Art of glass

After a smoke-induced hiatus, the heat is on at Chico State’s glassblowing studio

GLASS HOUSES Students in Professor Robert Herhusky’s beginning glass sculpture class (above) are enthralled as he shows them how to drop molten glass into molds (right) created by gently pressing objects into olivine sand. The glass hardens so fast the timing must be exactly right. Glass cast from larger molds, of course, hardens more slowly.

GLASS HOUSES Students in Professor Robert Herhusky’s beginning glass sculpture class (above) are enthralled as he shows them how to drop molten glass into molds (right) created by gently pressing objects into olivine sand. The glass hardens so fast the timing must be exactly right. Glass cast from larger molds, of course, hardens more slowly.

Photo by Tom Angel

Glass class: Chico State’s glass sculpture program gets a lot of help from local studios Satava and Orient & Flume, which for years have donated equipment and provided internships and jobs for students.

First of all, this is glass sculpture: It’s more of an art than a craft, and this is serious business—except for the gasps of “Cool!” coming from Professor Robert Herhusky’s beginners’ class.

As the lunchtime scent of Madison Bear Garden burgers wafts over the fence near Chico State University’s Taylor Hall glassblowing studio, students, following teacher’s orders, present objects they want to press into moist sand. There’s a bone, a Jell-O mold, a sterling silver spoon­even a little Buddha figurine. The recesses will be filled with molten glass and then, Herhusky says, “we’ll take it out of here like tollhouse cookies.”

The 2050-degree glass, oozing like radioactive honey from a gathering ball at the end of a long stick, settles into the molds and immediately begins to harden.

“Quick! Go! Go!” Herhusky urges a student wearing huge oven mitts and holding a flat board by the handle. Her job is to rush the formed pieces, like a dangerous glass pizza, to a waiting kiln.

The energy level is high here, in part because it’s been only in the last couple of weeks that students have been able to use the huge furnace to melt the glass. Last October, a piece of metal heated up a board in the roof to the point where it began smoking. State fire marshals didn’t like that one bit and gave the university a to-do list on how to bring the studio up to modern safety standards.

Until the fire folks signed off on the remodel, students were limited to “cold work"—methods like drilling or sandblasting glass to recreate it as art—and use of the kiln and other electrical equipment.

The upgrade included taking off the old wall and putting in a whole new, fire-safe one that would take two hours to burn through. The roof was also modified, along with the way the department stores things. The furnace got shiny metal protectors.

Herhusky says it’s been worth the wait. The facility is improved, and, even better, it’s safe. “If the Fire Department says you can’t use that building for students, you’re baked.” Now, he says, “we’re 100 percent legit.”

“I’m so stoked,” he said the day the fire marshal said the furnaces could be lit for the first time in months. “It’s like winning the Lotto or something.”

And the fact that the university readily spent more than $35,000 to have the work done does a lot to solidify the value and staying power of the glassblowing program, which went dormant in 1990 amid campuswide budget cuts.

BREAK THE MOLD? Some students showed up to Herhusky’s beginners’ class with objects that wouldn’t quite work for the project. The items had to be large enough to create an impression but not too big. Rejected candidates include a small jackolope figurine and a rusted metal beam that ended up getting cut down to size.

Photo by Tom Angel

Last month, Herhusky attended a conference with people from all the glass sculpture programs that include hot-glass work. “It was a pretty small group,” he says. There are only six California State University campuses that offer these techniques, and Chico State’s is tied for second-oldest, having been started in 1967 or 1968 by now-retired Professor Fred Lucero.

When Herhusky joined the Art Department faculty in 1990, glass sculpture was a poor stepchild to ceramics, and he taught only one class in the art. “I kept whining and sniveling that we need to get this up,” he said. Finally, he won the support of the Art Department and the university’s curriculum committee and now teaches three-hour-long lab classes to both beginning and advanced students.

The program also has the philosophical support of Chico State President Manuel Esteban, who once blew glass for a living and occasionally does demonstrations at the university studio, quickly turning out colorful fish for the eyes of visiting parents and students. ("He’s super-fast,” comments Herhusky, who maintains a display of the leader’s work.)

Esteban says blown glass as an art is getting more, not less, popular in the United States. “As students have discovered the art of glassblowing at community colleges and universities all over the U.S., we have seen more and more artists choose this medium,” he says. “At the same time, Americans have become more knowledgeable about this medium and more appreciative of its beauty. This congruence has made this medium very popular and thus has attracted attention not only from the art connoisseur but from artists who otherwise might have moved into the area of ceramics of other medium.”

Part of what makes blowing glass so organic, so real to its practitioners is that the techniques are essentially the same as they were 60 BCE, when the ancient Syrians came up with them. “The tools have not changed in 2,000 years,” Herhusky says.

In Chico summers, the studio can heat up to 110 degrees, so the artists opt to work on projects that don’t involve the furnace. And, Herhusky says, “We work in as few clothes as modesty permits.

“Glass is super-seductive,” Herdusky says, handling a glass insulator someone’s brought in. “You’ve got the primal aspects of fire.”

The students’ minds are the limit when it comes to creating with glass. They can turn finished, premanufactured glass into layers of “slumped” glass. Herhusky gives the students what he calls a “creative problem,” such as the exercise using an object—say, a lightbulb—as a mold to make something else.

On one recent afternoon, studio art sophomore Alexander Johnson—who just snagged a job at a glassblowing studio in Seattle—is enthusiastically explaining something called a rollup technique, in which glass and compatible scraps are slumped together in a kiln. Found objects form his favorite medium, but Johnson also thrives on the intensity of traditional glassblowing. “It’s all about teamwork. Your partner has to be equal to you,” he explains.

“When you’re working with glass it’s like this whole experience your body goes through because you’re sweating so much—you’re like on the edge of burning.” It’s kind of a cleansing feeling, like a sauna, he says.

“I’m actually working as a sculptor trying to combine glass and metal and wood,” he says, adding that art students are free to immerse themselves in the glass sculpture program or just dabble. “There are a lot of possibilities. All of the departments are combined.”

Chico State offers a bachelor of arts degree with an emphasis in glass. A just-approved master of fine arts program can also include a focus on glass sculpture work. "It’s getting better all the time," Herhusky says.