By Craig Davis, CraigslegzTravels.com
The recurring thought while watching molten globs transform into the shapes of a colorful glass flower and a hefty tumbler during a session at Hollywood Hot Glass was the wonder that anyone conceived of glassblowing.
In a complex process that seems parts alchemy and confectionary, instructor Richard Dextraze guided us through the steps in spinning, stretching and shaping the super-heated material into colorful objects of glass, one decorative, the other functional in an introductory glassblowing class.
All in a fast-moving half-hour that was both entertaining and magical — and somewhat frightening, considering the pieces taking shape had to be repeatedly thrust into furnaces with temperatures of more than 2,000 degrees to remain pliable.
Again, I marveled that anyone figured out how to do this.
“It’s thousands of years of generations of minds all coming together to where we are right now,” Dextraze says. “It came from Egypt. You can understand, there’s a ton of sand there. Sand, silica — the same component.”
Some research into the history of glassblowing and sculpting hot glass suggests that the discovery may have been accidental. As the craft developed, it proved to be so difficult to master that techniques were guarded with utmost secrecy.
During the Middle Ages, Venetian glassblowers were confined to the island of Murano, forbidden to leave under threat of death to prevent them from taking their skills elsewhere.
Glassblowing class via Groupon
At Hollywood Hot Glass in the ArtsPark on Young Circle in Hollywood, Fla., this age-old art form is readily shared.
Brenna Baker Brown, a talented glass artist who founded Hollywood Hot Glass in 2013, got her start in Corning, N.Y., America’s cradle of glass, when she was 14.
From gaining a solid foundation in the so-called Crystal City, she furthered her skills on the artistic side of the craft working at Murano under Italian master Pino Signoretto, regarded as one of the most creative glass sculptors until his death in 2017.
“The type of techniques we’re using today have developed mainly from the Murano style of glass blowing,” Dextraze says.
Baker Brown has assembled a talented stable of glass artists, who create and conduct workshops at the facility.
A gift Groupon deal provided an opportunity for Fran and I to get a hands-on introduction to the process, which dates back some 3,500 years, and to each take part in crafting an eye-catching work of glass under the expert guidance of Dextraze.
The experience was so enjoyable we look forward to returning for another lesson.
The rudimentary workshop was enough to gain an appreciation of the addictive nature of glass work, which Dextraze can attest to.
Glassblowing process revealed
Dextraze earned a degree in economics at the University of Miami but already had a passion for glassblowing, which he was able to further in the school’s soft glass studio. The passion turned into a career with the opportunity to work on the staff at Hollywood Hot Glass as an artist and instructor.
“I went to college and I got the degree like my parents wanted me to. But I also pursed what I really wanted to get into, which was glassblowing,” Dextraze says. “Being able to share my passion with [customers] coming in here every day is something I couldn’t have even imagined.”
Dextraze’s enthusiasm for the craft bubbles like the molten glass that he scoops from the first furnace like warm honey from a jar.
Although early in his career, Dextraze has a knack for teaching. He is able to explain what is happening, involve his students as much as possible and keep the fast-paced choreography moving while interjecting humor that adds to the fun while keeping constant attention to safety concerns.
Rock music on the studio sound system lends energy that is useful in keeping participants on their toes. When you’re slinging hot glass on the end of a red-hot poker you can’t afford a mental lapse or a misstep.
“You have to get used to the heat, for sure,” he says. “It’s molten magma. The stuff is definitely dangerous. But in the right hands, we’re in total control over it. That’s one thing that practicing and learning to be comfortable with the material will help you develop.”
Dextraze has each of us select three colors to incorporate in the pieces we are making from an array of vessels filled with colored crystals.
The sequence in which the hot glass is dipped into each color will determine how the colors blend and appear in the finished piece. That is particularly telling in the decorative flower where the colors are distributed on the stem, interior and outer edge of the petal.
This is where the magic manifests in the intermingling of elements, but it is a strictly sequenced mechanical process that enables it to happen.
Heat and motion are essential components. The hot glass is kept spinning at the end of the iron pipe so that it can be shaped much like wood on a lathe using various tools to crimp and alter its form.
Glassblowing can be habit forming
The blow pipe was used only for my tumbler to create an interior bubble. Giant steel tongs were then used to open the mouth of the vessel as it was kept spinning on the bench.
For Fran’s decorative flower, there was no need to create a bubble. Instead, the tongs were used to stretch the lip of the flower into its final shape.
“You got [introduced to] sculpting and you got glassblowing. So we got the traditional and we got the free-form [techniques],” Dextraze said.
What we experienced was barely scraping the surface of working with hot glass. More creative aspects of the art are on display in the showroom produced by Baker Brown and the other artists.
Before our class, Dextraze was conducting a private lesson with an advanced student who was producing his first object from start to finish without hands-on assistance.
“He’s done about three months of courses. That is about where I would say you’d probably get comfortable being able to do what we’re doing here by yourself,” Dextraze says. “Being able to bring a new mind into this, it’s incredible.”
Just one more convert to the addictive allure of glassblowing.
If you want to try glassblowing
Hollywood Hot Glass is at One Young Circle, Hollywood, FL. 33020. Sessions are available from 2-10 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
Prices vary with the object to be produced, ranging from $50 (flower, paperweight, ornament) to $150 (starfish, heat, ruffle bowl). Look for discounts on Groupon.
Glassblowing on Celebrity cruises
The same classes taught in the studio are also offered by Hollywood Hot Glass on three ships in the Celebrity Cruises fleet, the Equinox, Eclipse and Solstice.
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