Today I did something I’ve been wanting to do since last year – each year at the huge Tasmanian Craft Fair at Deloraine, the people from Poatina Arts bring an impressive hot glass trailer to demonstrate hot glass blowing, and when I saw it last year I was captivated. When the latest round of beginner workshops was released, I booked straight away. I was the only person to book for this day, so I basically got a one-on-one tutorial with Keith, who runs the purpose-built glass studio.
The drive to Poatina was gorgeous. It’s on the edge of the Great Western Tiers, so I got to enjoy the splendid snow-topped mountains getting closer as I drove. I stopped a couple of times to take photos, as I (rightly) guessed that the snow would have melted by the time my workshop was done. I don’t mind solo drives, as I like catching up on audiobooks; I listened to Zachary Quinto reading John Scalzi’s novella, The Dispatcher, which was very enjoyable and just the right length to cover the drive there and back.
I arrived at 9:30 and met Keith, who gave me a quick tour of the studio and safety tips (eg, how to turn the gas off if, for some reason, he became incapacitated and the whole building ended up on fire).
The first task was to make a little caterpillar, to learn the techniques of gathering glass on the end of a long metal pipe from the incredibly hot furnace, rolling it on a flat surface called the marver, which helps to cool and shape the blob of glass, then creating shapes with a tool called a jack. All the while you have to keep turning, turning, turning the pipe so that the blob of molten glass doesn’t flop out of shape. It’s a bit like working with very heavy toffee.
The process looked so simple and fluid when Keith was demonstrating it (of course, he’s been doing it for years), but I felt so uncoordinated when I started. First of all, everything’s set up for right handers and so I had to get used to using my weaker hand. Keith said that there are studios that have left handed set ups, but there are some teachers who insist that you can only work glass with a right handed set up and left handers just have to learn (he said they just haven’t gotten around to making a left handed bench at Poatina). Then you need to get used to the constant turning of the pipe with a heavy blob of glass on the end, trying to keep the blob centered, which I never quite got the rhythm of. Then you have to use whatever tool you’re working with in your right hand. And you have to do it all fast, as the glass cools so quickly. You have to keep taking the pipe back over to the ‘glory’ (below), a kiln with a round opening that allows you to reheat the glass to keep it at a workable temperature.
The next project was to make a paperweight. I love glass paperweights! Mum used to have a beautiful small one with bubbles in it that I used to love as a child; I remember staring at it for ages, wondering how those silvery suspended bubbles got in there and froze. Making the paperweight involved picking up chips of coloured glass on the blob of molten glass, then melting the coloured chips in the glory, manipulating the glass with the jacks into twists and swirls, then covering the lot in another blob of clear glass and shaping it with a block (a wooden form soaked in water that helps to make a uniform round shape).
I made two paperweights, then onto the final project which involved the actual glass blowing – making a small bowl/cup. Rather than using a solid pipe, to make the bowl/cup we used a hollow pipe and I learned ‘thumbing’. Thumbing involves blowing into the pipe and quickly trapping the air with your thumb, allowing the air to push into the glass blob and create a bubble. That sounds simple enough, but it was surprisingly hard; Keith assured me that although some people get it straight away, many (including himself) can take weeks to trap the right amount of air with the right amount of pressure to make a good sized bubble. There were many steps for this project, and as well as all the other skills I’d learned, I had to add blowing into a pipe til I felt like my face was going to explode. I felt even more unco by the end, probably also because it was after lunch time and I was getting a bit vague. Being so close to so much heat and learning so many new things is quite tiring!
So all up I made a caterpillar, two paperweights and two bowls. But I can’t show them to you yet! They needed to be ‘put away’ into the final furnace, to allow the piece to settle, and then to cool down slowly overnight. I’ll have to go back sometime this week, then I’ll show them off. Keith assured me I had done very well.
After we were finished and all my work was put away, Keith rang down to the village to let them know I was coming, and I went into the village for the lunch that was included in my workshop price. Simple fish and chips in the very retro Chalet motel cafe with a stunning view. The ladies running the cafe, Anne and Winsome, both came over, addressed me by name and chatted warmly to me.
I chatted to Winsome and Keith about the Faith and the Arts summer school, which I may go to – not sure that I’ll be able to afford it this coming summer, but sometime I hope to go. I think it won’t be the kind of thing that I’m used to, in terms of a Christian gathering, but it would certainly be interesting! Given that one of the Big Ideas I had about moving down here was to someday start a creative Christian retreat, it would seem odd not to go to one that is already operating.
On the way home I detoured via Brickendon, a world heritage historical site. I probably should have known after the intense morning I’d end up too tired and gone home directly, but oh well. I wandered around for a while, enjoying the geese and the lambs and chapel and 1820s farm buildings. But it felt strange, a little otherworldly, almost haunted. I was the only person there when I wandered around the gardens of the main house and it felt like something supernatural was about to happen. I kind of freaked myself out, so I got back in the car and headed for home.