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Fragile Art

Open studio at the Bay Area Glass Institute

By Vrinda Normand

BLOWING glass is like playing with fire, both literally and figuratively. Turning molten glass into a work of art—hours of sweat, concentration and choreographed teamwork—is a risky dance that can end in a pile of shards on a cement floor.

Along with about 50 spectators, Biter got to witness this gripping ride at the Bay Area Glass Institute in San Jose. On Nov. 18, the studio opened its doors to the public for a special demonstration by local artist Treg Silkwood (this event takes place every third Thursday of the month).

Silkwood wields a long metal rod, almost as tall as himself, turning and swirling it gracefully. The white blob of honeylike glass on the end slowly responds to the force of his controlled movements. The veins in his well-muscled forearms stand out as he flicks his wrists back and forth, and perspiration dots his red forehead and red T-shirt. He wears small, circular sunglasses to shield his eyes from the intense heat of the furnaces.

Working with four assistants, he attempts to make a very challenging Italian-style vessel with a decorative top and ornately sculpted handles. The glass blowers work methodically, following instructions. Silkwood compares his job to playing chess: "You have to think three or four moves ahead."

Timing is crucial to the heat balance. If the glass gets too cold, it will shatter, and if it gets too hot, it will melt into a blob. Silkwood and his assistants are constantly moving the glass at the ends of their metal rods. Every few minutes, they warm it in an oven with a donut-round door. Silkwood molds the glass by pinching it with sharp tongs. He pulls excess material off like sticky taffy and then forms a neat ball by blowing into the opposite end of the rod. The air pocket he creates will hollow out the piece and allow him to make a bell-shaped top. The same process will yield a base that opens like a morning glory and a large oblong body that resembles a balloon as it expands.

At lighter moments, two female assistants wag their hips to the disco music and flirt with the audience. But the project grows in intensity as the vessel comes together. Silkwood's assistant and fiancee, Candace Martin, has just attached the base to the body. Another assistant flares a hand-held torch to keep the basketball-sized vessel warm as it spins at Silkwood's side.

But in one second, the energy drops. The fragile base shatters. The crowd sighs a uniformly disappointed "Oh!" The glass blowers slow down, but Silkwood doesn't falter. He immediately orders the piece to be warmed in the oven. A new base can be made later and glued to the body. The vessel won't be completed tonight, but Silkwood adjusts and takes time to talk to the audience about the process.

"Breaks can be devastating," he says in a later conversation. "I learn a lot of life lessons, like don't hold on to something too tightly."

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From the December 1-7, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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