Hold My Hot GlassMay 01, 2022 09:00AM ● By Karey Solomon
The evolution of wine and glass technologies are as interdependent as the spiral of a double helix. In ancient times, when the fermented juice of grapes was used in religious rituals as well as celebratory occasions, it might have been served in a special vessel made for the purpose. Jump forward a few thousand years to advances in glassmaking, and you’ll see glasses and storage vessels representing an evolution in the way we think of libations. Their variety is itself also a nod to the innovations of glass artisans, whose craft is applied to making the useful also beautiful. The Fire and Vine exhibit at the Corning Museum of Glass, showing through December, highlights this shared history and ongoing partnership.
When you come to CMoG for the history—Fire and Vine—don’t pass up the chance to see the present and the future of glass. In the various Hot Shops, master glass artisans, with support crew assistance, create singular works. The audience seems to hold its collective breath as globs of molten glass are gathered around the end of a steel tube. From the moment the first bit of red-hot glass is withdrawn from the “glory hole” of the glass furnace to the point when the newly-made glass object is carefully tapped from the rod, there are often hundreds of people watching raptly. Video screens allow observers to see the glowing interior of the glass ovens, as well as close-ups of skilled glassworkers shaping the glass with breath, tools, and skill. All the while, a narrator describes the finer points of what’s happening.
“We put as much emphasis on describing the process and sharing what’s happening as with making the object itself,” says Eric Meek, manager of the Hot Glass program, celebrating its twenty-fifth year in 2022. Eric says it’s one thing to watch the process, “but the magic is [that] there is a professional glassmaker working and a professional glassmaker narrating to give everyone a deeper level of engagement.”
Eric became fascinated with glass during college. An undergraduate science major, he took a glassmaking elective, then came to Corning to take a summer workshop at the Studio of the Corning Museum of Glass, a glassmaking school behind the museum where an international roster of glassmakers teach short courses.
“I realized Corning is the center of the glass universe,” he says. “Corning kept calling me back.” He majored in art in graduate school and came back to work in Corning during the summer, becoming particularly fascinated by techniques of the Venetian glassmaking tradition.
“Glassmaking is mysterious,” Eric continues. “It’s something not a lot of people know about. Almost no one has the experience of working molten glass, the texture, the viscosity of the material. As a narrator you’re the gatekeeper to that experience.” When Eric demonstrates at the furnace, he supplies some of the narration himself.
“One of the things that makes this place so attractive for a glassmaker is what you make is open to whatever you want to explore—without limits—as long as it’s a great demo,” he says. “It’s very liberating personally.”
In the twenty-five years of hot glass demonstrations, Corning has recruited some of the most skilled and experienced glassmakers from around the world to take a star turn at the furnace. Most of what they’re creating is functional art like bowls, pitchers, vases, and mugs, but some artists make more intricate work in the twenty to thirty minutes they’re allotted.
Until recently, when the audience left at the end of the show, the work was quietly recycled in the furnace. But lately the gaffers have begun relocating many of the finished objects to an annealing kiln, where they’re heated to not-quite melting temperature, then slowly cooled to stabilize the inner structure of the glass. Perhaps a day later, the pieces are moved to a display in the museum’s lower level gift shop, where they’re available for sale.
For just over twenty years, a second demonstration studio known as the Mobile Hot Shop has taken to the roads for deployment at museums and special events across the country. Their first engagement was at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. The trailer went via airplane to Australia in 2005 for a five-week tour, and has been to Europe several times.
As it uses a custom-made trailer containing a melting furnace holding 300 pounds of molten glass—“That’s the beating heart,” Eric says—a reheating furnace, two annealing ovens, and all the extra supplies and equipment needed to put on a variety of hot glass demonstrations, the Mobile Hot Shop is more often driven than flown to its scheduled venue. When it arrives, a team of glassmakers meet it, set it up, unfold its stage and canopy, and fire up the furnaces. It takes several days to both heat and, later, cool. “Typically, we do one to two weeks of programming,” Eric says, before the whole business moves to a new site.
So, the next time you raise your glass of Finger Lakes wine or local craft beer, admire the glass itself for the work of art it may well be. The Fire and Vine exhibit is up through the end of the year. The museum is open seven days a week, year-round, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Memorial Day through Labor Day; it closes at 5 p.m. the rest of the year. You can purchase tickets online at cmog.org, where you’ll find information about admission prices, current shows, and other information to enhance your visit. Or call (800) 732-6845.