WINDSOR, Vt. -- The suspense was mounting. Two glassblowers were struggling with a huge transparent bowl, humoring it with long metal poles as if by nudging and coaxing they could tame the molten beast into the solid, graceful vessel that it was intended to be. Would they succeed?
We were at Simon Pearce glassworks, and had found a perfect spot from which to observe the action: a balcony overlooking the production hall. We were close enough to see the glassblowers' every fluid stroke and movement, yet far enough away so as not to disrupt them. We were totally absorbed.
Traveling to manufacturing plants to watch people work has always struck me as a dubious venture. Increasingly, factories of all kinds seem to be offering tours, probably on the assumption that a free show will win admirers and translate into sales. And since most tours conclude in the gift shop, they probably succeed, however boring it might have been to watch parts get assembled into gadgets. But glassblowing is different.
We had stepped from the stillness of the snow-dusted countryside into a spacious hall suffused with warmth and activity. The crucible, a furnace that melts the glass to roughly 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit, exhaled a muted roar, mesmerizing us like a primeval bonfire. The air smelled of scorched metal, the molten glass blazed neon orange, and glassblowers rolled it onto their pipes with the purpose of breathing life not into ball bearings or microchips, but the most fragile of tabletop art.
Teams of T-shirted men, their faces damp with perspiration, tempered blobs of scalding lava into glossy, transparent vases and goblets. The gaffer, the most skillful of the group, was easy to spot: He was the one seated. His assistants carried glass back and forth to the glory hole, the furnace's opening. All of them worked with concentration and economy of movement, leaving little opportunity for conversation. Timing is essential. Once out of the furnace, molten glass cools within minutes.
I had visited a number of vintage glass factories in the Czech Republic, where some 50 industrial-size plants cover a territory about the size of Maine. An ancient art in the heart of old Europe. By contrast, New England's glass industry peaked in the 19th century, all but dying out by the Second World War. Massachusetts' famous Sandwich glass was active only from 1825 to 1888. Pairpoint Glass, in Sagamore, might be called an exception. Founded in 1837, it is still in operation.
Yet machine pressing eventually crowded out blowing glass by hand, a far more laborious and time-consuming technique. It wasn't until the 1960s that American tinkering led to the invention of the small melting furnaces that enabled glass artists to leave the factory and set up shop in their own home studios. In the decades since, glass has exploded onto the American art scene, with more private studios opening every year.
Nicholas Kekic, who blows gently curved bottles in his studio in Chester, Vt., got the bug from his father, who helped introduce a glassblowing program at the Rochester Institute of Technology. A similar story is behind the glass career of Rhode Island artist Matt Buechner. His father, Thomas Buechner, was president of Steuben Glass and director of the Corning Glass Museum, the world's largest. Kekic and Buechner represent the second generation of America's art glass revolution. Their chief inspiration has probably been the phenomenal success of Seattle-based Dale Chihuly, the flamboyant glass impresario with a patch over one eye who travels the world with an entourage, leaving shimmering baubles dangling from ceilings and floating in canals. Chihuly's imprint, seashell-like bowls with undulating sides, can be seen in glass studios across the country. Portland, Maine, artist Ben Coombs paused a moment when I asked him how he would describe his glass.
"Contemporary Seattle style, if you know what I mean," Coombs replied. "Swedish. Czech. Italian. Seattle is the little mecca of the glassblowing world, and so many people from so many different places have come in and out that they have left a little of themselves behind."
But Chihuly glass isn't the only style around. Indeed, one of the medium's delights is its endless versatility. At Thames Glass, Matt Buechner blows likenesses of fruits and vegetables and arranges transparent fish around the sides of his sea-colored bowls. Jim Holmes and Deborah Doane blow modern, geometrical shapes in a studio in Chatham. They have won particular acclaim for their bud vases, which look like translucent pumpkins with tall, cylindrical necks. In Granville, Vt., Michael Egan crafts pitchers in a weave of bright fanning colors so perfectly interlaced that they could almost be mistaken for plaid. In Sheffield, Mass., Clair Raabe goes beyond the blowpipe, sandblasting the sides of her bowls with patterns and figures in the studio she shares with Stephen Fellerman. Bridgewater, Conn., glass artist Timothy Hochstetter uses special glassblowing shears to snip ornate dragons into still-pliable globlet stems, a technique borrowed from 17th-century Venetian masters.
"He does it to thrill himself," says his partner, Kelly Munn, who describes Hochstetter as essentially self-taught. "It's also skill-building. He really pushes himself from that whole era and style."
The more difficult a piece is to execute, the more fascinating it is to watch, even if you are separated by a barrier, or as in many of the more commercial outfits, by a glass window. But spectators can be distracting, which is why some artists keep their shops closed. Josh Simpson has attracted a worldwide following for his earth-like globes, but politely redirects would-be visitors to Shelburne instead, to the galleries that sell his work. Pittsfield glass artist Tom Patti's sought-after sculptures require slow, tedious techniques better performed offstage. And Old Saybrook, Conn., artist Mundy Hepburn, nephew of Katharine, keeps outsiders away for safety reasons. If you reach up and touch his large, free-form sculptures, they change colors, because they are filled with helium, neon, krypton, and other flammable gases, and fitted with electrical components.
Yet despite the obstacles, glass studios are opening up. Simple Syrup, a Brockton, Mass., glass studio that has been open little more than a year, encourages people to visit its state-of-the-art facility. Not only can you watch the owners turn out their striking line of toy-colored tumblers and footed bowls, you can pick up a blowpipe and try it yourself. Or sign up for classes in one of the many adult education centers that are increasingly opening glassblowing workshops to meet popular demand. Most of Vermont's 20-some glass studios are in such remote locations that they rely on walk-ins for supplementary sales, and going to the source indeed has its advantages. You can nab seconds at greatly reduced prices, and have pieces custom-made, sometimes while you watch.
But of all New England's glass destinations, Simon Pearce is probably the best equipped to receive unannounced visitors. The Irish-born glassmaker launched his 12-store empire in 1981 at an abandoned mill in Quechee, Vt., planning from the first to lure the customer in. Today it is the area's top attraction. Arrive at lunchtime, and you can munch on gourmet fare at a table overlooking a cascading waterfall and a weathered covered bridge. The meal is served, of course, on Pearce's exquisite celadon dinnerware, and you sip from Simon Pearce glass. You wander downstairs to watch the glassblowers, who are close enough to talk to and surprisingly friendly. Then you browse. Furniture, linens, Irish imports, and tables laden high with Pearce's brilliant, colorless glass.
On the day we were there, we drank it all in and then traveled the 20 miles south on Interstate 91 to the main factory in Windsor. We perused the spacious shop and then headed for the glassblowing area. Being a weekday afternoon, we were alone but for a woman who had wandered in on the other side with a shopping bag over her arm. I couldn't help looking her way to see if she was as rapt as we were, and by all appearances, she was. It was pure performance art. The two glassblowers, a dexterous gaffer and his young assistant, were spinning a gigantic bowl out of what looked like rubber cement.
It must have been heavy, yet it looked weightless, like a glistening helium balloon. Moving deftly, they eased the bowl onto a pontil rod, shifting their bodies cautiously into every turn of the wrist with the measured grace of a lion tamer waving a chair. Their control seemed so effortless that we almost jumped when the piece suddenly crashed to the floor, shattering to smithereens.
We gasped. The woman with the shopping bag looked unimpressed and plodded toward the door. The glassblowers sat back and laughed, shrugging it all off. But we were nonplussed. It had been a duel, that much we understood. And that humans are fallible goes without saying. What we had not realized was the level of risk, and that's what made it all so memorable.
Diane E. Foulds is a freelance writer who lives in Burlington, Vt.