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Home for the summer: Glass art only a mother could love

From Jan Kent

During April, a friend and I spent six days in Seattle. It was a great experience.

We went to try our hand at several kinds of glasswork, but mostly to see as much of Seattle and the glass art of Dale Chihuly as we could manage.

If you’re not familiar with Chihuly, you need to think of bright colors and huge art pieces (many of them flowers) made of glass. His artwork is installed in many places in this country and throughout the world. In Finland alone, there are 20 or so pieces of Chihuly’s design.

In Tacoma, the artist’s hometown, we walked over the Bridge of Glass. That sounds as if it might break when you step onto it, but it’s a sturdy concrete bridge with rows of Chihuly’s art in glass cases along the sides and across the top. At night they are all illuminated. It’s quite a sight.

At the base of the Space Needle in Seattle is the Chihuly Garden and Glass exhibit. There, glass sculptures are among the foliage in the garden, making even everyday plants and flowers seem exotic. Among many exhibits inside are two boats filled with glass things large and small, of many shapes and endless colors.

All of us in our travel group also tried our hand at making our own glass pieces. Our first experience was blowing glass. With help from instructors at the Pratt Fine Arts Center in Seattle, we blew a glob of molten glass that turned into a paperweight or a bowl. My “masterpiece” was a small, slightly lopsided purple bowl — perfect for holding a daily supply of pills. Or maybe a pair of earrings. We made glass tiles — about 4 inches square — from clear glass decorated with small pieces of colored glass. And we made beads by melting glass rods in a propane flame and twirling them onto a metal rod called a “mandrel.”

And then we did sand casting. It’s about what it sounds like: You make an indentation into special damp sand, put interesting items into the hole, and then pour in molten, clear glass. The exposed top is clear; the rest of it has the grainy finish of the sand.

Aha — this is where I was prepared to make art. I had brought from home some beach glass (hard to find on the shores of Lake Superior, I’m happy to note) and some Lake Superior agates (which are everywhere). After a few test pieces, I pressed a ball into the sand, removed it and arranged my artifacts in the bottom and along the edges of the hole. I carefully poured in the hot glass. And then I waited. We all waited. Glass that is very hot needs to cool down slowly or it will crack. It’s put into an annealing oven, which is about as hot as the glass when it goes in, and then gradually cools down.

Three days later, the program coordinator brought our masterpieces back to our hotel, and we unveiled them. A few were really great, most OK, and my piece with the agates was puzzling. The beach glass lay inertly where I had placed it. The agates, however, appeared to be alive. Agates are made up of layers —some of them porous — filled with ancient air. That air sent out clouds of bubbles. One bubbled with such enthusiasm that it created a hole in the top of the cast glass piece.

So now our cabin is home to an only-a-mother-could-love-it piece of art glass. I like to think it shows that agates formed a billion years ago in Minnesota are still alive and kicking even today.