Glassblower’s Dance

Welcome to the sorcerer’s workshop, where fire breathes life into glass.

The furnace waits, the glass in the crucible white hot. Flames lick at a row of pipes, and bottles of colored ground glass sparkle on shelves.

Watch as the wizard gathers molten clear glass onto a blowpipe and begins to work. The glass glows light-bulb bright. Right now, it’s the consistency of room temperature honey. He rolls the gather in color and holds it in the glory hole – an oven that operates at 2,400 degrees – to infuse the color into the glass.

Everything about glassblowing involves motion – it looks choreographed, with the glassblower moving from oven to bench and back, swinging and twirling the pipe – so the wizard gets no rest. To stop is to lose the shape of the finished product.

When it’s exactly the way he wants it, he takes it out and shapes the hot glass with a block carved from fruitwood. The block is wet, and the glass sizzles and sparks in complaint. Little by little, though, it takes its shape. “It rides on steam while it’s in the block,” the wizard explains as he spins and twirls the hot glass.

The glass wants what you want, he says, but it will fight you. This living, breathing, “beautiful monster” can be capricious.

The wizard
The wizard is Bill Wise ’69, a self-taught glassblower. The Internet abounds with self-taught glassblowers, but they work with blowtorches and bits of glass, not stainless steel tubes, heavy molten glass, and ovens that resemble miniature suns.

Glass has fascinated him since he and his mother combed through dump sites in the woods for pieces of glass when he was a kid. But he didn’t begin to work in glass until the 1990s, when he and his wife decided stained glass would look good in the long windows of their new house.

The expense of arts festival pieces prompted the new homeowner to tell his wife, “I think I can do that.” He went home, bought a glasscutter and some clear glass, and began to experiment. His first obstacle: he couldn’t draw what he wanted to create. So he bought coloring books and studied the designs, made patterns from them, and honed his skill. He began to work with colored glass.

But he didn’t start small.

Wise liked to stop by Wesley United Methodist Church early each morning to prepare himself for the day. His great-great-grandfather built the Bloomsburg church, his great-grandfather built the education wing, and Wise wanted to add something of his own. “Something” grew into a 40-foot-wide stained-glass window. Church members helped cut the templates and the pieces of glass and, in 16 months, Wise put together 48 panels and 5,300 pieces. Thanks to his crew of volunteers, the window was installed in just two days.

First creations
As much as Wise liked working in stained glass, the medium was cold. He wanted to work with hot, molten glass. He constructed a new building with a studio attached, and a friend helped him build the ovens he needed.

His first creation: a bowl. Well, that’s what it was supposed to be, anyway. It turned out to be a circular lump of clear glass with what looked like a thumbprint in it. Undaunted, he tried again and created a small glass bottle. Now he sees the flaws – the glass is thick, the shape wonky – but at the time, he was thrilled with it.

The place to learn more, he decided, was Corning, N.Y. He drove from Bloomsburg and watched every show the glassblowers gave that day, studying what they did. Then he went home and experimented. He went back. Repeatedly.

Finally, he took his helper, 79-year-old Max, with him. Again they sat through every show, but this time the glassblower on stage noticed them. Between shows, he convinced Wise to come up to the bench and demonstrate his skills. The glassblower urged him to apply for a job.

Wise auditioned in front of 200 people – they told him to go out and do the show – and was offered the job on the spot. He worked there for seven years, commuting every day from Bloomsburg.

Always twirling
Back in his studio, Wise coats the yellow glass with a layer of clear glass, then rolls that in white ground glass and holds it in the oven again, always twirling and spinning the pipe. As he adds glass, the balance on the blowpipe shifts. Glass is heavy, and five pounds on the business end of the blowpipe may feel like 15 on the end closest to Wise. He has a trolley he can move back and forth in front of the ovens to compensate for the difference.

Wise swings the pipe, and the hot glass lengthens. He breathes gently into it, and the glass expands. He touches it with jacks – pieces of metal that resemble large tweezers – to cool it in some places and expand it in others.

The piece is ready to be shaped into a bowl. Wise dips an iron rod called a punty into the furnace filled with molten glass. This becomes the “glue” that will hold the bowl by the bottom as Wise works on the top. He attaches the punty to the bowl, then snaps the top away from the blowpipe.

Now he works the glass from the other end. Inside the white-hot oven, the bowl begins to bloom as he twirls it. Wise removes it, spins the pipe, and the top of the bowl opens up and flows into fluted edges.

The only word for it is magic.

He snaps the bowl from the punty, puts on enormous gloves, and places it in a 900-degree oven, where a computer controls the cooling. That will take about 12 hours. Cool it too fast, and the glass will explode.

He’s sold his creations to collectors and retail galleries, but stopped doing that several years ago. “I wanted to focus on creating art pieces without the worry over whether or not they’d sell,” he says.

Yet he sees himself as a craftsman, not an artist, since glassblowing has existed for 2,000 years.

Despite the fact that Wise wants to continue working with hot glass “until I shrivel up and turn into dust,” this July he gave all his studio equipment to a young man in Bath, N.Y., who plans on making glassblowing his life’s work. “So many people helped me,” he says. “I just want to help someone else get a good start.”

He offers this advice to young people planning to do creative things: “Follow your passion. For sure, follow your passion. But do it with sense – get a job, do what you like on the side, and when you get to where you can do it full time, go.” •

Laurie Creasy is a freelance writer and social media professional based in Bloomsburg.

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