Well. That was an interesting day.

My friend Kerri took me along on a tour of the Pilchuck Glass School, a sprawling campus up in the woods north of Seattle dedicated to the Nine Glass Arts. I did not know until today that there are nine different branches of glass art, and I still couldn’t tell you what they are – the docent didn’t ever explicitly list them off. It was gorgeous; there were amazing views from its perch high in the mountains, and lots of quirky buildings built from local lumber.

Glassworking isn’t my thing, so I didn’t recognize any of the tools and techniques on display (well, okay, I saw a lot of familiar stuff in the print shop – apparently Printing With Glass is one of the Nine Glass Arts, and, um, the part of my brain that is a total freak for cool spot inks and whatnot immediately started thinking about cool things I could do with that), or any of the names being casually dropped aside from Chihuly (because you cannot live in Seattle and not vaguely know who he is), but what I did recognize is the general shape of a bunch of artists coming together to share resources and techniques, and maybe even trying to set their egos aside – the docent had a story about how she got help learning to use a lathe on glass from a guy who she later realized is one of the lead designers at Waterford Crystal, for instance.

And I also recognized the complicated dance between money and art; the place was set up about forty years ago by Dale Chihuly and some of his glassmaking buddies, on land donated by the owners of the Pilchuck Tree Farm, who also sunk a lot of money into supporting it over the years as it grew from “some guys doing occasional glassblowing sessions in the woods” to “a super-prestigious School of Glass Art that regularly hosts some of the top glass artists for teaching and residencies”.

Really though it made me want to find more excuses to get the hell away from the city and just sit somewhere peaceful and draw. Maybe alone, maybe around other artists. Where is the lovely tree-lined retreat for digital artists. Well I do have a couple friends who are kicking around the idea of acquiring some space up in the woods, building a few tiny houses and keeping some chickens and goats, and letting friends stay there for a while once they have more tiny houses than they need for their own shelter…

It’s like, a group of artists needs a few fundamental things: space to work and to keep their less-portable tools, other artists to help spread out the cost of that space and their tools, a library of both reference works for their own craft and works from outside it (because everyone should be looking to both the work that inspired them to take up this particular craft, and to work from far outside it, unless they’re happy just cranking out functional-but-uninspiring work), and other artists with a wide variety of skills – newbies need mentors, old hands need people to pass all their One Weird Tips on to, and all of those artists need folks who can look at their sketches and finished works and offer useful critique. And somewhere to eat, somewhere to excrete, and somewhere to sleep if the group workspace is way the hell away from civilization like this one is. I didn’t recognize the vast majority of the tools and processes but I sure as hell felt at home with the general shape of the place as a Bunch Of Artists.

Here’s some photos stolen from Kerri’s Facebook post about it:

Part of a team that was finishing up a piece in the Hot Studio as the tour ended.

The Hot Studio is a big open hexagonal place with room for 3 or 4 teams of 4-6 people to work on pieces. Glassblowing is not a solo practice. Other glass things can be, I think, but blowing needs about a dozen hands and at least one person in a heat-resistant suit.

We never went in this building so I couldn’t tell you what it is. It’s pretty centrally located so I presume it’s pretty important.

The building partially obscured by trees is the Hot Studio. It’s pretty central to the campus. It’s got a few furnaces in it that, if I understand correctly, are pretty much on 24/7 and cost about $900/day to keep running – they’re enough of a giant expensive hassle to start up that this is more efficient. Especially if you’re running them in a school with people potentially wandering in to use them at 4AM when they can’t sleep and want to work on that piece burning a hole in their mind’s eye, I guess.

Hearing the docent describe what goes into glassblowing gave me new respect for the art, to be honest. You’re really close to scary temperatures on a constant basis. It’s pretty metal.

A sketch I did of the Hot Studio while Kerri was chatting about Glass Things with the school staff. Partially from memory, because we decided to go in and watch the glassblowing happening in it.

(Yes, the “Hot Studio” does indeed imply a “Cold Studio”, where they do stuff that doesn’t involve fire – it’s full of water-cooled devices for grinding, carving, and smoothing glass. When we passed through it was also full of a dude in an absolutely fabulous sparkly purple rubber apron, which it transpired was designed by someone associated with the school, for some of the specific needs of grinding glass. There is also a “Flat Studio” where people mostly do small things involving much smaller amounts of fire than the furnaces in the Hot Studio; why it’s the Flat Studio, I’m not sure, in part because apparently nobody is quite sure. Tradition, you know? Kerri didn’t photograph these other places, and I left my phone in my purse for pretty much the entire tour.)

A half-assed sketch of the glassblowing session we caught the end of. The dude in the dark glasses was mostly handing the Scary Hot Stuff, and was in a bulky silver Really Hot Stuff Handling costume; when the piece was done, he put on what I can only describe as “industrial-strength oven mitts” and carried the finished piece to an annealing oven at the side of the Hot Studio, where it’ll be slowly cooking for… a while, I get the impression a fairly thin-walled piece like this would be in for most of a day, while a big solid sculpture might take weeks. And yes, the woman holding the pole the glass piece is attached to was doing it in nothing more than a tank top, casually staying mere feet away from this open flame. Glassblowers, again, are pretty hardcore.

Something I doodled while we were having lunch afterwards. Trying to capture some features of the very specific piece of industrial furniture being used to support the blown piece as it was being shaped that I didn’t get in the doodle from life; it’s a very idiosyncratic assemblage of metal and wood that I’m pretty sure has a damn fine reason for having one side be a large black metal parallelogram with its base about a foot further away from the other side than its top is. That mess on the left is a vague impression of the furnace, with protective shields that keep most of the heat from spreading out in every direction around it. And all of these things are way out of proportion with each other because I am totally spoilt by Illustrator’s ability to easily resize stuff if I fuck up proportions.

Afterwards I told Kerri that I am basically going to hassle her every now and then for the rest of the year about her obvious desire to apply to take a class or two next summer. Because I am an artistic enabler, damnit. GIT THAT PORTFOLIO IN SHAPE GIRL. She apologized for excitedly burbling about what she saw at the place and I was like, dude, I know how I felt the first few times I was in a Real Animation Studio, carry on, I’d be worried if you weren’t excited.

(Me? I found it interesting, and I wouldn’t turn down a collaborative project or something (or an opportunity to just hang out there for a week with my tablet, drawing the same kind of stuff I normally do) – but I don’t think I have a burning desire to learn a Physical Craft to go along with my drawing skills right now. I am however currently juggling a long-buried desire to make hideous noises with an electric guitar against the growing urge to get my ass back in the pole dance studio and get back in the kind of physical shape you need to do that… I’m pretty sure I can’t really do both at once.)



Docent: “This is one of the biggest annealing ovens outside of industrial shops.”
Me: “Damn, you could dispose of a LOT of bodies at once in that.”

  1. Thank you for sharing these! :D

    I’m amused by “nine different types of glass”. I find that if you probe into any subculture, you’ll find there’s always more nuances than you hear about. That’s how I learned there were THREE positions: “on top”, “doggie”, and “normal”.

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