Glass artist hones craft in Middle East

Robert Whitmarsh

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

Robert Whitmarsh is a full-time dad who lives in a nice, tidy home on the outskirts of Chico with his wife, Galila, who works at Chico State, and their two teenagers. But life hasn’t always been so “normal” for Whitmarsh. After teaching himself the art of glass-blowing, he spent more than a decade honing his craft—he works with both blown and solid glass—in the Middle East, specifically in Israel. Although he’s sold thousands of pieces of glasswork all over the world, these days he says his family comes first. He keeps up with his hobby in a modest home studio and doesn’t exhibit his work locally.

How did you get into glass blowing?

I was actually working in steel. I’d come back from Vietnam and most of us back, just out of the service, we didn’t have a lot of money. So we came up with this idea of making sculptures and selling them down at the Laguna Art Festival. I knew how to do it, so we made some sculptures and I didn’t think anything would come of it. But we made enough money by noontime Saturday to party the rest of the weekend.

Then that Christmas, I was at South Coast Plaza and there was a man there doing this [glass blowing], and I watched him and I thought, “I can do this.” So, starting from there, over a period of time, I picked up the skills. People at that time, and even now, are not that forthcoming with information. I’m about 95 percent self-taught. Most of it, if you sit and think about it, you can figure it out.

Glass-blowing itself has been around for about 2,000 years. Roughly between 20 B.C.E. and 20 C.E. is when it appeared in the Middle East. They knew how to produce glass—like blue glass—before the pyramids were built. So, it goes even further back. Glass was considered to be as precious as gold—it’s talked about in both the Old and New Testaments as being as precious as gold.

You know a lot about the history of glass.

I worked in a museum in the Middle East, and that was part of my job. I would give demonstrations on Middle Eastern glass blowing, and I had to be able to give this spiel in the course of my demonstration. It was an interest of mine for a long time.

It’s an endlessly fascinating substance. It’s completely recyclable, which most people aren’t aware of. There are something like 400 different types of glass in the world, each with a specific purpose. Our society in many ways is completely dependent on glass.

Where were you in the Middle East?

I was working in the Red Sea when a job came open in the museum [in Israel]. I had been trained as a scientific glass blower, I built lasers and diffusion pumps and that sort of thing.

While you were in the military?

No, I did that after I got out of the military, both in the United States and in Israel. I also built neon signs in Las Vegas. From there I went to the Middle East, about 1993.

I went to Tel Aviv to the Land Museum, and the man [who used to run it] had left all his bottles and jars that he had made. And they showed me a video of an Arab in Cairo doing the same work, and I said, “I can do that.” Everybody laughed, because Americans aren’t supposed to be able to do this.

It got to the point where I was the only non-Arab in the Middle East who was able to do the work, and do it while having a conversation.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

Were you the only American who could physically do it, or the only one allowed to?

I was the only one who could physically do it, knew how to do it and had the chutzpah to do it. There’s a lot of justifiable pride in these communities about their accomplishments, and when somebody like myself walks in there who hasn’t been trained and has not been part of their tradition, and pulls it off, it leads to a lot of eyebrows being raised. It even went so far when I was in the museum that they brought two Arab masters to watch me do it, and they went back and said I was doing everything exactly according to the way they did it, I just needed practice to smooth out my techniques.

They were very, very nice to me. There was some animosity, but the majority were very nice. Especially because I kept my mouth shut about the things I’d learned about the way they do things, out of respect for the way they treated me.

I did learn from the Arabs, and from the Russians, how to make my own colors. You can either get your colors commercially or you can make them yourself. Certain colors, like red, I can make. But it’s not economically viable.

Do you make them from plants?

No, different stones. There is a stone the Arabs use that they showed me. And then there are different chemicals that can be used to make blues and greens and yellows. I do teach people how to do this—I taught people while I was in the Middle East—the only thing is I don’t teach about colors until people are proficient with clear glass.

Who do you teach?

When I was overseas, people would approach me to teach. And even here, if somebody wanted to be taught I’d be happy to teach them. I teach the whole thing, from where to get supplies to how to work sandblasters.

What is scientific glass blowing?

You know all the glassware you used in science class? The vast majority of that stuff is hand-made.

What was the most difficult skill to master?

There are two. Of all the work I’ve done, the two hardest ones are “pulling a point” [a technique using a glass tube] and building the oven. While I was there [at the museum] I had to build the oven twice.

What are you doing with glass now?

Right now I’m doing sculptures. I’ve got a sculpture in progress … it’s a female sculpture. She’ll be black, her body twisted, and a cobra wrapped around her body. Doing the human figure is a challenge. It’s something that interests me because it’s so difficult. It’s like chess—I get involved with chess not for any other reason but the puzzle.