If you’ve ever broken a tumbler and thought nothing of it, think again. The business of crafting a bespoke glass is a lot like playing with fire
There was one thing I was wary of going into this glass blowing experience – breathing in when I should be blowing out. This of course, I could only assume would result in me inhaling molten glass. I didn’t bring attention to this terrifying vision when Isaac Katzoff and Stephen Bradbourne – the duo behind Monmouth Glass Studios – were showing me around their Henderson workspace. Thankfully, because it soon became obvious that you’d have to have super lungs to suck the thick molten glass up the 1.5m-long metal pipe before it cooled. I, despite practising my ujjayi breath in yoga two times a week, do not have super lungs.
Feeling a bit foolish for considering this the main danger, and not the proximity to 1000-degree furnaces, I gratefully accepted some arm protectors and a snazzy little pair of petrol-station sunglasses as my safety kit.
Isaac and Stephen then gave a flawless demonstration of how to make a very symmetrical tumbler. The “easiest thing to make” I was told.
By the end of the demonstration, I had lowered my expectations from producing a tumbler that I could smuggly sip a chilled gin and tonic from while telling anyone who asked – or hadn’t – that I had made it, to just making something, anything, that resembled a shape, preferably, tumbler-like.
The first step was to stand in front of the furnace of molten glass to see whether I could cope with the 1000-degree heat – something, Isaac says, is a true test of whether someone can be a glass blower. Now, try telling that to someone who takes ‘social’ sports too competitively, and then see if they fail. Not a chance, despite the hairs I swear I could feel burning on my arms – before putting on arm protectors – and the white dots dancing across my eyes when I could finally look away.
Next, having established that I could withstand the heat, I had to “gather”. Which, put simply, involves gently dipping your pipe into the aforementioned furnace and slowly completing three full turns until enough molten glass has “gathered” on the end.
Following this was blowing into the pipe until a large enough air bubble had formed within the gathered glass. At the same time, constant turning of the pipe was required to keep the hot glass from falling onto the floor. On reflection, this was the hardest part. Working with glass requires not only a soft touch but a quick and decisive one because creating the shape can only be done while the glass is hot, which isn’t for very long. Even with Isaac’s clear instructions, it was a challenge to keep up with the requirements of this fast-paced art form. And, trying to mimic his flawless technique was laughable. Rolling semi-formed glass in colourful glass shards to achieve the ‘speckled’ effect was a case in point. Where Isaac deftly rolled his glass to achieve a consistent coverage, my attempt can at best be described as a heavy-handed series of dunks.
My first tumbler failed halfway through due to some overzealous blowing. The bubble broke through the glass and this piece is now called ‘objet’.
My second attempt ended up in the kiln intact, which was just thrilling. While I’m unsure whether my final “tumbler” – which we are generously calling it – may be used as a gin drinking glass because the rim is somewhat thick, it resembles the shape of a tumbler, and for that
I am immensely proud.
There’s something about watching artists at work that gives you a greater appreciation for the pieces they produce. While I have always held Monmouth’s work in high esteem, watching the effort and skill that goes into making each object propels the value of that piece even higher, in my opinion. Then, after trying to do it myself, I can’t help but feel humbled by their mastery of the craft.
Words by: Bea Taylor. Photography by: Kate Battersby.