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1945 - Cattle-rustling "Phantom of Vasquez Rocks" captured [story]
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Take a Hike | Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel
| Sunday, Feb 15, 2015

DianneErskineHellrigelMy family has always been creative. We’ve had composers, opera singers, dancers, singers, musicians and glass blowers.

My grandmother used to keep me in rapt attention as she would describe her Czechoslovakian cousin, Vaclav Stepanek, blowing objects of art and useful items such as hand-blown goblets.

My mother had a collection of more than over 300 handmade goblets that were all stolen in the latter part of her life. The value of the goblets ranged from $200 each to $10,000 each. Thus, I was inspired to collect some of these goblets myself.

Many of my mother’s goblets were up to 200 years old and made of fragile glass from Italy and Czechoslovakia. Today they are very hard to find, but I’ve managed to build my collection up to 50 goblets. They are so delicate and fragile that they have become objects of art that I display rather than using them as drinking goblets.

Both Venetian and Czech glass is world-renowned for being colorful, elaborate, and made by the most skilled of artisans. The characteristics of these glass objects were developed as far back as the 13th  Century.

Byzantine craftsmen played an important role in the development of this art glass. By the 16th century, they had mastered the color and complete transparency of the glass. They had also mastered decorative techniques. The oldest Venetian glass company still in existence today is Barovier and Toso, which was founded in 1295.

The process of making glass objects is rather complex. I have been taking glass-blowing classes in Santa Barbara for more than a year, and I have yet to master the techniques.

IMG_8877Glass is made from silica, which liquefies at a high temperature. As the glass passes from liquid to a solid state, there is a short time when the glass is soft before it hardens completely. This is when the glass master can shape the material.

Other materials used are called melting agents, which allow the glass to soften at lower temperatures. The more sodium oxide present in the glass, the slower it solidifies. This is vital if the glass is to be worked by hand, since it gives the artisan (and the student) more time to shape the material into the finished object.

Sodium reduces the melting temperature. Nitrate and arsenic eliminate bubbles, and colorings and opacifying substances can be added to give the glass its final appearance.

IMG_8869To make the simple objects as a student, we begin with a blowing pipe, and we gather molten glass. Then we cool the pipe with the help of a drip system. The glass glob on the end of the pipe becomes cooler and malleable. Then we return to the furnace for a second gather. Now we have enough base glass to work with.

The next step is to form the glass by rolling it on a cool metal table. Then, we must reheat before going any further.

The entire time you’re working the glass, you must spin the blowing pipe or the glass will fall off. You must spin not too fast and not too slow … it’s almost like your own private ballet.

Next, you pick up bits of colored glass which you then melt into your glass glob. You can repeat this step as many times as you wish to achieve the result you’re after. Then, you reheat the glass, take it to the blowing table, and blow, blow, blow. Mind you, you are still turning the blowing pipe. You now have a globe of glass.

It is time to transfer your blown piece from the blowing tube to the ponti stick (pontello). So you gather a small amount of molten glass on the end of the ponti stick. This glass becomes the ponti on the base of your object. You apply it to the bottom, wet the top of your object near the blowing tube and smack it. If all goes well, the object is now on the ponti stick and it has broken free from the blowing tube. If it has not gone well, you have to start over. Your object of art is on the floor.

Let’s assume it has gone well. You must now return your item to the furnace to heat the glass again to its malleable stage. Once it reaches this point, you can quickly turn, turn, turn it to form a bowl, or return to the blowing table where you can use a borselle (tongs that are used to form glass).

Beginners can usually complete a simple bowl, drinking glass, paperweight or possibly a pitcher or vase. My favorite projects are pitchers and vases. Pitchers are fun because you get to apply the handle after you’ve formed the body of the pitcher. And of course, it’s easy to mess it up at this point, too. Vases are great because I love flowers, and it is great fun to fill a vase you’ve made with flowers all over the house.

If you’re an artisan, you decorate your object of art with mille fiori (1,000 flowers), filigree (a type of caning), or you can paint it with enamel, engrave it, cut it or layer it. Many glassmakers employ more than one of these techniques.

Today, most glass is made with the help of molds. It’s fast and cheap. But there is nothing like holding a one-of-a-kind object of art in your hand, knowing that someone who loved the great art of glass blowing poured his soul into the making of this glass piece perhaps hundreds of years before you were born. It is an art that I love.


Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel is executive director of the Community Hiking Club and president of the Santa Clara River Watershed Conservancy. If you’d like to be part of the solution, join the Community Hiking Club’s Stewardship Committee. Contact Dianne through communityhikingclub.org or at zuliebear@aol.com.



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