Monday, January 24, 2011

Teaching Weaving, Dripping, Pressing, Carving, Drawing, & Texturizing

This will be a multi-part post on what has turned into a marathon glass fusing class. I have to admit to an unorthodox approach to teaching. The basic approach is to give a broad overview of the technical basics, have them work small for a few weeks, then do a scaled down version of a final project, then finally do to the finale project. This might be doable in a six week course except that I also let them choose their own projects however grand or unassuming their aspirations may be. That's where the complications set in, and also I feel, where the most important learning occurs through encouraging and tempering as the case may be.

It is a challenge to say the least having a group of students all going their own direction on projects which vary from just a few dollars and one firing to several hundred dollars with complex techniques and multistage firings. I have to learn as much as they do - about their skill level, their ability to attend to detail, their ability to plan, and more important decipher what their sense of  aesthetics are and how I might help them express that in glass. All of that can't be done in six weeks. After 10 weeks you might if you're lucky begin to understand the student enough to help them take their first tentative steps on their glass journey.

The image above illustrates what is called kiln carving. Impressions are made in glass by cutting designs into ceramic fiber paper which can range in thickness depending on how deep of an impression you desire. Glass is laid on top of the cut outs, and as the kiln heats the glass flows like honey into and around the cut outs. In the example you can see both an impression into the glass on the right and a relief on the surface of the glass on the left. This is accomplished by using both the 'positive' cut out shape, and also saving the 'negative' space/hole left in the ceramic paper from the cut out. The glass flows down into the negative spaces while it also flows over and around the positive cut outs.

I typically include a glass weaving project (image above) early in the course, because glass cutting skills are exercised by cutting a lot of thin strips of glass. Bending glass is learned as well as seeing how molds are made and used. I also learn each student's color preferences, and I get a sense of their dexterity level. It also helps them over their fear of glass which everyone has initially. 

In my last class I had them create their own colored glass by sifting glass power onto clear glass. The idea is to get them use to taking full control over their color choices by creating their own color gradations and mixes. It is too easy and somewhat uncreative just to buy your glass, cut it up, and fuse it. I call this the 'cut and paste' approach which quite literally a child can do. Of course, cut and paste is ubiquitous in glass fusing and can lead to some very impressive results. However, realizing that you can and should attempt to control every element of design is one of the important steps leading from craft to art. As good as this idea might have been, their 'customized' glass was much harder to cut than the off-the-shelf stuff, and we had to start over.
I like to think of stock glass as simply the materials to build an image. Going beyond cut and paste is a key part of my personal aesthetic, and I think a teacher is always going to bias their students one way or another. The dripping project is a very good example of how to move well beyond cut and paste. The image to the left is a stack of cut up glass. It is setting on top of a stainless steel grate. When heated it flows through the grate forming a wholly new mix of glass. Any number of other techniques could then be applied to this mix as a starting point for other projects. I simply presented the idea to the class in an unbiased manner ( it is something I aways wanted to try) along with many other project options, and two students chose to explore dripping (to my pleasure).

A related technique to dripping would be raking. When the glass is still molten you can use a metal rake to drag through the glass forming color patterns in the glass with the rake's fingers. I'm glad that they didn't press me to do that technique. Reaching into a 1600 degree kiln is.... well, not really advisable, but people often do put their mark, so to speak, in glass by raking.

To end the first installment of this series of posts is an example of an exercise in texture and line. It takes several years, if not a lifetime, to explore the elements of design (line, shape, form, texture, color, pattern, etc). Eventually, an artist settles in on a certain style, and that style can be broken down and seen by how they use the elements of design in a composition adhering to sound design principles.

In the image below the exploration of line and texture was the focus of the project. The student was inspired by a picture of a glass project that had line drawings created by tracing through sifted glass powder. Several attempts were made to capture that style.. The bold red rings were created using glass paste, the blue line scribbles were done using a Sgraffito approach which is simply tracing lines through powder with a stick. The faint red circles on the left were created by pushing a round object into powder, creating impressions in the powder.

There are also three distinct textures of glossy, mat and sandy which adds a tactile dimension. As a line and texture study this piece was a huge learning adventure. It also helped the student realize the importance of working small so that ideas can be tested quickly at reduced cost. Glass is terribly expensive, in many ways unforgiving, and requires a capacity for delayed gratification. It can been weeks, and all too often months, before what seemed a simple technique is mastered. Projects often need multiple firings and you can't see the results for 24 hours or more. The learning feedback loop is sometimes extended beyond the student's capacity to wait for a result, and understandably so.

In my glass adventures I have to admit I've been frustrated more often than gratified, mostly because I wanted glass to do something that may be better approached in another medium. My goal as a teacher is to reduce the frustration level for students while at the same time not boring them with small exercises. This is one of many balancing acts that makes a good teacher, and the more I learn the easier the journey will be for all.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

New Directions & Old Via Train

Things are finally setting down after a visit with my mother in Pittsburgh who is still recovering from surgery. My mother-in-law passed away in November and on top of that I had been working two full time jobs. It was a crazy four months, but I couldn't pass up the consulting money, and of course, I couldn't cancel my classes. I'm not the best juggler of time, but I managed. The worst of it was driving to a stained glass class, then realizing I didn't have any glass cutters with me! Thank god for your local True Value!

Anyway... The train gives you a lot of time to think and relax, and it was a very relaxing trip. Not only was I on a journey to Pittsburgh, but I also formally began my journey with enameling. I spent most of my time studying from magazines and books. I'm attracted to the media by the type of detailing it offers which glass fusing does not. I'm already envisioning large fused glass panels with enameled details added.

This is going to be an involved creative journey. Enameling is in many respects more complex than glass fusing, because of the addition of metalsmithing. It will take several years of exploring before I create something substantial. There are a lot of skills, tools, and materials to master. It will be a perfect complement to fusing, expanding my visual vocabulary immensely. I've been working with copper in my fusing panels and mica along with gold and silver in my torchwork. Enameling will enable me to create detailed work with metal and glass which has so far eluded me. The closest I've come is the detail found in my Metal Marbles which are created by adding gold, silver, copper, and raw oxides while torchworking glass.

The image above is from a coal energy plant outside of Chicago - beautiful poison going into the air 24/7. I thought I might stop off at the Art Institute during my Chicago layover, but it was just too cold to be running around. Besides I had my camera and with so little time I'd rather create my own images.

Union Station was my target. It was a great overcast day and the aged glass ceiling gave me the perfect lighting conditions. Well, kind of. My lenses aren't the fastest so I had to shoot with ISOs above 3200. On my Nikon D2x they have low light settings called H1 and H2 which are somewhere around ISO 6400 or so. The images are typically very noisy and not useful for much, but I ran the files through Topaz DeNoise and it creates something usable for the type of look I'm after. Other Topaz filters smooth out the images even further in the process of abstracting them. Union Station was a nice diversion for the couple of hours that I had between trains. I could probably shoot that building for several days.

Heading to Pittsburgh has always been like a journey into the past. Jean and I have lived in Minnesota for over twenty years, and I really haven't continually lived in Pittsburgh since the seventies. During the trip however I focused a lot on the future, because we have recently decided to move from Minnesota. The hours passed  and  the train gently rocked and swayed as thoughts of starting someplace anew mingled with images of glass designs.

While in Pittsburgh I spent some time with my niece who is starting her first semester in college. She's not sure what to major in and I can relate to that, because I'm not exactly sure what skills will match up with what opportunity for me when we move. I hope to solidify something, but I'm also OK with moving and  letting circumstances take me down a totally new path.

It's kind of like being a freshmen again. I might even go back to school. Not so much for another degree though. One thing for sure I will will not be able to do the Have Kiln Will Travel escapades. We are planning to move to a small community which because of its size would not support that type of teaching adventure. I currently teach in over 30 different adult programs and art centers.

I would like to get involved on some level teaching glass, but I'm not sure what the format will be. Teaching took over my life in the last year. Designing and refining classes replaced the goals I set out for Designs For Good. But that's OK. The last year has given me a solid new skill. How it will be applied I'll leave open for now.

The image above was shot in the old US Steel building downtown Pittsburgh. Like the reflection of me I feel neither here nor there. The past is past and the future undefined, and that's exciting.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

West View Park Revisted

I haven't been home to Pittsburgh in a number of years and will be taking a train there next week. At the same time Jean and I are thinking of moving, and I have been going through a lot of belongings that I don't intend to relocate with. I came across some old black and white film shots taken in the seventies of West View amusement park in Pittsburgh before they tore it down. This park was the site of our yearly school picnic, and was loved by everyone. All things must pass as they say, and the park couldn't keep up with changing times. Folks back home might like to reminisce about the park so I'll print these out and take them on my trip.

The picture above is the main hill of The Dips. A creaky-clanky ride that inched up the steep hill seemingly taking forever to get to the top. Once at the top there was a brief moment where you were on top of the world, then only to have the bajeebus scared out of you on the down slop. The down slop was actually deeper than can be seen in the picture.

If I'm remembering correctly you just put a leather seat belt on and the hand rails you see above swung back to basically keep you in your seat. Of course if you were brave you wouldn't hold onto the hand rail. You would then get tossed about in the seat and smash into the person sitting next to you from the force of the turns.

The ride was definitely of another era. You can see the manual breaking lever to the left in the picture above and the break linkage. For me it looks Victorian or what is now called Steampunk.

The shot above is the entry point to The Dips. I remember my first time waiting in line to get on the ride. I was hoping they would close for lunch before I got there. It was agonizing waiting and waiting and I just didn't want to be there. I couldn't leave for fear of being laughed at. So I chose the less of two fears and stayed in line. It wasn't bad... if you don't mind the feeling of your stomach floating out of your body.... or something like that.


The park itself was around a mile or so long carved out of a valley. Originally there was a lake/swap area that The Dips went around and on top of as it meandered its way back to its debarking point. The swap was eventually filled in to make way for more rides, but the park just didn't have the space to keep up with the million dollar rides that were becoming vogue at other parks.

The shot above shows The Dips in the background and The Haunted House on the right. You can also see the Alpine Ride towers on the left and the arcades in the center of the picture.

 Then there was The Racing Whipit! It had some dips but was really known for a lot of sharp turns and for speed. Two sets of cars 'raced' to get to the end. You could actually shout 'losers' to the people in the other set of cars when the cars ran along side by side.... as though you really had any control over who was going to 'win' the race to the end.

The image above shows the overgrown vegetation on the bottom of the track. The park had been abandoned for several years when I took these pictures. You could walk all of the place and do just about anything you wanted. I guess it was impossible to fence it all off. Remarkably I don't recall seeing any vandalism, graffiti or other signs of abuse. I'm sure some items were stolen.

In the shot below you can see the two sets of cars poised for the next race that never happened, and the track's hair pin turns in the background.

 I used Photoshop and Topaz plugins to colorize and abstract the images. I love Topaz. It enables infinite control to adjust any image to any feeling I want to create.