Glass class offers clear alternative

Max Rust

Until a few years ago, the University had a renowned hot glass program, which produced many successful glass artists.
But funding crunches and a decision to focus on developing other art programs left the studio arts building without the means to continue hot glass, a form of glass that begins as molten and turns solid after several processes and hours of cooling.
Earlier this year, however, University students started blowing glass again in workshops offered through The Studio in Coffman Union, a student services fees-funded resource that provides students and community members access to studio time and art education.
Diana Eicher, studio coordinator, got in touch last year with local glass artist Tom Rine, who runs the Island Glass Studio in northeast Minneapolis.
Rine and Eicher put together the workshops; two in the fall and two in the spring, which Rine instructs at his studio.
Chad Cummings, a chemistry junior, attended one of Rine’s glass blowing class last month.
“It’s a totally different medium,” said Cummings, who has worked artistically with many different materials.
Rine’s classes are taught in two three-hour sessions. In the first session, Rine explains the history of glass, safety, equipment and techniques of glass blowing. Two days later, the students come back to try the process hands-on and make small works of art such as caterpillars and marbles.
Rine said that playing with the glass was the most enjoyable part for the students.
“After the class, the students kept calling and saying ‘Is it done yet? Is it done yet?'”
Hot glass takes a long time to cool down, so once the piece is made, the artist won’t be able to touch it until about a day later.
Rine said he enjoys every part of the glass process, including the wait.
“The science of making glass, and the technology of making glass and that process … it’s exciting,” he said.
Individual glass studios were unable to exist until about 30 years ago because of the high costs of equipment and heating resources. Most glass was made in large factories involving several people in the production process.
Developments in equipment design, as well as technological advancements like microprocessors that control the heating apparatuses and timing devices, have led to what is known as the “studio glass movement,” as artists are now able to afford to build studios.
“That’s why there’s a lot of studios popping up in the United States,” said Rine, who opened Island Glass Studios in March 1997.
Most of these studios are concentrated in the Pacific Northwest and the Northeast. Rine said the abundance of studios on the coasts has much to do with the fact that most educational opportunities for glass are also in these areas.
There are two programs in the region for students to learn glass blowing: Anoka Ramsey Community College and the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.
Andrew Shea, a glass artist at Semi-Automatic Glass on the West Bank, went through the now-defunct University glass program in the 1970s.
“The Twin Cities is packed with glass people,” he said of the local scene. “It’s really a popular medium. There’s a ton of glass guys. Every year there’s new glass guys all over the place.”
Shea said he enjoyed the diversity of talent and ideas at the University glass program, which he left in 1978.
The University’s program was started in 1968 by Curtis Hoard, a professor in the studio arts department.
Hoard came from the very first studio glass program ever in an academic setting at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
In Madison, Hoard was a student with Dale Chihuly, who is considered by many to be one of the greatest glass blowers in the world.
When he started the program at the University, Hoard built every piece of equipment by hand with his students, a tightly knit bunch of artists who repeatedly took the class in order to keep blowing.
“We had a tremendous program,” Hoard said. “This was a really small, hard-core group of people. In some ways the access was very limited to that class because once the student got in, there was an investment and they wanted to stay there.”
A unique aspect of the class was that all of the students — both graduate and undergraduate — worked together and learned the same material.
“That’s the only course in my 30 years of teaching here that I’ve taught that way and I must say that it was very productive,” Hoard said. “Beginners were thrown in the same pot as everybody else, and the learning curve was very high.”
After nine years of teaching both glass and ceramics, Hoard’s aesthetic interests had moved closer to clay and he stopped teaching the glass classes.
Tom Lane, a ceramics professor in the art department, took over the hot glass program until it was cut in the early 1990s.
Lane cited multiple reasons for the program’s demise, specifically funding.
A kiln accident in 1976 resulted in a close examination of the art department’s equipment safety.
It was later determined that the glass program needed a ventilation system in order to keep running, which was very expensive, Lane said.
Lane also cited a departmental decision to focus investments on computers and other areas, instead of keeping the hot glass going.
“I’m sure most of my colleagues would agree, that it’s much more important for us to be pro-active and leaders in electronic art,” Lane said “There’s not a lot of schools that are doing it.”
The art department recently hired their second electronic art faculty member.
While Cummings wishes there were still a program at the University, he is glad to have experienced hot glass and is looking forward to the fall session Rine is planning.
Rine said he will offer three classes through The Studio in the fall: beginning glassmaking, advanced glassmaking and lampworking.
Lampworking is another form of glass blowing that uses a different kind of glass. While hot glass must remain hot for a long time before it cools, glasses used in lampworking are chemically composed so the glass can be held at one end with bare hands and a torch can be applied to the other end.
Lampworking also doesn’t involve large pieces of equipment like furnaces and annealing kilns, but rather a propane torch and rods of glass appropriate for the job.
Some commonly made products of lampworking include beads, neon tubes, smoking paraphernalia and scientific glass used for experiments.
The University has a scientific glass shop in Kolthoff Hall where a scientist can explain what the experiment is and the scientific glass team, led by Hans Florell, will make it for them.
Cummings said lampworking is something he might like to get into in addition to hot glass.
“Working with glass is unlike any other experience. By the time you get it warmed up enough to do something with it and try to form something … you have to be really patient. If you try to force the glass to do something, it will beat you every time.”