On November 24, 1998, Annette Baron fired up the furnace at her glassblowing studio, Baron Glassworks, on Railroad Street in Ypsilanti – that fire has been burning ever since, and Baron has practiced the art of glassblowing there for over a decade.
That’s what Baron told a crowd of about 25 fellow artists gathered at her studio on June 22. They came for a Creative Connections networking event held by the Arts Alliance, an Ann Arbor area cultural organization. The evening included food and live jazz music – and, of course, glassblowing.
Jim Fry, who described himself as a Baron Glassworks student and employee, took some time to explain the art of glassblowing to The Chronicle before the event began.
First, he pointed out the heating equipment near the back of the studio. Even from 10 feet away, the heat prickles your skin with a discomforting intensity – it feels like it could burn you without your even touching it. (That’s because, as Baron would later explain, glass needs to be heated to about 2,000 degrees before it can be shaped.)
The furnace – a large, square brick structure glowing orange at the cracks – stores molten, clear glass. Next to the furnace, there are “glory holes”: smaller box-like structures with a large, open hole in the front (also glowing a molten orange). Fry explained that glassblowers use the glory holes to reheat the glass they’re working on when it starts to harden.
“Most materials you work with, they’re pretty stable for a long period of time,” Fry said. “Glass is constantly changing.”
As they’re sculpting it, glass artists will use gravity’s force on the molten glass to help shape it, Fry said. They also use a variety of specialized tools. Fry picked up and explained each tool from an array of equipment lined up on a wooden workbench. He held what looked like a huge pair of metallic tweezers in the air, opening and closing them. The tweezers are called jacks, and they’re used for shaping the molten glass.
“They basically replace your fingers,” said Fry, who compared molding the glass to sculpting clay.
There are also tweezers (which look much like the jacks) used for twisting the glass, shears for cutting the molten material and a wooden paddle used to flatten and sculpt.
Since they only have one furnace that holds clear glass, Fry said the Baron glassblowers add color to their pieces in a couple different ways. Off to the right of the furnace, a wheeled rack holds rows and rows of coffee cans. Fry takes the cap off one to reveal that it’s filled with lime green flakes of glass. To make their pieces green or blue or any other color, the glassblowers roll the molten glass in the flakes, which are called “frit.”
They also use solid rods of colored glass. The rod, when heated, expands and spreads out to create a layer of color inside a clear piece.
After they’re finished with a piece, they place them in large boxes – called annealers – on the floor in the studio. The annealing process cools the glass down slowly over a period of 24 hours so it won’t stress or crack, Fry said.
After gathering the Creative Connections attendees inside the small studio space, Baron dons safety equipment before giving a demonstration. She straps on a tan vest, which has compartments in the front for ice packs to keep her cool as she works near the furnace. She also mentions that those who want to try out glassblowing later will need to wear safety glasses, and there are sleeves (tubes of cloth that look like long, toeless athletic socks) to protect their arms.
Baron sticks a long, hollow metal blowpipe into the furnace and draws it back out with a gob of molten glass on the end. She blows into the other end of the pipe, and a bubble forms in the gob of glass. She rolls it along a steel table to shape it, blows on it more to make the bubble bigger, and puts the end of the blowpipe in one of the glory holes to heat the glass again.
At one point, she rolls the glass-covered end of the blowpipe in one of the cans of frit and melts the color into it using the glory hole, creating swirls and streaks of pigment as she shapes the malleable, glowing glass. There are also benches flanked by what look like metal arm rests, but which are actually more aids for shaping the glass. Baron rolls the pipe swiftly along them, using the jacks to sculpt. She explains that she can tell the temperature of the glass through the jacks – not through hotness, but through texture and resistance.
As Baron alternates between the sculpting table and bench and the glory hole, Phil Yamron – a Baron Glassworks employee – tells the observers (or rather yells to, over the sound of the fans in the work area) that the glassblower must constantly turn the pipe while she’s working. Otherwise, the glass will drip right off of it.
Baron tells the group watching her that she’s making a “garden ball,” which people who try glassblowing after the demo will also be creating.
After many trips from the work bench to the glory hole and back, Baron forms a large, hollow, green sphere at the end of her pipe. She takes it over to a tin on one of the tables and places the sphere in it. With a tap of the pipe, the newly formed garden ball comes loose. Then, using a solid rod, she uses more molten glass from the furnace to seal the hole at the top of the ball.
Pam Roselle, a painter, was the first visitor to have Baron guide her through the process to make her own garden ball. Roselle said she loved her first experience with glassblowing.
“It was fabulous,” Roselle said. “It took a lot of wind. I love the fact that they have a mechanism to cool themselves off while they’re doing it.”
Arts Alliance president Tamara Real called Baron’s studio a gem in the community that not many people know about. “Something like glass seems like such an unapproachable art form,” Real said. However, she added, events like this help show people that it’s “not out of your grasp.”
Baron Glassworks employee Cal Fette praised the alliance for “getting people to recognize the jewels in their own backyards.” Fette noted how Baron rents her space out to young artists and also gives glassblowing classes. And, as far as she knows, it’s the only studio of its kind in the county, Fette said.
Baron said she was really excited to have the Arts Alliance and Creative Connections visit her studio. “I hope they do well because their mission is so unique,” she said. “This organization actually reaches down and has services for artists and promotes art.”
The alliance’s website describes Creative Connections as “a monthly gathering for creative and cultural folks in our region.” The events are held at different venues across Washtenaw County. The evening at Baron Glassworks was the last in the 2008-09 season – next season’s line-up will be posted online in the fall.
About the author: Helen Nevius, a student at Eastern Michigan University, is an intern with The Ann Arbor Chronicle.