Glassblowing is magic.
Anyone who has seen a demonstration—even on Netflix—will know this to be true. It has become almost all I can think about: the grumble of the furnace and reheating chamber; the smell of runny beeswax used to lubricate metal tools, as warm and tender as the most intimate hug; the feeling of patting your head and rubbing your tummy while turning the blowpipe with one hand and caressing the glass with tools in the other; the glass expanding with the heavy push of my breath; the heat from the 1000-degree furnace making my arm glow pink and my cheeks flush.
To many, I’m sure this would be scary—terrifying, even. It’s not often we interact with such a force of heat willingly. Even after having learned for a while, I have to fight against my instinct to pull away.
As a nonfiction writer, I’ve fallen into an easy trap: writing about your hobbies. Like many other budding writers, when I was young I was told to ‘write what you know’. I didn’t know much beyond books. It wasn’t until studying writing more formally at uni that I understood this advice to mean what you know emotionally: the knowledge, feelings or curiosities that burn away inside you.
The long months of Melbourne’s lockdowns in 2020 and 2021 have left me dreaming of being in the hot shop again blowing glass. I’m constantly frustrated at being unable to explore an obsession that only began shortly before the pandemic. I would make anything.
Daydreaming of the hot shop leads to reading. For a few months of 2020, I had a short contract as a customer service officer in a public library. Not long after I took the job, everything started to close, and the library became empty, harshly quiet with the computers switched off and keyboards pushed further into each desk. Not a single person lurking behind any shelf, no tissues left behind or LOTE newspapers half-read.
Library picture books and board books are often grubby, and after touching them my hands are left grimy with the residue of kids’ hands wet with half-eaten apples and crackers that only a rigorous handwashing will remove. As I crouch to shelve a handful a books, organised only the by the first letter of the author’s surname, I discover something marvellous, as if it were created only for me.
The Glassmaker’s Daughter, by Dianne Hoffmeyr and illustrated by Jane Ray. The cover shines with a gold foil, embellishing the jubilant setting of Venice, the home of glassmaking. Inside, a young girl is so desperately miserable that her father employs various artisans to cheer her up, offering a whole glass palace to whomever succeeds. In collaged illustrations, along come circus artists, mask makers and lion tamers.
A young glassblower tries his hand at cheering up the girl. His hot shop seems to be lit only the mellow orange of furnace and the glass glows brightly at the end of his blowpipe. The secret to his success is his spell:
‘Flux and fire,’ he whispered.
Then he snipped the bubble and laid it flat and smoothed on slivers of silver mercury.
‘Mercury and tin,’ he chanted.
Then he rubbed the slivers down with a hare’s paw.
‘Foiled and finished. And polished thin.’
Then he sang his secret song again.
Blowing glass is of course a science—one that I learn by doing, more so than by reading, though at hand I do have the bible: Beginning Glassblowing by Edward T Schmid, which features sketches of every beginner technique and form within reach for me.
I learn from Ruth, in her cosy converted warehouse/house in Coburg that hot glass won’t stick to cold metal. Blowpipes are warmed before glass can be gathered onto them. Hot glass also needs to cool slightly to gather more glass on top of it, otherwise it would fall off and swirl back into the furnace. Colours have different chemical properties and may heat at different temperatures to clear glass, and might obscure your vision of blowing a bubble. Each tool that shapes the glass needs lubrication. For wood and paper, this is water, but for metal it is beeswax.
But this doesn’t make it any less magical—even scientists don’t quite agree whether glass is liquid or solid, as it sits somewhere in between, or both at the same time. It droops and swirls like honey and stretches like taffy, until right before my eyes, the glowing orb becomes clearer and the glass becomes stiff and unworkable, even still at many hundreds of degrees. Molten glass can be manipulated into almost any shape, especially with wooden or metal moulds.
A few months further into the pandemic, I was starting in earnest to form the idea of a glassblowing book, and researched what was already written about the art for a general audience. There were few results. But this is where I found Elena’s Serenade by Campbell Geslin, illustrated by Ana Juan. I ordered a secondhand copy, which arrived with a slight tear in the dust jacket.
In this story a Mexican girl wishes to blow glass, but even her skilled father asks, ‘who ever heard of a girl glassblower?’. And it’s true that throughout history, glasswork has been men’s work—this still has a lasting effect on the industry. She decides to head off to Monterrey to further her skills, but she has to pretend to be a boy. She takes a blowpipe with her, and along the way learns to make music with it.
I blow, easy and then harder, pree-tat-tat, until I find all the notes for happy song called ‘Burro Serenade.’ I make the music go clip-clop, clip-clop.
Each creature she meets on her journey refrains, ‘If you can make music, I’m sure you can make glass.’ Her technique is unusual and is at first shunned by her male teachers. Once she has gathered some glass onto her blowpipe, she plays her tunes, and blows a bright star.
Later, when she wishes to return to home, she begins to blow a song about a swallow gliding over the sea. Miraculously, as she blows harder and harder, a large bird emerges, much like how I feel when spinning out a drop of glass very suddenly opens out to become a plate. ‘The swallow’s great wings stretch from one wall to the other’, and Elena’s jaw dropped in disbelief. She flies home to her Papa.
My dream day job is to be a picture book editor—a tough gig to find in the Australian publishing industry. In the shrunken days of lockdown six, I started to wonder why I most enjoy picture books that are grounded in simple realities of life—sometimes funny, but rarely in the realms of the unreal. I like lively illustrations of butterflies, rhymes about tractors, truths about Invasion Day, and lost teddies. Maybe I still have a romantic idea of childhood that I’m reluctant to lose. As I’m thinking about this, I come across a business in Sydney that sells French kids’ books and chance upon Le Souffleur de Rêves by Bernard Villiot, illustrated by Thibault Prugne. Even with my still-intermediate French, I know what this is going to be.
Picture books about glassblowing are the perfect combination of dreamlike delight and reality and science. Glassblowing almost shouldn’t be real, and these books stretch the limits of the form into something safer yet even more enchanted, with enormous gathers of glass on the blowpipes, the breath trapped inside creating butterflies and sunsets. While the BFG steals and bottles dreams, in this story Zorzi blows glass bubble dreams out the children of Venice, whose parents are thankful for the restful nights.
It is a strange privilege to learn such an old artform. In another picture book, A Thousand Glass Flowers by Evan Turk, I learn about Marietta Barovier, who in the 1400s became famous for reviving the technique of floral glass beads, cut cross-sections of carefully organised coloured canes of glass. Turk’s illustrations have the oranges, reds and purples of the hot glass bleeding into each other, the magic unable to be contained. Young Marietta’s eyes are as radiant as a Pixar character’s every time she sees hot glass.
I find myself caring more for the process of making than for the finished pieces, though only marginally. Giving away my pieces to family is mostly easy, especially as under the guidance of Ruth, my confidence in my skills slowly improves. I’ve been told it will take ten years to feel good at it, but already with Ruth’s laid-back New Zealand accent shouting ‘wahoo!’ as I finish off a bottle or a vase, I’m better than even an hour or two before. The wizardry of doing it for the first time will never be lost. I don’t think I want to be an artist, just someone who blows glass because they can’t stop.
Clare Millar is a writer, editor and bookseller based on unceded Wurundjeri land. Her writing has appeared in Kill Your Darlings, Overland and The Guardian, among others. In 2022, she will be Canberra Glassworks’ inaugural Writer in Residence.