorial. For Glass Eye’s Celebration Ashes line of products, artisans carefully mingle ashes provided by customers with custom colors and dichroic effects into shimmering heart-shaped and globe-shaped tabletop monuments.
Danielle Rogland handles customer service, marketing and social media for Celebration Ashes. Interacting with customers and following the cremated remains through to a finished product has been tremendously gratifying, she says.
“Sometimes it’s a family where their dad died 10 years ago and they’re getting around to doing something with the ashes, and they’re over the emotional part,” she said. “But sometimes it’s a family where the person died a month ago, and then it’s not ‘Did the ashes get to you safely?’ It’s ‘Did my grandpa get to you safely?’ ”
At Celebration Ashes we create unique pieces of glass art containing cremation ashes, from both people and pets. Our art glass memorials have brought comfort to thousands of families.