Fahrenheit 2100

Date June 30, 2008

Striving and Thriving

The witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth were referring to their potion when they said Fire burn, and cauldron bubble. Their heavy, solid metal cauldron could withstand the heat. But throw it into a glassblowers’ furnace, where glass is kept molten at 2100 degrees Fahrenheit, and the cauldron really would bubble.

Watching glassblowers work in their industrial studio invokes more than a passing thought of magic. They create pieces that are translucent and colorful, majestic yet fragile. They balance the classical elements, combining earth, air, and fire, while keeping water at bay. It’s modern-day alchemy.

The Alchemists’ Beginnings

Clifton Crofford, Kevin McGehee, and Mark Alexander wrangle the elements at CMA Glassblowing Studio. They’ve had their own studio for about four years in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. They trained together for many years at the glassblowing hot shop at the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA).

None of them entered college planning to study glassblowing. Two of them were studying graphic art and the other was studying architecture. Each of their degree plans called for an art elective. Glassblowing was interesting. Working with fire sounded very cool. Turns out they were right.

Playing With The Elements

In a hot shop, molten glass is kept in a furnace that is always heated to around 2100 degrees. Since most things melt at that temperature, the basin for holding the glass is made of a special ceramic. Glassblowers reach into the furnace with long poles that have holes through the middle for blowing. They swirl the amount of molten glass they need onto the pole and start working it.

Working it includes spinning it, blowing air into the center for expanding the shape, and expanding it while the glass is in a mold to give it a certain shape like fluting. As the glass being worked starts to cool, the glass artist puts it back into the middle of a smaller furnace called a glory hole for a few seconds to heat it back up and then continues working it. Glory holes are kept close to 1600 degrees Fahrenheit. In front of each glory hole, support frames are mounted on metal tables with wheels on tracks that are attached to the floor. The pole with the glass is laid across the support frame so the glassblower can move the pole deeper into the furnace and pull it out by rolling the table on the track.

Cool Tools

Glassblowers use metal tools on the molten glass to help give it shape while they spin it. They use heavy shears for cutting the ends of strands of the fluid glass and other tools for twisting and shaping the strands. They have small sheets of glass that look paper-thin which they can heat and add to a project when they need handles, rings, rims, or color. These steps are done as quickly as possible because it’s important to keep the glass from cooling. If it cools too quickly it cracks, but if it heats too much it loses the shape it has taken.

And they get to a use a blowtorch. It’s a large diameter, high intensity gas torch that blasts like a flamethrower. It’s used for heating up a piece being worked when it’s not feasible to return it to the glory hole.

Dramatic To The End

Obviously a hot shop stays very hot, even with great ventilation. Near the furnaces, where the glassblowers work, it gets well over 100 degrees and often over 120. The heat causes the glass artists to sweat, introducing another dangerous element to the mix. A single drop of water on a tiny portion of a piece being formed will cause a small crack. A crack makes the whole piece unstable so a single drop can ruin it.

Pieces that make it successfully through the twisting, blowing, shaping, forming, and clipping are put in a special cool-down box. It starts around 910 degrees and goes through a ten-hour cycle to drop to room temperature. Only after the end of the cool-down cycle will the glassblower be able to tell if a piece is stable and whole. Even the colors may change slightly during cool-down. This means after the blasting flames and the sweating and the tiring physical work, there is still mystery and uncertainty. The artist doesn’t get to find out until the next day exactly how each piece turned out.

Hooked

The glass hot shop at UTA worked its alchemy on Cliff, Kevin, and Mark during their introductory classes. Their elemental interests and talents were refined and clarified and their distractions started to burn away. Each returned to the hot shop for more classes and eventually shifted his focus in school to glasswork. Through years of training at the university they got to know each other well. When it was time for them to set up their own operation, they went into business together.

UTA had just upgraded its hot shop when Cliff, Kevin, and Mark were ready to set up their own studio. Since they helped with the renovation at UTA they knew how to put together a hot shop. They were able to build their own equipment, including a cool-down box made out of a converted cooler from a convenience store. They started with an empty shell, built it out to install the furnaces, and made everything they could by themselves. That saved them a lot of money.

The Artists’ Model For Business

Early on they focused on creating some pieces that were functional but artistic and others that were sculptural and artistic with no specific function. Their business model was to sell their work through high-end galleries. They were seeing steady progress for a while, until the economy stalled. High-end sales were down about twenty-five percent this past Christmas.

This disrupted their long-term plans in a big way. The guys work at the hot shop in the morning and have other jobs in the afternoon and evening to help pay their bills. The shop doesn’t generate enough profit to provide a full-time salary for each of them but they had been moving closer to that point. The collapse of high-end artistic sales got them to reconsider their business model.

The Entrepreneurs’ Model For Art

They started focusing more on custom work. For example, they have created pieces used by exclusive retailer Neiman-Marcus in their jewelry departments. They partner with large-scale designers who want sculptural glass for buildings. This allows them to create enormous and elaborate structural pieces without incurring the cost of installing or insuring the pieces. They meet with the designer, get the basic guidelines, agree on a price, and then get to create.

They are partnering with another designer by creating long organic pieces that will hang from a gigantic chandelier. They are making some smaller artistic pieces for a colleague to use in her booth at an exhibit. The blown pieces will add balance to her cut glass work. They are also creating sconces and fixture covers for a lighting company. They were chosen to do that because they are able to replicate shapes that are brought to them, including other glass pieces.

Elements of Success

This model has been effective in two significant ways. First, focusing on custom work has brought in more immediate revenue. Second, they’re able to spend their time doing what they love doing and are best at: blowing glass. The reputation they are building is based on their exquisite work with glass. They won’t have to venture into high-end art sales or architectural installation or starting a lighting fixture company to be successful.

Finding a way to keep their focus on the glasswork has energized Cliff, Kevin, and Mark. They’re able to see how they will grow their success through this model until the studio provides a comfortable living for all of them. They’ve discovered the power of partnering with people who are good at sales, marketing, and project management, which would be distractions if they had to do them. They are free to work from their gifts, talents, and passions, which are the elements of real success.

One Response to “Fahrenheit 2100”

  1. Pablo said:

    Great Post!
    Is there a book in the works?
    Steve, you’re a modern-day “Pontifex Maximus!”