#4 Learning the Ropes

Learning to blow, no mugs, Jingles, the crit, the movement
The first semester of 1968 started and here I was now 30 years old with an assistantship, an MFA in Ceramics, and also starting over as a student in glass studies. To be honest I really didn’t care all that much about learning a new skill but what the hell Henry have fun with it.

On day one Harvey came into the class and gathered us all together and he picked up a blow pipe gathered some glass and blew a big bubble, smashed it on the floor, picked up a wafer thin piece and showed us how flexible it was. He lectured us on the physical characteristics of glass or something on that order. That was my introduction to glass.

The question is how did we learn to blow glass if there was no one other than Harvey teaching? I have to tell you that Harvey was not a glass blower. He knew little of the traditional techniques of glass blowing and never ever demonstrated anything that one could call traditional glass blowing. We did ask him once to show us how to make a goblet and that did not turn out all that well. He was an excellent potter but he was not a glass blower. Here’s where it gets interesting. Harvey was very adamant about what we, as his students, were to make. He did not want us to make containers. He wanted us to make art, glass sculpture, no mugs, jugs, or bowls. Harvey as an artist did not use glass in the traditional sense of the word. His glass was all sculptural and that is what he wanted from us. He also did not want us to work in teams as they did in the factory. He wanted us to work independently. He wanted a total break from how the glass factories produced work. Regardless of what you made with glass it did require the learning of traditional techniques, gathering, marvering, blowing a bubble and how to manipulate the tools among a host of other techniques. It was very unlike what I knew about working with clay. For those of us who were beginners we learned from those other students who had a previous years experience. I began by watching and trying to emulate what I saw the more experienced students do. It should be noted that Harvey had brought over from Germany Erwin Eisch and his assistant as well as Sybren Valkema from the Netherlands to present workshops the year prior to my getting there. I was told that they were very helpful in assisting the students in some of the glass techniques.

As an aside I should mention that when I was at Harvey’s studio there was a room that had a couple of dozen small glass figures in both black and white glass. They were of a very expressionistic style and I was really taken with them. I asked Harvey about them and he told me that Erwin Eisch had made them the year before. I have to say my coming in contact with the work that Erwin had made and had left with Harvey had a profound influence on my attitude toward what glass could be. In my mind Erwin had captured the essence of what glass could be much as Pete Voulkous had done with clay. It was a total break with the decorative and traditional element of the material that permeated much of what was being done in clay and glass. Yes there were others but those two artists had the greatest influence on my psyche.

As the semester continued I became more and more experienced with the material and the traditional techniques as we knew them.

One day a yellow Chevy Suburban pulled up to the studio and Fritz Dreisbach walked into the studio carrying blow pipes and a box of glass blowers tools. Fritz had graduated a year or so before I arrived and had “mastered” some of the techniques we were struggling with. This was to be my first experience with someone who could actually teach glass blowing. Fritz demonstrated and we emulated what he showed us. One thing I remember is that he had four pieces of aluminum that were from waffle maker. Each element fit into a holder and when he blew into it and lifted up the glass the aluminum pieces fell away and the glass had the waffle indentations on each side. It was to say the least a magic trick. Fritz hung out for a few days and we watched and learned. Fritz would return every once in awhile and help us with our work. Fritz was the teachers teacher. My friendship with Fritz continued up to this day.

Harvey held class every Wednesday but our class was a breakfast at the local motel restaurant just down the street from the glass lab. Harvey would give a sort of lecture on different subjects. One day he would bring in a collection of Indian arrow heads and talk about them. To be honest I really don’t remember much else of what happened during those sessions but we did get a good breakfast. Harvey would come to the hot shop once in awhile and take a look at what we were doing but he usually did not spend much time with us and that was okay. Unlike the other glass students I only had one other class and that was a ceramics class with Don Reitz. I spent many hours in the glass studio struggling with learning how to blow glass as well as make sculptural objects.

As time went on we were able to combine the making of glass sculptures along with the making of cups and bowls. Fritz had taught us to make handles for our mugs and that led to an interesting relationship with Jingles O’Brien. Jingles had a bar on Monroe St. just behind the glass studio and it was called Jingles, go figure. Every once in awhile some of us would take the mugs we had made to the Jingles bar and Jingles would give us free beer in our mugs but we had to give the mug to him when we finished. He also had a small grill behind the bar and we would have a rib eye along with our beer. Now you should know our mugs were not very big and were very thick and did not hold much beer but we were excited to be able to make something that held beer and we could drink out of. Jingles displayed our mugs behind his bar and he had quite a collection of very misshapen mugs. I returned to Madison some years ago and went to see if Jingles bar was still there but it was gone and I guess his mug collection as well.

At the end of the semester we had our final crit. Here was our chance to show the work we had done during the semester. It was an unwritten rule that we would not show any functional work only our sculptural works and we did. Harvey was a good critic and we listened to what he had to say about our work. The crits lasted most of the morning and a good part of the afternoon.

Up to this point I’ve seemingly been a bit tough on Harvey but that is not my intention. All of us should be grateful for what he had the vision to start. His insistence that we make art and not craft, and I use that term loosely, was very prescient insofar as his demand on going beyond the container tradition helped us to understand the full potential of the material. Because of Harvey we were able to break the mold of tradition and bring glass into a new American tradition, that being the personal small studio and the glass maker as the designer and creator. Not unlike what the potters had been doing for many years.

What Harvey’s students and their progeny started eventually became known as the “Studio Glass Movement”. I guess it was a "movement" at one time but 61 years have passed and it’s no longer a movement as glass has established itself into our mainstream. Not only can one find small glass studios throughout the U.S. but on every continent as well. We’ve seen the demise of the old established glass factories on this continent and in their place small cottage industry style studios have emerged. Harvey’s vision has come full circle.

Addendum: In May of 1976 the Glass Art Society held its conference at the Corning Museum, in Corning N.Y. At that time Tom Buechner, the director of the Corning Museum delivered a speech outlining the studio glass movement, as it was referred to at the time, as he perceived it. I believe what he had to say really codified what was taking place within our glass world. To me his words still ring true and I include it here for you to download and read. I would like to know what you think of what Buechner had to say. So if you are so inclined let me know by sending me an email. Download Buechner Speech

ErwinEisch-SJSC004_colorSAI_result. Eisch Pieces copy. Harvey copy. Harvey at work -small. tom buechner copy

Erwin Eisch and some work (photo by David Hopper) - Harvey
blowing - Harvey relaxing - Tom Buechner in his studio