Creative accidents in handblown glass

Russell Carson trusts in inadvertent lessons when creating new work in glass. — File photo by Photo by Erik Peckar

At Martha’s Vineyard Glassworks, glassblowers work in full view of visitors. The process of creating blown glass and unique glass sculpture is slow and demanding, with many opportunities for mishaps along the way. They work at two large ovens called “glory holes,” in which pieces of glass are heated until they are molten, then worked slowly into the desired shape, going back into the ovens for more heat as needed.

Mark Weiner, the co-owner and head glassblower of Martha’s Vineyard Glassworks, has been a glassblower for 32 years. “Glass is the physical manifestation of Murphy’s Law,” he says. “What can go wrong will go wrong — if you don’t pay attention to the fundamentals and detail.”

Although he says that control of the medium increases with experience, he still experiments when developing new glassware. “When you’re inventing something new,” Mr. Weiner says, “you discover the steps and lay out the process. Unforeseen incidents still happen, but at my level of experience you have a more intuitive understanding of cause and effect. But that doesn’t guarantee that you always know what’s coming around the corner.”

He continues, “When you’re younger and less experienced, the mistakes you make tend to be opportunities for other pathways. Later on in your career, they’re either deal-breakers or interesting little essays on alternative solutions. I consider myself a glass worker, not a glass artist. I’m not as concerned as the other glassblowers here are with individual expression. Each of them — Rob, Michiko, Russell, Andy, and Susie — has an artistic vision that’s their focus. For me, it’s elegance and excellence, creating a standard of excellence.”

One of those artists, Russell Carson, is currently working on his first solo exhibition, which will feature scrimshaw-style carvings on oversized glass whale’s teeth, glass anchors, and other glass sculpture with a maritime theme.

“You have an idea in your head,” says Mr. Carson, “and it never goes quite the way you want it to go. I think that happens more with glass than with other things. I’d like to think, at this point, that I can start a piece I haven’t done before and arrive at the point I want it to, but there are still those little things that happen along the way that can lead you to things you might want to try another time.”

Creating his glass-scrimshaw whales’ teeth involved experimentation and several trial runs. The first whale’s tooth he made was more yellow than white, and once he’d decided on giving them a matte finish, he had to work out a way of keeping the ink in the etching, rather than having it stick to the whole tooth.

Another of Mr. Carson’s recent experiments was creating a glass sculpture of a mermaid sitting on an anchor. “We had to make about seven different parts,” he says, “all of which had to be kept warm while we made the other parts. When we started putting them together, it just went awry. It took a long time to work out the mermaid and her placement on the anchor. At the very end, the mermaid just broke off and shattered on the floor of the workshop. One thing I learned is that I don’t want to be putting mermaids on anchors any more.”

Mistakes and slips in the process are not always fatal, although — Mr. Carson says, “It all depends on your heat. If you’re coming out of the glory hole with enough heat to work the piece, and it slips, it can just bend or collapse and be fixed. That same drop, with the piece going back into the oven after it has been worked on, can shatter it.”

Another variable is color. While most of the colors that the glassblowers use are predictable, they all have slightly different melting temperatures, and some of them are called “striking colors,” which change depending on how much they’ve been heated. Mr. Carson makes a series of paired yin and yang vases, one with the bulge on top and the other with a lower bulge. They sit side by side, their shapes flowing past each other, in matching colors. However, when he tried to make them in a color called “pale primrose,” the color came out pale yellow on one vase and apricot on the other, simply because the different shapes meant that the two vases had to be heated slightly differently.

While other artists in the shop pursue their artistic vision, Mr. Weiner says that his art form is creating the macro-environment of the glassworks. The open work area, or hot shop, is a major part of that. “We make as much quality work as possible,” he says, “and we try to present it in a unique environment so that people can build a more long-lasting appreciation of the work.

“Greatness is about sustainability,” Mr. Weiner concludes, “not about flashes in the pan.”

Martha’s Vineyard Glassworks, 683 State Rd., West Tisbury. 508-693-6026.