Thursday October 21, 2021 | by UrbanGlass Staff

The Veteran Meets UrbanGlass By Phillip Rucker VA PRRC Outpatient

I was hanging out in Sensei Lydia’s physical “Qigong” class during midday when she announced that the veteran outreach/scheduling/etc. supervisor had a new special interest pandemic class we could volunteer for. So I, being curious, signed up.

The people I met led by Karina, the Outreach Coordinator, were so nice, accommodating and professional. I started with an at complete home starter kit with accompanying lectures by Studio Technician Courtney McCloskey and a bonus history of ancient glass. For the next month I worked on a faux stained glass postcard, string stories with beads, faux fused leaf pendant, and paper mosaic magnet. Treasure for the imagination! I fell in love with the creative, technical, historical and teaching/coaching processes.

So! In true patriotic veteran style I volunteered again. This time for paid “Beginner Hot Glass classes” I received a scholarship and paid the rest out of my pocket. I was elated I was accepted into the class. I began preparing in Lydia’s class with special balance training to manage balancing the heavy steel rods that had to be inserted into the furnace which is 2200 degrees in order to gather glass. The bottom of the furnace held 1,000 lbs. of molten glass.

Now, I consider myself to be a reasonable man, most times.  But the heat was like that of a molten steel factory just before pouring liquid steel into molds. The view of the open Kilns with the hottest one having the nickname “The Glory Hole”. No Jokes! Please! The glory hole being 2000 degrees with the brightness of the sun, and the flickering dragon’s breath directly on your body as you skate boarded with your left foot directly up to the semi protective gate in front of the dragon's flickering tongue. The left hand is the guiding hand in everything you do with the five-foot rods. But, patriotic heroes are needed to battle the dragon called Glory Hole. Anyway, they have ice buckets to plunge your hands into if you get a little bit toasted. Red five-gallon cans plus large steel storage drums are within arms distance.

Everyone peels down to their tee shirts or short sleeve cotton blouses. Natural fabrics being the order of the day, but I asked for a left hand insulated glove. After I asked, so did most of the other students. By this time we were all looking to see if all our appendages of our phalanges, palms and if we still had hair on our forearms. The disciplined verbal commands of Anna and our other two instructors was a palpable insistent, drumming over the roar of the Kilns into our ears. We knew we’d better listen. If you are hard headed just pack your gear, unceremoniously dishonorably discharged. Our group listened and repeated their instructions in the group to our classmates over the roar of the dragon whose tail whipped distortions in sound so it was hard to discern the direction of speech or clarity of the messaging. Sometimes, sign language was necessary.

In the words of the great rapper Nelly, his song titled “Hot in Here” exposed all of our human weaknesses. Glass breaking in the storage drums with ice at the bottom like the broken dreams of a warrior who refuses to accept defeat. She/he places her spear (blowpipe) in a temporary holding upright position, while it sizzles; the inanimate pipe declares itself ready for another bout with the dragon. You then place the pipe back in the oven to sharpen its point with its own trademark brand of heat! Then you gather the supple sparkling glass. The artist will not be defeated nor will his/her equipment.  Failure, you begin to understand, is the road to glorious sparkling success. Our war cry became, “Let’s go! Next gather of glass coming up!” 

It sounds like random chaos but there’s a method to the madness. I hope that Anna and my student partner (Agnes) won’t be embarrassed by my attempt to clarify step by step operational procedures.

  • First, there is orientation of hot shop rules, tools, location of restrooms, lunchroom and who else is in the shop working and the decorum working near them (they’re spending Benjamin’s/$$$)
  • Second, teammates are selected and assigned to instructors.
  • Then we begin selecting pipes from the oven and gathering glass. We work as a team with one holding the door to the furnace partially open, then closing it so only a crack is available to gather glass with the pipe.
  • Then you feel that awesome heat a couple of feet from your left hand. You must gather enough to cover the tip of the pipe, but not so much going too far up the pipe, while constantly rotating the pipe.
  • Then you pull it out, still rotating the pipe and walk over to the rectangular water fountain. Sticking the side closest to you and stepping on the pedal with your left foot and cooling off the pipe without splashing water on your hot gather (glass will break) or burning yourself.
  • Next you place your left hand in the fountain (pipe better be cool to the touch) and lift the pipe out. Inspect it under the instructor’s guidance and gather another couple of times. (Proper footwork, balance and every muscle in your body is used.)
  • Eventually you go to the superheated glory hole and get the amount of glass you (hopefully) need. Taking it back to the work bench using footwork, you rest the pipe on the steel armrests, and then open the door to sit, and then close the door after sitting close to the pipe head with the molten glass while constantly turning the glass with your left hand.
  • You shape the glass with a variety of tools. Then reheat in the glory hole and either gather or reheat depending on your progress.
  • Back to the bench, open and close the door.
  • Shape the glass. Round it! Open up a funnel! Put a punti on it. Take your paddle to flatten the bottom of the glass. Your partner can also paddle under the glass to shield the heat from the molten glass from your hands that are designing your artwork with the tools to the right of the bench. You need your partner’s help in all of these steps.
  • In addition you can add colors from glass powders, add handles, punties and more.
  • After completing the project, Kevlar tongs are used to put it away to cool overnight. IT STARTS AT A MERE 900 DEGREES! 

I’m sure this is not even halfway complete! Time for me to answer the questions about this ragtag picture in your mind I’ve drawn! Do I want to do more of this? Would I recommend this to my fellow veterans? Did I have a great time? Was it worth the recovery time after classes? Is it a top end art form? Do the pros get paid$$? To the six questions I posed the answer to each is a resounding yes! Hoorah to the big dogs at the veterans administration, get to glass blowing brothers and sisters!

I’d like to thank the PRRC staff and my fellow vets there. But a big “ten hut” and salute to the UrbanGlass superlative consortium showing veteran and civilian alike how to suck it up to do something beautiful for yourself while forging ahead through the heat of battle with the glory hole dragon until you have your trophy in hand.