Into the Fire

Tenley Rooney
Hot glass makes its debut in the Arts Department

When the Arts Department announced it would be offering hot glass for the 2017-18 academic year, there was no shortage of interested students. The class, offered once each term, can only accommodate eight students at a time. Regardless, more than 80 hopefuls clamored for the 24 slots.
"We've been anticipating this art studio," said Sixth Former Bella Kang, a member of the girls ice hockey team. "We could see the construction going on, and we knew it was going to be brand new. I honestly thought it would be stupid of me not to take the class. When would I get this opportunity again?”
Nanda Soderberg, a master in the medium, teaches the class in a specifically-designed space located on the ground level of the refurbished Fine Arts Building. Some 20,000 work hours transformed the existing Moore building into an open-concept space for the visual arts. The 11-month-long construction included the installation of seven new exhaust fans feeding 13 pieces of specialized equipment, consisting of nine parts for glassblowing, one for welding, and three ceramic kilns. The hot glass studio is off limits outside of class time due to the furnaces kept upwards of 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit to maintain the molten glass, but passers-by can look through the bank of windows facing the footpath behind Memorial Hall for a peek.
Chair of the Arts Department Colin Callahan said offering hot glass was a way to build the department’s 3-D course offerings. It also complements welding, a class that will return to the Arts curriculum.
Soderberg has been working with glass for 24 years. He first discovered the art form as an undergraduate student and then pursued it for his M.F.A. at Virginia Commonwealth University. His work has been sold at Nieman Marcus and Barneys, just to name a few, and he’s toiled alongside Italian maestros in the craft. Working with glass is physical. The process involves maneuvering between the furnace and the bench repeatedly. The constant motion appears elaborate, but Soderberg breaks the class down to its most essential purpose. “It's just a materials studies class,” he said. “It’s just learning about glass and its properties and how to manipulate it when it’s hot and cold.”
Learning the rhythm takes time. Molten glass must be gathered onto a hot blowpipe from the central furnace and slightly shaped before it is flashed in the "glory hole," the term used for the two smaller heaters. The flashing and gathering process repeats until the amount required for a project is achieved, then pliers help form a neck near the end of the blowpipe to detach the glass when it is ready.
Five classes into the term, the students were working to perfect the pace needed to manage the substance's fickle nature. "It's challenging because glass is moving," said Soderberg. "You have to turn it all the time to keep it on center. And you have to act quickly because it cools down pretty fast."
“Glass is like anything,” Soderberg continued. “The more time you put in, the better you are going to get. When you first start everything is clunky and thick. Your sense of proportion is not there. It takes years.”
Sixth Former Amara Ogukwe came to the class with experience from the School’s Advanced Ceramics program. She said working with clay has helped her transition, but it isn’t a requirement to take the course. “Working with the wheel is like playing an instrument,” Ogukwe said of ceramics. “You have to have your eyes and hands focused the entire time. In glassblowing, you move your whole body. It is like a dance."
The hotter the glass, the easier it is to manipulate – perhaps too easy. Move too suddenly, and it will jolt the malleable substance into an unintended shape, but act too slowly other problems arise. While hot, blowing a bubble into the glass "is like blowing out candles," said Soderberg. But, as the glass cools down, it doesn't want to expand.
Sixth Former Reece Jacobsen spent a recent class period working to perfect a punty, a wad of hot glass at the end of a rod used to transfer the material from the pipe for further work. Its shape needs to be precise, resembling a giant Q-tip. “It’s harder than you think it would be,” said Jacobsen. "Getting on center was hard at first, but it's easier now." Before the class was offered Jacobsen's focus in the Arts Department was theatre, but, for him and many others, this opportunity was too unique to pass up.
A blessing for the Fine Arts Building will take place during Chapel on October 2.