©Elisa Salasin, 2014

©Elisa Salasin, 2014


“They’ll call you a coward, Ruby.”  Those words from “Death of a Salesman” loomed in my head each time I refused yet another invitation from Molly Stone to have a lesson blowing hot glass.  “It will be fun,” the nationally known Bay Area artist, kept reassuring me. But no, I didn’t believe her.

Oh, sure, I had watched the Dutch movie “Glass” –I’d seen that film at least 20 times, each time admiring the music of the craftsmen’s fingers as they lulled their blow pipes to create magnificent translucent vessels. I had watched Seattle’s Bill Morris handle 45 pounds of malleable glass, in seconds partnering the molten material into steaming wooden molds.  I had seen 4’9” Sylvia Vigiletti of Detroit blow hot, hot glass into mystical veiled abstractions.

Just let me collect glass.  No, I don’t want to touch the stuff: my hands will chap and toughen and burn.  My eyes will redden from looking into the formidable 2000 F furnace. My respiratory system will clog with sandblast dust. But just maybe I too could do a ballet with  glass, pirouetting like Makarova clutching my fiery sword, at the very least, twirling the rod gracefully like the best high school majorette.  And my creations — oh, yes, dazzling ice-like bowls, proud cylinders, and ambiguous sculptures.  Yes, one who collects glass should certainly attempt working with the material.

So three years after her first invitation, I called Molly Stone at her Emeryville studio. “It will be fun,” she exclaimed again. For the occasion, since a cotton costume is obligatory, I chose my blue jeans, a pink tee shirt, and a gray and white long-sleeved shirt.  (Pink and gray are Molly’s favorite colors; I needed good luck!)  Proper footwear is important, I recalled, so my beige Adidas and substantial cotton socks were in order. And I didn’t forget my sun glasses.

“We have to work fast,” Molly said when I arrived at the Stone/Cohn Emeryville studio  “Kenny, our assistant, needs blowing time today, so we will have only an hour on the floor. “  That seemed a very long time to me. “You don’t look scared, “ she said, pulling out her Minolta to document my debut.

I wasn’t scared.  My palms weren’t even sweaty.  I listened carefully as Molly walked me through the procedure: “You pick up this metal blow pipe.” The four-foot length of pipe baked at the side of the furnace and it looked hot.  “Next you walk up to the furnace and dip the end of the blow pipe into the molten glass and take out your gather.”  The glass rested there lava-like.  “Don’t pick up too much glass this first time; the amount will vary according to what you want to make and how much glass you can handle.  You must remember to revolve the pipe steadily and constantly; and while you do that, walk to the steel table over there where you will roll the glass back and forth That’s called marvering. This motion begins to shape the glass and secure it to the pipe.”

Now I was nervous; all this to accomplish; and I had not even blown a bubble. Molly gave me a quick overview of our dance with glass, using a lot of her mysterious vocabulary. “Now, watch carefully,” she commanded. “With the length of pipe still resting on the table, but with the gather off the table, you blow into the pipe, not a whistle-like blow, but a pressured blow with enough air in your cheeks so you look like they are stuffed with jaw-breakers. As soon as a glass bubble forms, you return to the furnace to recoat the blow pipe with a second gather of glass.”

Molly’s verbal lesson continued and her tone grew more serious.  True, I had seen everything she described, but at this moment, 11:09 a.m. on a Saturday in May, I wasn’ t hearing much.

The hour had come.  Molly guided my hands down the center of the blow pipe as I addressed the furnace that contained the soda/lime glass that looked like natural honey and oozed like honey as i turned the rod slowly and carefully into the material, trying not to be distracted by the temperature. “Not too much, “ Molly shouted above the furnace’s drone. “Now keep the pipe straight,” she hollered as I withdrew the baton and walked as if carrying my best china to the marvering table.

“Keep it moving, keep it moving, “ she wailed. That’s hard, I thought. Keep moving, don’t trip, get to the damned table. Why is the stuff sagging?

At the steel table I rolled and rolled the lump of red hot glass back and forth, forth and back to give the piece symmetry, obviously not goof enough, for Molly leaped in to point the pipe upwards and to give the glass a nice even roll.

“There,” she said. “Now you blow. No, no,not on the table, move it across the table.”

By now sweat was rolling from my forehead, not from the heat of the furnace, but from the heat of Molly’s voice. And my hands jumped, too, as I felt the heat from the glass travel slowly up, up the glassblower’s pipe. Molly laughed at my theatrics as her camera clicked away.

I tried to remember the movie “Glass” and filled my cheeks with air; I puffed into the pipe quickly. “Good, good, you’ve made a wonderful bubble; it’s really centered.”

I didn’t have time to see what I had made.  In an instant Molly had me in front of the furnace again gathering a second coat. “Not too much, don’t gather more than what you already have on the pipe,” she ordered. I didn’t tell her I wasn’t exactly watching the pipe, for even wearing my sun glasses, approaching the furnace and looking in brought back scary  memories of the worst Jon Hall/Maria Montez 40’s film when human sacrifices stood quivering before a steaming South Sea volcano.

Following her directions, I was back at the marvering table in a flash, but Molly, petite and practiced, was there before me, in time to twirl the rod correctly so that my glass wouldn’t turn into a molten hot dog. More marvering, more blowing, and now to the bench. Because I am a southpaw, Molly had  turned the equipment around so that I could maneuver the rod with my right hand and the tong with my left.  A few rolls and the transfer from the pipe to the punty was completed.

While I had expected to be a Joan of Arc at the furnace, I did not expect to be a Chaplin at the bench.  I do have a sense of rhythm:  I can tap a snappy show tune or a mean iambic pentameter, but finding the rhythm of the glassblower’s pipe while simultaneously pressuring the glass with the tongs —that was too much!  And it looked so easy in the movie.

I managed a smile for Molly’s camera, squeezed the tongs and lulled the pipe and prayed.  I had paid my dues.  I had had my experience with hot glass.  But on order from my teacher, I returned to the furnace, the sweat really rolling now.  Once inside the furnace my perfect little vessel began to disintegrate into amber frosting.

“Hold the pipe straight; you’re holding it up, that’s why the glass is running,” Molly advised heatedly, grabbing the punty. “Center the pipe. Keep it turning! Center it! Center it!”

I tried to comply, but the pipe was getting hotter, the glass was getting runnier. I needed a free hand to mop my brow. One, two, three,seconds. Taking the glass out of the furnace, I lifted the pipe too high and sguashed my miniature pot on the furnace’s rim.

I now had a piece of genuine abstract art.

“That’s okay,” Molly said. “We’ll save it.” But neither her working with the tong nor her rolling the pipe could restore its shape.

“You’ve got a Marvin Lipofsky,” she laughed. I did, too: my first genuine laugh of the morning. My art now rested in the annealing oven, making the transfer from the punty successfully because Molly had maneuvered it.

“You’ll sign your glass tomorrow. It’s your first piece. Wasn’t this fun.”

I could’t answer her. I couldn’t describe what I had made, let alone how I felt.  I hoped the hour was up and I could go home; but no –  we had been working only 15 minutes. Seconds later Molly had another blow pipe in my hand.


©Ruby Bernstein, 2014

Ruby Bernstein, BAWP ’74, never became a glass artist, but she did become a modest, knowledgeable, appreciative contemporary glass collector. And with her dear friend the late Caryl Harms Hansen, Stanford ’51, co-editor of the Glass Art Society Journal. She met and interviewed many U.S. talented men and women glass artists; and with her interest in glass enhanced her travels abroad.

One Response to “My Career as a Glass Artist by Ruby Bernstein”

  1. jane juska Says:

    a nice tribute to Caryl–also a nice piece. did you send it to Molly?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s