Daredevils DO what others DON’T!

Shaping molten glass in Art for Daredevils

One of the more viscerally exciting In the Making courses that we’re offering our teens this season is Art for Daredevils: Pranks, Tricks, and Death-Defying Stunts. Conceived as a sharp (excuse the pun) contrast to the perception of art as a soft, quiet, delicate pastime, the participants in this 10-week workshop have been embracing the loud, scary, dangerous side of contemporary sculpture, and pushing themselves to their artistic limit in the process. In the following post, teaching artist Keith Mendak shares his thoughts on the group’s recent visit to Brooklyn Glass.

—Calder Zwicky, Associate Educator of Teen and Community Programs

Daredevils take action to do what most people won’t. So when the students of Art For Daredevils were offered the challenge of working with hot, molten glass they were eager to accept.

Tuesday, March 20, found MoMA’s daredevils on an F train from midtown to Park Slope, Brooklyn, for our “hot” date with Brooklyn Glass, a public-access glass studio where fires—melting glass at 2,100 degrees—blaze around the clock. Students were wide-eyed and anxious as they walked into the cavernous studio aglow with open flames pouring out of forge-like furnaces and colorful neon tubes hovering above our heads. Students huddled around a workbench with long steel arms used to roll the blowpipe while glassblowing. Anthony Bianco and I introduced them to specific hand tools, like jacks, diamond shears, and tweezers, while also touching on safety precautions vital to the glass studio. We knew that any wrong move or absentmindedness could end in serious injury.

From left: Keith explains the basic fundamentals of glassblowing; a daredevil tests her lung capacity while making a piece

Our session began with a demonstration. Anthony and I explained the glassblowing process as we made a large drinking glass with a stylish handle. I explained that, for a glassblower, making a cup is similar to a musician playing a scale on their instrument. Every necessary skill, technique, and tool may be exercised within the seemingly simple cup-making process. Glassblowers can spend their entire lives mastering the glass cup and goblet. Before long, the blob of molten glass that clung like sticky lava to the steel blow pipe took form. Within minutes a cylindrical, crystal-clear vessel stretched from the end of the pipe. Anthony and I then attached a solid steel rod called a pontil to the vessel’s flat bottom. A drop of water near the connection of the glass to the hollow steel and a slight tap released the vessel and transferred it onto the pontil. Now the freshly broken end could be heated and fashioned into an opening to form the lip of the drinking vessel. Finally, a hot gather, or ball, of glass was rolled into a bar on the steel table called a marver. The glass bar was then pinched with tweezers for decoration and attached to the vessel wall. Shears were used to cut the hot glass, as Anthony grabbed the loose end with tweezers and planted it firmly on the vessel wall to make a fancy Roman-style handle. The drinking vessel was complete, removed from the steel pontil, and placed in a kiln called an annealor to cool down slowly overnight.

From left: Molten glass is brought to a teen; a daredevil shapes her glass piece

Anthony Bianco assists a student

After taking their cue from us, the daredevils got to work, assembly-line style, cranking out glass marbles, twists, knots, blobs, and bubbles, all parts for a glimmering installation to be created at MoMA. Two students with steady nerves and burning ambition stepped up to the vacant workbenches to wield the first flaming globs of molten glass into one-of-a-kind crystal objects. One by one each of the students had a chance to harness their inner Prometheus at the workbench. Upon completion, each glass object was placed in the annealor to cool. The bravery that the daredevils displayed in jumping right in to the somewhat overwhelming project was an amazing sight to behold. It was obvious from everyone’s poise and willingness to test the limits of their abilities as artists that they had definitely taken the course’s central themes to heart.

From left: “Painting” with molten glass while educator Keith Sklar looks on; the burnt canvas’ lines begin to take shape

As if making a collection of fire-polished products by hand wasn’t enough, the daredevils then gathered more molten glass from the raging furnace and began to “draw” with fire on a canvas we had brought with us from the Museum! Hot glass was drizzled from a pontil onto the large sheet as students’ gestures were burned deep into the fabric. Students took turns making their mark on the smoldering cloth, now scarred with a collection of dark black lines. After all the smoke had cleared and the sweat had dried, the daredevils stood triumphant over an action drawing born of flames and glass from the furnace’s fiery belly. Cell phones then emerged from nearly every pocket. Students were abuzz snapping photos, texting, and Tweeting to share their new glass achievements with those who may never know the magic of a firsthand glassmaking experience. As we all know, fire burns hot and glass is sharp, and most of our lives are spent heeding warnings to steer clear of such hazards. But not MoMA’s daredevils, who embraced the dangers with confidence, and purged their fears in the volcanic fires of molten glass.

Final student artwork will be on display at the In the Making Teen Art Show, opening in The Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Education and Research Center on Friday, April 27. For more information on our upcoming summer season of In the Making courses for teens, visit our MoMA Teens website or Facebook page. Special thanks to everyone at Brooklyn Glass for sharing their resources and expertise with us.