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modern sculpture native rock

Modern sculpture from native rock Mifflin and Carroll Street, Madison, WI.

Barbara Gavin-Lewellyn 

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Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.  ~Vincent Van Gogh

Vincent Van Gogh was born in 1853.

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The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.
Aristotle

Last week, a group of about 10 of us from The Capitol Center Apartments went on a little excursion (about 3 1/2 blocks) to visit one of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Art Department labs. TASS Matthew Piepenbrok and his students Kristine Karlen, Bao Thao, and Sean Everett gave us an exciting demonstration of glass blowing and patiently answered our questions. It was a lot of fun and very educational.  

The Universtiy of Wisconsin-Madison at the behest of Harvey Littleton was the first college to establish a glass blowing lab in the United States in the ’60s. Above is a view of the furnaces in the present-day lab.  There are four of them and they all have whimsical names because it is easier to tell someone to use Lucy than it is to say the second one from the left.  Lucy and Joe were the ones in use while we were there.


TASS Matthew Piepenbrok (pictured left) is studying to be a professor of art and if his presentation to our group is any indication, he’s going to be an excellent one. He’s a very engaging and personable young man with a great sense of humor and seems to have a profound love of teaching others about his craft.  Examples of his art work can be found at ARTQ.net

In this picture he is showing us the molten glass he has just poured into a cold mold from one of the furnaces. What a card! Wouldn’t it be fun to have a professor like this?


Here he is showing us the hollow stainless steel rod that the liquid glass will be “loaded” onto in preparation for blowing. It was very warm in this lab due to four furnaces that were keeping the molten glass at a temperature of around 2,400 to 2,000*.

The long sleeve on Matthew’s right arm is to protect him from burns as he loads up his glassblowing rod.  According to Matthew and his students glassblowing is a very risky business and not a day goes by when one of them doesn’t get burned as Bao Thao kindly demonstrated for us later in the session! They were very nonchalant about it, treating it as an ordinary part of their day in the lab although you could tell it hurt.

Above Matthew and Kristine Karlen are loading a glob of molten glass onto the rod. In the picture at the right, Matthew is showing us a closer view of the glass after a small amount of air has been blown into it. At right, he is using a pad made from many layers of newspaper to begin shaping the glass. Later on he showed us how the heat from the glass had burned through several layers. 

The whole time the glass is being worked the artist or glassmith must keep the rod turning in order for centrifugal force to keep the glass on the rod or gravity will take effect and the piece will slump and become disfigured.  That’s not so hard at this stage but as they continued to add glass, the piece became heavier and heavier.  We were given a sphere of cooled glass to examine and it is quite heavy. I’d guess between 10 and 15 pounds.

Little by little more molten glass is added to the piece and more air is blown in then more shaping is done to smooth the piece and achieve the desired size and contours. All the while the rod must be kept spinning to keep the glass attached to the rod. The work is painstaking and physically challenging.

The top picture  shows Matthew blowing more air into his  globe of glass. Bao Thao steps in to assist him and Matthew demonstrates other shaping tools glassmiths use to get the effects they want to produce.

Sean Everett steps in to become Matthew’s assistant and things begin to get very dramatic! 

Protruberances were added to the sphere by dropping globs of glass from a rod. To keep the glass at the right temperature, a propane torch was used. Melted glass started dripping onto the cement floor!

At this point they began to let gravity take effect and elongate the round sphere in preparation for the cold mold that had cooled by now to be attached to the piece. It took 3 people to manage that task! Clearly glass art of any complexity is a collaborative effort.

Bao Thao brushes excess sand from the attached cold mold while Kristine Karlen stands by with the propane torch in case heat is needed to keep the glass at the right temperature. The glass can break or crack at any moment if the right temperature is not maintained and in fact, did during this demonstration but fortunately not badly enough to ruin the whole thing so they would have to start all over.

The cold mold has now been attached to a solid stainless steel rod and Matthew, Sean, and Kristine detach the former sphere from the hollow rod. They will begin pulling and twisting the piece into a an elongated horn shape after adding some colored pigment.

Bao and Sean hold the tip of the horn while the piece is being turned and pulled to shape it.

Kristine applies some heat to the tip to refine the shape just before it goes into the cooling tank.  She looks wicked cool with that propane torch!

Barbara Gavin-Lewellyn

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