Heat, light, form, photography, travel. It all came together for Anders McDonald on a two-week glass blowing course outside Istanbul.
A while ago, I don’t remember how or where, I saw something about a place called the Glass Furnace in Turkey that offers two-week workshops in glass blowing. Like lots of other things, I wrote it down on a purple Post-it note, but this one never got tidied up into the bin. Instead, it became one of the first stops on a three-month journey through Turkey and Georgia. After years anticipating the trip, I finally set off in June.
Glass has enchanted and attracted me for most of my life. It started with photography – light through glass, capturing forms and shapes of light, playing with and informing my eyes. Many of my pictures were through or via glass – mirrors, reflections, partial obscurings, and rereads of familiar sights. I saw a lot of glass in my first big three-year backpacking sojourn – leadlight windows in the cathedrals of Europe, tiny, delicate, hand-blown perfume bottles in Egypt, and the exquisite lamps and windows of Tiffany in New York.
I have never let them go, nor they me. Books, posters, reproductions, coffee table spectaculars, exhibitions. Anything that light passes through and emerges to please or challenge my eyes would distract me, no matter where I was. The Pyramid at the Louvre, Australia’s only Tiffany window in a girls’ college in Adelaide, glass buskers in the street blowing dragons and butterflies. Each one stopped me in my tracks. It wasn’t such a big step to decide that I could form glass myself. Rather than just photograph it in two dimensions, I could create it in three. At home in Melbourne, I did a weekend workshop in glass blowing, producing a paperweight and a ‘vase’ which, although better described as a holder for a tea candle, still holds its own. It’s a kind of kindergarten, first-attempt looking piece, but somehow I fluked it being good enough to remain part of my collection.
And so I found myself at the Glass Furnace, 25 kilometres from Istanbul in a valley near the Black Sea. The facility is second to none, the accommodation is high standard but reasonably priced, there’s a pool, a basketball court, and even a table tennis table with glass net and bats. The school draws on Turkey’s long history of glass making, which dates from the Seljuks in the eleventh century, with exquisite works produced during the Ottoman period.
Blowing glass brings together many things. There’s the heat, happily reminiscent of a 38-degree day on a Melbourne beach. Light, shape and colour are the things you have to work with to get a result, but there’s also a strong requirement for teamwork. Most glass blowing depends on being able to read and understand the artist or the assistant. A single word, a look across the studio, eye contact or a simple nod of the head mean the difference between delivering what you have in your mind and a piece of globular glowing glass on the floor – or worse still, completely formed as you anticipate, only to crack at the last minute, or break as it is put away overnight in the annealing oven.
There’s plenty of drama too. A painting can be painted over or reworked years later. Same with a sculpture. With glass you have a molten glob that wants to comply with gravity, and will not let you work it unless it’s above a certain temperature. You can’t maintain that temperature unless you are constantly going back to the ‘glory hole’ to reheat it to the point where it wants to fall off again. Constant turning is the only way to keep it in the right zone. Imagine trying to keep a blob of honey on the end of a chopstick.
This means in practical terms you have between five and 20 minutes from the first gather of glass from the furnaces to the annealing oven. You need to know what this thing is going to look like before you start, your buddy needs to know, and you both need to be thinking two or three steps ahead, all the while trying to keep the stuff on the pipe.
I’ll be back there in a month with a new master, and I’m cooking up a plan to run a workshop there next year with American artist Tom Galbraith, who teaches lamp working.
If glass blowing or glass jewellery making is on your bucket list, contact email@example.com about his workshop.