September 28th, 2020
By Veronica Vale
If you’ve ever stopped by the gallery in person, then you’ve most likely seen one of Jared Davis’ dazzling glass pieces shining in our window. Or perhaps you’ve noticed his antler chandelier hanging in the entrance to the gallery (if not, look up next time you’re entering the gallery for a stunning view!).
I know that I’ve spent enough time in the gallery, entranced by one of Davis’ glass works, to truly appreciate the splendid nuances of his glass work: the way the sun naturally illuminates each color like a brilliant lantern; the way the light casts a reflection of the piece on every nearby surface, causing it to dance across each surface like a fiery shadow; the smooth grooves carved into the work, simulating an aerial view of a desert canyon.
If you’ve ever spent similar time contemplating the beauty and complexity of one of Davis’ glass works, then you’ve likely wondered as we have, “how is this made?” Now that another one of our artists, mixed media Western artist Maura Allen, has also started incorporating glass into her body of work, we were especially curious. With a little bit of research and a whole lot of inspiration from our artists, we’ve found some answers for anyone wondering about the art and science of glass.
When Maura Allen first experimented with glass as an artistic medium, she wanted to make sure to do the media justice: “What I wanted to do was to honor the material, honor the translucency of glass, the light that transmits through it. I really wanted to understand the material and how to push the boundaries of the science of glass, not just take what I’d done on wood and steel. So, I gave myself a window to learn through online classes and tutorials with glass masters.”
Through her research, she learned of glass’ scientific properties to better understand how to manipulate the material. Glass, while a solid, is considered an amorphous solid, which means that it’s rather rigid in form but has a molecular structure that’s more like liquid, making it transparent.
The fluidity of the material when molten hot is what gives it the ability to be shaped. Jared Davis discusses what it’s like to work with this amorphic material in our Gallery MAR artist video: “Working with molten material as far as working with an artistic material, it’s not like working with stone or clay or even paint you’re working with something that feels very alive since it is molten it’s always moving so that is the challenge.”
So what about glass gives it these fluid properties? Well to get scientific, glass is composed of mostly silica (essentially a high-quality type of sand) and is usually mixed with metals, sodium dioxide (soda), and calcium oxide (lime). While the knowledge and understanding of these scientific properties may feel like a far cry from the subject of art, in reality, this science is necessary for artists wanting to work with the material. As Carlo Pantano, Ph.D., director of Materials Research Institute at Penn State says, “normally when you talk about glass, people want to know if you’re going to talk about artistic glass or scientific glass. My message is that they’re not very different.” Maura Allen aptly observes, “Through glass media, we become artist-scientists.”
“You’re working with something that feels very alive.” – Jared Davis
When Maura Allen works with glass, she typically works with just 3 millimeters of flat glass. She notes that glass wants to be 6 millimeters and will consistently try to expand to be 6 millimeters. The trick for her is holding the material, damning it, to keep it the depth she wants it to be. Learning this, glass certainly sounds as “alive” as Jared Davis describes it to be.
Glass blowing can be challenging to say the least. Jared Davis explains, “Glass blowing can be “fun and exciting but also extremely difficult, so you know as you got better at it, that you were doing something that very few people really have a chance to be good at.” He continues, “Glass like most art is an evolution, it all comes from things that came before it…techniques that have been around for thousands of years.” In fact, the art of glassblowing can be traced back to the Roman Empire and the first century B.C.
“Through glass media, we become artist-scientists.” – Maura Allen
While small glass blowing can be done alone, works of larger size or greater complexity require more hands. Jared Davis works “with a minimum of two people” for his creations, his primary partner being his wife, Nicole.
For complex glass blowing like the works of Jared and Nicole Davis, the lead glass blower (called a gaffer) blows into one end of a blowpipe of hollow iron or steel to create a bubble in the molten glass at the other end. The gaffer and their team then use various tools to shape the glass into desired form, heating the glass in a second furnace called a glory hole to prevent the glass from cooling down while they work the material.
“It’s all so fun because it’s very much like a dance.” – Jared Davis
Once the glass is shaped as the gaffer wants it, it’s carefully cooled down in a third furnace called an annealer, until the glass is sturdy and transparent. We recommend watching our video of Jared Davis and his team of glass blowers work a piece of glass into shape. As Davis says, it’s “very much like a dance.”
Learning all of the scientific principles and processes of glass as an artistic medium, we have renewed respect for the complexity of the medium and the sheer talent of our artists. Perhaps the title of “artist” no longer suffices – Jared Davis and Maura Allen have proven to be our very own artist-scientists.