Reflections on Glass

by Phoebe Stubbs

I don’t know what I was expecting when I first tried glassmaking, but from the moment I gathered molten glass out of a furnace on a metal blowing iron, I fell in love with the pale fluorescent glow of glass’s heat and the sound of the furnace keeping it alive for the maker.

The furnace hums with a slow rumbling when the door is closed and emits a quiet roar when you open it to reveal the still pool of glowing glass and jet of flame above. Gathering glass is like twisting white hot honey onto a stick with swift turns of fingers. To prevent it from running off the iron, it has to be rotated at precisely the speed at which its viscosity succumbs to gravity. The working space is within a bench with metal arms that the blowing iron must be rolled along to shape and tool the glass, the left hand rolling, the right working with multiple tools in myriad motions. Getting there from the furnace involves moving towards the bench and then sitting the other way round within it, blowing iron reversed, in a movement as fluid as walking. Shaping the glass with wet wooden blocks makes it sizzle with a sweet, burnt smell like nothing else on earth. In the first morning light, the glass’s soft, orange heat seems both primordial, like the inside of the earth, and soft, like skin in the sun.

Working with hand tools on material at over 1000 degrees Celsius, and so molten that it wants to run away, one would think that glass is baiting you to squeeze it, push it, yank it, bully it. But any glassblower will tell you that this is not the case – it is you that must be controlled. Your own hands must chase the material and become good enough for it. Learning these skills involved making a series of tacit agreements between my fingers, the metal pole, the hot glass and the tools; which had to combine with a mental map, made in three dimensions between the bench and my body. Altogether, this kind of knowledge – spatial, dexterous, corporeal, rhythmical – is a hard won negotiation between gravity acting on glass and my body’s interception of it, one that fails immediately if either party gets their way too much. The learning process, after the initial punishment of almost relentless failure, is one of reconciliation. Glass teaches you about patient resilience.

When I first learnt, there never seemed to be enough studio hours. At home, in the evenings, I would tie heavy objects to a broom and roll it up and down the arms of a chair to teach my left hand the necessary crawling action for keeping control of larger pieces while watching YouTube videos of glassmakers I admired on repeat. This looked daft, of course, and is a little nerdish to admit, yet I now realise that it was not solely the repetition of the hand motion that was important in the acquisition of the skill, but also the combination of watching and doing, a process that develops into the ability to anticipate – for your body to know something before your thoughts get there. Later, working as a glassmaker’s assistant, I would stand behind the bench, organising the tools, watching the glass’s heat diminish, gauging the maker’s next step and feeling the glassmaker’s movements in my own hands, just by watching. Anticipation broadened from an understanding of the requirements of the glass to the needs of the maker. The kind of collaboration required in glassblowing is so essential yet subtle that it’s hard to describe. It is borne of long hours watching someone make things until it feels as though you are doing so yourself.

Not all days are great. Quite often there’s war within your own coordination that makes the process sluggish, like tugging and pulling and scraping and banging. These sounds tell you that your approach must change almost before you can see what it is that has failed. On these days, I often wonder what constitutes ‘knowledge’ of working with a material like glass. When you make something well it feels like every muscle, tendon and bone knows ahead of your thoughts what the glass needs them to do. That knowledge lives as something other than information – easy to do and hard to recall how it’s done. The understanding required to rescue a piece that’s going wrong is slow and laboured, with every step having to be brought to thought.

Then there are those thoughts that always run ahead. With glassmaking there is always the potential to be better, faster, smoother, lighter. Your hands never quite catch up with your goals, and when they do, you find that your ideas have settled further from what’s possible. There is always a more difficult form, a shape that must be perfectly repeated, one that must be measured more precisely, weighted more carefully, touched less with the metal tools, so that on completion, it looks as though it gave life to itself on a steady exhale. I marvel at forms that look as though they exist in a tense balancing act with the air inside them, like a bubble frozen a split second before popping, as though they weren’t made by human hand at all.

Glass made me want to make things and, curiously, this desire made it impossible not to see all the objects in the world as things that were made. I look at all forms of glass, from handmade drinking glasses to the latest smartphone camera lenses, as a continuity of innovation – not in separate fields of craft, art, design and the sciences.

Yesterday, I went to see the glass collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum, a place that I used to visit with keen frequency when I began training to be a glassmaker. Its collections of blown glass date from Roman times, in the first century AD. Lined up, row upon row, with tiny labels on glass shelves and shimmering in diffused light are green and brown, 2000-year-old fragile and tiny toilet pots, cinerary urns and moulded flasks, precious enough to be buried with their owners, perhaps securing their passage into the next life. Next to them are second–century bottles which look almost transparent – astounding, when you learn that to turn the iron oxide-heavy sand into clear glass, the Romans figured out that purple manganese must be added, the chemistry of which wouldn’t be explained for centuries.

When I first learnt about glass, the appeal of these little objects was the way in which their forms might tell me how they were made, not, as for an archaeologist, why they were made. Every decorative detail seemed as much about the joy of the movement of its making as its potential symbolic meaning. And steadily, something else happened in my mind. Objects made of glass began to bring to life dull school lessons in geography, physics, history and chemistry. What began as determination to form a blob of unwieldy hot glass spun out into a fascination with prisms, the colour of light, the process of making deep sea optic cables, the chemical composition of different glasses. I now know things about the molecular structure of glass that would have bored me to tears, had they not been brought to life through watching glass move, from observing its strange material characteristics – its transparency, fragility, viscosity.

When I think about a material like glass, I can’t separate art from science. And this isn’t just because I love the stuff. This is the deceptive irony of glass: innovations in the material made through the observations of artisans, designers, drinkers and tinkerers told us how to discover what glass is, and more than that, what the universe might be. Glass gave us modern science. We have microscopes and telescopes because we also have drinking glasses and booze bottles. If glass has taught me anything it is that material curiosity is like an infection of wonder, whatever that ends up creating.

Materials such as glass have the ability to tell us about our past and enable our future. Societies were built on and respected for their ability to make things for daily life, war, trade and to foster culture. The objects our global ancestors made and how they made them are how we tell civilisations apart, how we define a culture’s customs and give character to the lives of those who have gone before us. And looking ahead, material advances are the silent measures of creeping modernity. The Victorian gutter systems running along the Thames now contain one of the most complex set of fibre optic cables in world, carrying the little 1s and 0s of our economy along tiny, optically perfect, pulled–glass lines, following the line of the river out to the sea. The first demonstrations of refraction along optic fibres were made in Paris in the 1840s for scientific use, but chandeliers had looping, pulled–glass armatures long before this and, though the glass was thicker, the light carried through it in much the same way. In a world lit by dull candles, a material capable of carrying and extending the glow of a flame in the dark was as valuable as the pure silica glass beaming the internet beneath our oceans today.

In a city like London, glass is everywhere, in every conceivable form. UV filtered and coated, double–glazed glass silently does the job of controlling the temperature of the space you inhabit while letting light in to your office. Every glass you drink from has a complex design history developed in concert with the alcohol industries throughout capitalist history. Glass made the beakers and test tubes that advanced modern chemistry, the telescopes that furthered physics, and enabled microscopes to teach us about the living world. Yet we only know that there was a meteor that hit the pure white sand of the Libyan desert 26 million years ago, because the small piece of glass sacred enough to be mounted at the centre of King Tutankhamun’s necklace was formed by the heat of its impact. By valuing this object and entombing it, the ancient Egyptians stored information for future humans about a past that they couldn’t have known about. In 2013, scientists at the University of Southampton made discs from quartz glass capable of storing data for over 300 million years. The data embedded in these little discs will outlast the human race. And all of this came from heat, sand and human curiosity.

But despite these obvious continuities, something strange is happening. Knowledge is being split down the middle. I am consistently perplexed by the version of the future that we are funding, and seem to be willing into existence, that appears to deny the logic of the past. I am particularly puzzled by current educational funding strategies that so easily divide craft from technology, material innovation from knowledge of its history and science from the culture that made it. When art schools like the Cass in London close their craft departments, it feels as though this thinking has split material curiosity from that which it makes. Valuing additive manufacturing over instrument making prevents future makers from gaining hands-on knowledge that instructs future machine builders how materials behave.

There has always been a direct, even muddled, relationship between objects from the past and the present. Forms are found in archaeological digs and facts live as pots and spears, drinking cups and bracelets, around which we make guesses and build stories about human development. We supplement this knowledge by remaking things. Most early Venetian glass has been lost, so we only know how it was made because contemporary glassblowers reengineered the objects from scraps, guessing at their construction. The hand skills passed down enabled this. We often only know how something may have been used from paintings depicting its use. The lines between these disciplines – design, manufacture, art history, archaeology – are blurry.

And this is where for me, glassmaking was much more than learning a skill. Craft is not solely about hand skills any more than technology is about machine capability, or even the confluence of human minds and technical brilliance. Making things in hot glass made me value the kind of knowledge that lives in the tentative acquisition of dexterity, the kind you feel first and know later. My experience is that this kind of learning is driven by something deeper even than curiosity, perhaps more foundational. When I first lowered a blowing iron into hot glass, it was as if something right down deep in every one of my glands just said YES!

I worry that for all our concentration on the future, on discs of perfect quartz glass capable of holding knowledge for eternity, we can’t store or protect the thing that doesn’t live as information, the key to making anything – the giddy, goofy, obsessive joy of making stuff. And I wonder if we are even human without it.


Photograph by Phoebe Stubbs

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