Blow Me! The Glassblowers of Norfolk
James Finney | Contributing Writer
Everyone in the crowd is nervous. They can’t see the flames, only feel it. An intense hot sun, glowing from the singular opening in the furnace. Its warmth radiates out from the center of the glass studio, reaching out to the edges of space, where concrete walls, open space and AC bare down upon the heat.
Beads of sweat are forming on the foreheads of the onlookers, only mere yards away from the blazing sun. They’re squirming in their seats, but everyone has a smile on their face. The resident glassblowers are keeping the crowd going.
Kimber Mckinnis and Leana Quade aren’t intimidated. They’re even joyous in the embrace of flames. They stand only inches away from the furnace, telling jokes and preparing tools for the demonstration.
Mckinnis would later comment, “People ask us all the time if we burn ourselves and we say, ‘yeah sometimes, in the kitchen.’”
Quade dawns a flame-retardant sleeve on her arm and the duo gets to work. Their task today is to show the crowd how colored glass is made.
Quade grabs the blowing rod, a javelin-shaped pipe, and sticks one end of it into the furnace. She slowly twists the pipe, gathering glass into a bulb at the end. As she takes the pipe out, she continues to turn it, lest the glass start dripping to the floor.
Year-long, molten glass stays heated at an intense 1000 F inside of the furnace. Literal pounds of molten glass flow like rivers of lava.
Quade lifts the blowpipe up to her lips, and air starts to push the cooling glass out into a bright orange light bulb.
This new lamp post, made of pipe and glass, gets passed down to Mckinnis, who quickly and quietly moves the glass to a nearby bench with metal tweezers, tongs and a wooden ladle soaked in water.
It’s common for glassblowers to look like they’re in a chance during these performances. The contrast between the casual jokes and the laser-like focus leaves the impression that not everyone can be a glassblower.
For Mckinnis, a lot of things came together to make her fall in love with the craft “Glass was fascinating and hypnotizing for me. It’s a performance. It’s a physical challenge combined with unlimited creativity. The story for most glassblowers was that they started glassblowing for a class one day and they couldn’t stop,” she said.
It’s a taxing artform. Glassblowing is more physical than most forms of art. It requires a lot of dexterity, precision and teamwork. So much so that the two working together on the platform look more like dancing partners than workshop buddies.
As the staff at the Chrysler studio puts it, “Glassblowing is team sport, a song and dance.”
Mckinnis moves quickly. She uses the ladle to cool and roll the glass into shape, and the tweezers and tongs are used to manipulate that shape before the glass hardens.
“It’s sort of like taffy isn’t it?” Leana smiles at the crowd as Kimberly moves, bends and twists the cooling glass into shape.
Quade blows another bubble of hot glass and works it into more ‘taffy’ that she smashes together with the glass that Mckinnis has been working steadily on.
“‘Smashing’, it’s a technical term. You know?” Quade winks to Mckinnis. They both laugh together with the audience. Everyone is relaxed, slowly seeing things come together.
Tools and hands whirl as Mckinnis and Quade begin repeating the process, different colors of glass getting added to the mix. Mckinnis dashes between the cold studio floor and the blazing furnace, reheating their creation in a process called ‘flashing.’ It keeps the glass from getting too stiff while also making sure it doesn’t get heated up into a gooey mess.
Making glass is all dexterity and focus. A million things could go wrong if your mind and body aren’t in the game. Glass could become too hot and fall apart. It could become too cold and shatter before your feet. Despite this, Leana and Kimberly take to their work with a warm smile and a cold focused stair.
“My first time doing this at the Chrysler, I was kind of put on the spot. I wasn’t really acclimated to the studio yet. So I went to gather at the furnace and when I got too much I ended up spilling all this hot glass on the floor,” Mckinnis laughs.
“Glassblowing is a difficult form of expression to master. Learning to fail and get back up is a constant part of the process. It’s about those tiny landmarks, it’s about making a cup, and then it’s a bowl, and then it was curating my own show,” Mckinnis adds.
As soon as Mckinnis needs something, Quade is there with more hot glass. She’s prepared the tools or she’s shaped more color around Mckinnis’ work.
Tongs are stuck into the glass, and suddenly what looked like a giant bulb is now a massive bowl. Quade casually adds, “I bet you could fit a lot of cereal into this,” as the crowd just stares in awe.
As they flash ‘bowl’ one more time, Mckinnis spins the glass into a pure disc and something magical happens.
As the glass cools for its last time, suddenly colors are visible. Blues, greens, reds, oranges and yellows all radiate out from the center of the blowing pipe.
The crowd is stunned, not entirely sure what just happened. Mckinnis and Quade smile at each other and then at the crowd.
Without laying a hand on the glass itself, these artists have turned a glowing mass of liquid glass, into a ray of color and spectacle that has entranced the room.
For Mckinnis, this process is what makes glass one of the most powerful forms of expression, “You can never actually glass touch the glass as you’re making it. When you compare that to working with ceramics or other art forms, it’s a completely different visceral experience. You take this hot molten glob of glass and you’re able to breathe your own human breath into it. The materiality of the glass is magical.”
For glassblowers, it’s the doing that counts. They fire, cool, shape and breath life into work that can be shattered in seconds. For them, it’s not the eternity that matters. Glassblowers live for that simple pleasure of the moment, that single burst of breath.