House of Glass

The glassblowing studio, established in 1975, continues to grow and evolve at Central.

In the Lubbers Center for the Visual Arts, there’s a back corner that seems to belong on another planet. For one, it’s usually about 110 degrees Fahrenheit, an atmosphere more suited to Venus than Earth. Figures in dark glasses stick steel rods into glowing molten holes. It would be a little frightening if the final products weren’t so breathtaking. There’s nothing nefarious going on here—Central students are creating art.

Glassblowing has been offered at Central since 1975. The studio, though far from idyllic, has been an iconic symbol of the campus—and of Central’s unique course offerings. In the spring of 2011, the glassblowing studio received an upgrade: brand-new, state-of-the-art equipment. The improvements have sparked reflection among glass students and alumni about what the 36 years of glassblowing at Central has meant for the college.

In the beginning

On a beautiful fall day in 1974, a man with a trailer on the Peace Mall changed the history of Central’s art program. His name was Steve Beasley, and he was a traveling glassblower come to give a presentation of his work. Standing to one side was John Vruwink ’58, professor of art with a specialty in ceramics. At the time, glassblowing was just beginning in the U.S., and many potters were interested in the process. Vruwink, enthralled, took Beasley aside to say he was interested in doing some glassblowing at Central. For $1,000, Beasley offered to come back for two weeks to set up a studio and teach the basics. At the time, Central would have been the only college in Iowa to offer glassblowing. The administration approved the expense, on the condition that any Central student be allowed to sign up.

By the next fall, 10 students had joined the class. In a week, they built equipment out of scrap materials found behind the warehouse, like plumbing pipes, rusty angle iron, scrap tin, an old park bench and a garden hose. “This was really, really crude,” says Vruwink. “But a lot of glassblowing being done around the country then was in a fairly crude mode.”

The studio was in the courtyard behind Lubbers, only partly covered by a roof. Just two students could blow glass at a time, and Vruwink was often teaching ceramics inside while they were working. He’d get the potters started and then run out to check on the glassblowers. “It was pretty funny,” says Vruwink, especially since he didn’t have any more training in glass than the students did.

This rather primitive studio was used until 1986, when Vruwink used part of a sabbatical to study glassblowing at the Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina. He came back with a renewed passion for glassblowing and a determination to do it right at Central. “It was a great opportunity to improve my blowing skills and to learn how to build and maintain a glass shop,” says Vruwink. He requested $50,000 to construct a studio and purchase new equipment.

“When John Vruwink came up with the idea and the skills to get it started, it seemed a great way to appeal to individuals and to enhance the arts on campus,” says Ken Weller, Central’s president at the time. “For me personally and for many others, it was a rare opportunity not to be missed.” Weller approved the request.

The administration did specify, however, that the studio have all the latest industrial safety equipment, which blew a hole in Vruwink’s budget. He ended up having to make the equipment by hand again. But this time he was able to study other equipment in North Carolina. One fellow glassblower gave him this advice: “Build it for the dumbest idiot you can.” Vruwink did, and that sensible construction has lasted nearly 25 years.

You blow where?

Glassblowing may be an unusual art to find in the middle of Iowa, but Central has always been on the cutting edge of the fine arts. For years, it was the only college in the state to teach glassblowing. “As I’ve been out and about, I’ve realized the opportunities were quite extensive at Central,” says Lee Wassink ’92, who now owns a studio in Oregon called The Glass Forge.

Over the years, hundreds of students at Central have fallen in love with glassblowing. “Usually, by the end of it, they’re bitten by the glass bug,” says Brian Roberts ’92, associate professor of art and glass instructor since Vruwink’s retirement in 2002. “It’s what we call a seductive art.” Roberts himself was one of those smitten students. He took classes from Vruwink before moving on to get his M.F.A.

This craving for glasswork is all over the country. Everyone has seen delicate glass vases and brightly swirled bowls in museums or gift shops. But most have no idea how the artwork is made, even the students who come to Glassblowing I on the first day.

The process starts at a furnace full of molten glass, set to 2100 degrees. The artist gathers a glob of glass from the furnace with a blowpipe. Then he moves to the bench, where he starts shaping the glass with wet newspaper or wooden blocks. To create the hollow interior, an assistant blows into the end of the pipe.

“Glassblowing is different in nature from all other art forms because it’s really difficult to do by yourself,” says Roberts. During class, two students work at a time, and three others assist by blowing the bubble and collecting tools.
The collaborative nature of glassblowing is something many Central students and alumni appreciate about the art, including Roberts, who loves assisting his students as they become more proficient.

After the bubble is complete, the object is transferred to a punty, or solid rod. At this point, the artist may need to heat the glass again to keep it malleable. This is done in the glory hole, which is also set at 2100 degrees. Color can be added using broken-down or powdered glass. Then the piece is placed in the annealer, which cools down from 940 degrees over a period of 16 hours.

Students like the immediacy of the process—you have the object right in front of you and you can’t stop until you’re finished. “One of the things that draws people to working in glass is that it combines both physical and mental exercises,” says Vruwink. “You’re standing in front of a very hot furnace, and you have to be very mentally alert. Otherwise, bad things happen.”

Roberts works hard to make sure those things don’t happen in his studio, and his students work to perfect the art, even though they’re starting from scratch. “That’s what’s so good about glass: practice definitely makes perfect,” says Israel Miller, a senior political science major who took glassblowing last year.

Six hours a week

One of the first things Roberts shows his students is how to make a rose. “He made it look so easy,” Miller says. “I’ll never forget how all of us thought we could do it the first try. We all made flowers, but they didn’t look like roses.” Other students describe their first experiences as “hot and frustrating” and “terrible.” It’s hardly what you’d expect to
hear about such a beloved course.

“The first hurdle to get over is the heat,” says Roberts. The first class—one of three two-hour sessions a week—is dedicated to adjusting to the 110-degree room. After that, they move in baby steps—learning how to hold the tools and move safely about the studio. Finally, they get the chance to try it themselves. And they fail. Roberts tells them there’s no guarantee any piece will survive; it can break off at any point. It typically takes about half a semester before the students make a piece they want to keep.

Once students get into Glass-blowing II, some of that frustration fades away, replaced by a sense of accomplishment. Roberts loves to see the look on their faces when they finally get it. “They get pretty excited when they’ve got a sketch and we can physically make it,” he says.

Roberts tries to motivate students by bringing in guest artists, just as Vruwink did before him. Eoin Breadon ’97, who now sells his glass pieces for $4,000-8,000, was inspired when Vruwink brought in Roberts and Wassink for a guest presentation. “It made me feel like there was a pretty good chance of my being successful,” Breadon says.

When he was a senior, Breadon got the chance to work with Vruwink in the studio while he was on sabbatical, meaning Breadon basically got a free semester of instruction as he assisted his professor. Wassink, too, recalls helping Vruwink after hours, one of his best memories at the college. It’s this collaboration that really sets glassblowing apart from the other arts at Central. “You have to think about what you want to accomplish and then articulate that to the people assisting you,” says Breadon.

Hi-Tech Dreams

All this connection and creativity was the result of equipment that became obsolete years ago. But the students didn’t notice. “At the time, I thought it was the height of technology,” Breadon says with a laugh. “Everything did exactly what was needed.”

Still, it was time for a change. The new equipment was installed in April. “That’s going to be one beautiful studio,” Vruwink says. “The students are going to have a real nice opportunity with the new equipment.” He’s glad the college has made the commitment to continuing the program he created all those years ago.

The equipment had to be ordered a year in advance, from Wet Dog Glass in Star, N.C. They make all their equipment by hand and fit each unit with a self-regulating computer. These maintain an even temperature, so the glory holes won’t cool down when you open the doors. The new equipment is also more energy-efficient and heats the glass faster.
The college will christen the studio during Homecoming/Family Weekend 2012 with a celebration for alumni and friends. Roberts is planning to bring in a guest artist and install an exhibit of alumni work.

There are several dozen alumni working in glass now, and even more who interned or apprenticed for a while after graduation. Even those who didn’t continue in glass learned something from the course about collaboration: that art, as with life, is best done with other people.

 

See photos of student work:

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