Learning How to Make It, Break It and Blow it
The sky outside the Corning Museum of Glass was gray. Inside, enormous windows and 500 transparent, translucent and opaque skylights squeezed every ounce of natural light from that dull afternoon to bring out the best in the thousands of historic and contemporary glass items on display.
Kim Thompson, the museum’s Media and Public Relations Manager, greeted Simon, Otto and me, then ushered us into the wing housing the Contemporary Art + Design Galleries. This airy, open space is home to the largest display of contemporary glass art in the world. With just over two hours in which to tour a museum requiring more than twice that amount of time, Kim hit all the high notes. The result was a never-to-be-forgotten experience, and a strong determination to return to do this fascinating combination of beauty, history and innovation justice.
The Contemporary Art + Design Galleries are comprised of a porch area and five themed galleries. The pieces in this wing represent the last 30 years in glass art. Despite the fact glassblowing has its roots in ancient Rome, it is still done much the same way today.
In the Nature Gallery, an enormous bowl of large, colorful, multi-textured glass fruit grabbed our attention. The fruit looked so real, if it hadn’t been for its size, it would have been tempting to take a big bite out of the apple. It certainly would have been crunchy.
Gazing upward, the eye was captured by traditional and modern – not used for lighting – sparkling chandeliers, throwing colored light from a wide array of facets. But the most powerful chandelier of all was down on the floor.
This was an artist’s poignant representation of the decline of glassmaking in Venice. A blood red chandelier lay in pieces, as crows picked over it. The crows carried bits of the glass in their beaks.
The glass, for obvious reasons, wasn’t touchable, but one artist, at the request of the museum, created a small touchable sample of the work she had on display. The piece itself was called “Continuous Mile”, a coiled mile-long rope covered with 4.5 million tiny black glass beads. The sample enabled me to trace the patterns the artist had made with the beads on the rope.
A piece called “Evening” blinked out a poem in Morse Code, which was simultaneously translated on a screen. Life-size dresses made a fashion statement in cast glass. And a pyramid changed colors depending on the angle from which you viewed it. This piece was split down the center, giving the effect of glowing from within. These and many other works of fascinating glass art occupied us until it was time for one of several glassblowing demonstrations held at the Corning Museum of Glass daily.
“It takes 20 minutes and 10 years to blow a piece of glass,” Kim told us as we settled in to watch Lauren create a blue vase. A group of Chinese tourists was present that day, so the narrative accompanying Lauren’s progress was echoed in Mandarine by one of the Corning Museum of Glass’s three translators in that language.
Lauren worked with 2,100 degree glass. It was hotter than lava, and the consistency of honey. Using one end of an iron blow pipe, she gathered the amount of glass she needed to complete her vase. Iron is a poor conductor of heat, so Lauren could get her hands close to the glass.
I could smell the wooden tools Lauren used as they came into contact with the hot glass. She used wet newspaper to create steam for shaping the vase, and the smell changed.
Using tweezers and sheers, Lauren completed the vase. Then two glass bowls were randomly given to audience members. Kim told us the museum doesn’t sell any of the pieces made during demos. They are either give them away at raffles, or put into the hands of appreciative glass lovers in other ways.
Following the glassblowing demo, we had to choose between seeing the museum’s collections of ancient glass going back 3,500 years and participating in a glass breaking demo. A tough decision for a history lover with a need to vent.
The Glass Breaking
The demo had already begun by the time we arrived, and I never caught the name of the gentleman doing the honors. He was showing the audience the technique of ‘score and crack’ used to make a clean break in the glass. This is how light bulbs and drinking glasses are made.
Our host then went on to explain how, when glass is cooled evenly, it’s stronger. Cooling glass in open air, is the best way to insure the cooling will be uneven.
After describing the properties of four types of glass, it was time for me to take the stage and attempt to break each one of them.
The window glass shattered with one pull of the lever. (You didn’t really think I’d be allowed to smash glass with my bear hands, did you?) It broke into uneven shards with sharp edges.
The safety glass consisted of two sheets of window glass with a layer of melted plastic inserted between them. It broke, but the plastic held the shards together.
The tempered glass was made the same way as safety glass, but had been reheated. This, too, broke, but my bubble was burst when we were told that the piece used to break the glass had a point that was able to pierce it. When tempered glass does break, the pieces are even with no sharp shards.
The Bologna vial was a glass bulb that behaved like an egg. Although I smashed down on it with all my strength, it wouldn’t break. This was in spite of the fact this glass is cooled in open air. Because of it’s shape, it wouldn’t smash any more than an egg when you squeeze it. But a measly wire destroyed the vial from the inside.
The Glassblowing Experience
Once my need to break something had been satisfied, it was time for Simon and me to create something. Kim introduced us to Jackie, a glass blower for the Corning Museum of Glass for 14 years.
We chose the simple pieces each of us would make, our colors and whether we wanted a smooth or ridged surface. Then the process began.
I went first. Jackie did an excellent job of explaining each step, and what was going on at the other end of the blow pipe. She showed me a finished piece, so I could feel what my piece would hopefully be like.
The pipe was about two arm-lengths long and fitted with a cardboard tube surrounding my end. Jackie used her end to gather the glass from a tub with a capacity of 500 pounds of glass.
Jackie dotted on the colors, and created the ridges. All I did was hold the pipe like a straw and blow on command, while she controlled the other end of the pipe.
I had no idea what was going on at Jackie’s end of the pipe. I blew long, even breaths, as she turned the pipe. A couple of times, she took the pipe from me in order to reheat the glass.
Finally, Jackie said, “You’re almost done.” She told me to blow softly into the pipe, while she used a tool to stretch the glass at the far end to create a point. Then, I heard a clunk, as she knocked the glass from the pipe. The hole in the glass was the size of a pencil. Jackie used clear glass to fill the hole and fashion a hook with which to hang the teardrop glass ball she and I had just created.
After I finished, it was Simon’s turn to blow some glass. Because our creations would be too hot to handle for some time, Jackie took down our address, and when we arrived home, we had our two glass window ornaments awaiting us.
This hands-on glassblowing experience isn’t included with your museum ticket, and neither is the shipping.
The Corning Museum of Glass was founded in 1951 by the company then known as Corning Glass Works. The museum was the company’s gift to the community and the entire nation in celebration of the 100th anniversary of Corning Glass Works.
Today, the company is known worldwide as Corning Incorporated. And the museum it founded over half a century ago entices, entertains, educates and delights almost half a million visitors each year.
But the museum isn’t satisfied with it’s brick and mortar building as the sole way in which people can appreciate, learn from and create glass. If you take a cruise on one of three Celebrity Cruise ships – the “Solstice”, the “Equinox” or the “Eclipse” – you can indulge yourself in glassmaking demos, classes and lectures.
On the home front, the Corning Museum of Glass has a tractor trailer that can take museum exhibitions anywhere in the Lower 48. And containers designed to safely transport exhibitions to museums abroad in cargo ships, give people worldwide a taste of what can be accomplished with glass. “Our mission is to tell the world about glass,” Kim explained, “and sometimes, to do that, we have to take glass out into the world.”
More artists today are expanding their options by creating pieces in glass. Although they have no experience working with this medium, these artists collaborate with glass blowers to transform their ideas into glass. The museum’s Glass Lab invites artists and designers to bring their ideas and sketches. They work with glass blowers who bring their creations to life.
For the more technical-minded, the Innovation Center offers hands-on exhibits. There, visitors can enjoy learning about non-artsy, but critical concepts behind optics, vessels, and windows.
Should you catch the glass bug, the Corning Museum of glass offers one-day, weekend, or multiple-week courses in its glassmaking school year round. And for the hard-core historian, the Rakow Research Library is the museum’s home to the world’s foremost archive and reference collection on the history of glassmaking.
Kim helped us pack an amazing number of experiences into the short amount of time we had. Our biggest take-away? Well, there are, in fact, two. First, we want to return to the Corning Museum of Glass, and take our time exploring the entire facility. Then there is the realization of the miracle of glass.
The Corning Museum of Glass is in the Finger Lakes area, conveniently located midway between NYC and Niagara Falls. Between the wineries, historic sites, spectacular scenery and endless outdoor activities, a family could spend an entire week, and not scratch the surface of what this area has to offer. The town of Corning itself is a treasure trove of history, architecture and fabulous food.
From history to art, technology to education, entertainment to sensory experience, all the bases can be covered for the entire family at the Corning Museum of Glass in a few hours. There is simply nothing like it in the world.
If You Go
- The Corning Museum of Glass is wheelchair accessible.
- Tours in sign language and for individuals who are blind and vision impaired can be pre-arranged at least two weeks in advanced.
- Exhibits are appropriate for individuals of all ages, and visitors 17 and under are admitted free of charge.
- In-depth information is available on your smart phone as you tour the museum’s exhibits via GlassApp.
- Ipads are available on loan.
- Forty Mobile phone charging stations are available throughout the museum.
- It will take approximately four-and-a-half hours to tour the entire museum, attend free demonstrations and participate in other activities.
- The Corning Museum of Glass has its own cafe. And one of the largest gift shops in the country
- A free shuttle is available.
If you visit The Corning Museum of Glass between May 20, 2017 and January 7, 2018 You have a unique treat in store. A temporary exhibition featuring the glass mosaics of Louis C. Tiffany will take your breath away. Experience the innovative artistry that produced Tiffany’s priceless pieces Through exquisite new photography, high-definition gallery projections, and interactive activities
Information on the museum’s permanent and temporary exhibitions, as well as hours and ticket prices can be found on The Corning Museum of Glass website.
The Corning Museum of Glass
One Museum Way
Corning, NY 14830
+1 (800) 732-6845 or +1 (607) 937-5371