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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Unexpected kick: glassblowing at sea

It fits the category, “What will they think of next?”
glassblowers' samples (Warren Gerds)
glassblowers' samples (Warren Gerds)

PHOTO: Glassblower Everett Herché, puts finishing touches on a piece while Tom Ryder, left, dons protective gloves and Julian Maturino engages the audience aboard a cruise ship in the Caribbean. Warren Gerds photo

AT SEA IN THE CARIBBEAN (WFRV) – Aboard a cruise ship seems a least-likely place to find a glass-blowing studio, but amazing things do happen.

On a recent 11-day cruise – my wife and I spoiled ourselves with a big anniversary present – a compelling attraction on days at sea was taking in what is called a “Hot Glass Show.”

Glass blowing is an old art. It requires tremendous amounts of fuel to keep ovens going constantly, often at the 2,000-plus degree range. It requires years of training, followed by hands-on experience. Strength, stamina, coordination and nerves of steel are musts.

To find not one but three glass blowers doing their thing aboard a 1,041-foot-long, 2,850-passenger cruise ship sailing in the Caribbean was a surprise. And delight.

The experience gave me a deeper appreciation of glass blowing. In the WFRV viewing area, Jeremy Popelka and his wife Stephanie Trenchard operate a studio in Sturgeon Bay. I’ve seen Jeremy Popelka demonstrate glass blowing and show me some of his exquisite, quick techniques in a relatively short time frame. In a matter of a minute – the amount of time he has to work with a glob of molten glass – he created a beautiful figurine as his warm-up morning exercise. What took place aboard ship took hours, with pieces being made from scratch to – step by step by step by step by step, etc. – the finished products, with sometimes all three glass blowers necessary to accomplish a precision maneuver.

The shows on the cruise ship lasted two hours, with the three glass blowers taking turns creating objects such as elaborate plates, platters, bowls, cups, vases or purely decorative pieces. Now, that sounds mundane, but these objects were made with different colored types glass with different properties that the glassblower sometimes was unsure how the molten glass would behave or turn out in color at the end. A glassblower would announce he would be making a vase, for instance, but getting to the finished product included a whole lot of ad libbing along the way. The look of the finished product was determined only when it was finished. It’s planned improvisation, sort of like jazz music. There’s a known beginning and end, but you never know quite what is going happen in the middle.

The “Hot Glass Show” studio is set up near the stern (rear end, land lubbers) of the vessel. The studio is outside, though with covering for shade. A seating area is set up for about 50 people. There is no charge to watch a show. The glassblowers are fully equipped. Additionally, there are cameras set up so the audience can see close-ups of a glassblower as he (or she; there are women among the three-person teams that do this aboard three vessels) goes through refining work on a bench.

In one furnace is a container with molten starter glass. A glassblower starts with an amount of glass at least the size of a golf ball that’s adhered to a long, hollow steel rod. More glass is added along the way depending upon the size of the object that the glassblower wants to make. A glassblower may add material from that furnace and/or add chips of colored glass by rolling the molten glass in a container filled with the chips, then rolling the chips into the molten glass on a bronze plate. Another furnace is used to heat the glass to the appropriate consistency for manipulating into shapes.

All this is more complex than I will explain here. This is a centuries-old process, after all, with as many variants as there are glassblowers. It is an individual art, just as oil painters, watercolorists and sculptors have their distinctive styles and techniques.

Fascinating as the “Hot Glass Show” is, it is funny at the same time – at least it was with the three guys on “my” cruise. While informing the audience what was taking place or what was going to happen, humor flowed continually. The three guys would josh each other, kid the audience or tell funny tales. Julian Maturino claimed all guy glassblowers have burn marks from a mishap that took place in the studio when they were trying to impress visiting girls because they weren’t paying quite enough attention to what they were supposed to be doing. Tom Ryder, the team leader, and Everett Hirché also dead-panned jokes during processes. During the setup, one guy would concentrate on the glass piece he was constructing/building/shaping/finessing, and one or both of the other guys would inform/cajole. It was marvelous entertainment. Made up on the spot. In the middle of the ocean. Here and gone in a second. Wonderful, wonderful.

The glassblowers are employees of the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, New York. Info: www.cmog.org. The glassblowers sign a contact for a certain period, and in that time they travel wherever the cruise ship goes – Caribbean, Europe, Alaska, whatever. Not a bad gig, hey? Plus, on board, they can create whatever they wish. That means they can experiment; they have materials on hand that most glass studios would not have, we were told. It’s a working vacation doing what they love to do (quite obviously demonstrated by the passion all three put into their work).

Glassblower Everett Hirché told a story that was a perspective on what the sailing glassblowers do, and perhaps on what other people do but don’t kick back and think about. The story has to do with envy. Everett Hirché said many glassblowers aspire to visit Murano, an island near Venice, Italy, that is a mecca for masterful glassblowing, with techniques precisely learned and practiced for generation upon generation. He spoke of going to Murano and telling the glass masters how much he admired and envied what they can achieve – essentially, how Murano was THE PLACE for artistic glassblowing. Everett Hirché said the master glassblowers, on learning what he did aboard ship, particularly being able to freely create at will, thought the sailing glassblowers had a better deal. It’s another case of the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. The story made me appreciate my grass for a time.

Nothing that the cruise ship glassblowers make is for sale, per se. Pieces are placed in a little glassblowing “museum” on ship or in display cases in lobbies/hallways. But passengers cannot buy individual pieces except a few that are put up for auction once a week. The auction is fun in itself. Most of the money raised goes to scholarships to the Corning Museum of Glass, with one piece auctioned to raise money for breast cancer awareness. One piece in the auction on “my” cruise went for $400, and all others topped $1,000. That’s what people thought of the quality of the pieces, though there was the factor of donation involved.

Tom Ryder, Everett Hirché and Julian Maturino are college educated. They’ve been glassblowing for around 10 years each. And still learning, each said.

Glass – as in broken glass, and nasty, sharp shards or powdered glass starter that will kill you if breathed too much. Heat – as in beyond kitchen stove and charcoal/gas home grill hot; the kind of hot HOT that takes a split second to cause lasting harm to skin. Glass and heat separate out the meek (or maybe the wise) from this art. From the sidelines, it commands attention.

“My” glassblowers said the idea for shipboard glassblowing did not come from the Corning Museum of Glass. It came from Celebrity Cruises. Hmmmmm. Cruise lines have all sorts of diversions for passengers – casinos, stage shows, lounge acts, lecturers, swimming, eating, eating some more, shops and shopping, etc. But to go to the expense and bother to install glassblowing studios – studios, plural; the line has studios on three of its vessels – to me is astounding. The venture works. The last thing I expected on “my” cruise was to sit for hours on end – mouth open, laughing with regularity – watching an involved process and having an experience I otherwise wouldn’t get.

A glassblowing studio aboard a cruise ship – what a crazy idea.

A glassblowing studio aboard a cruise ship – what a great idea.

Now, just so it’s clear: I wrote this without the knowledge of the cruise line or the glassblowers. I wrote this because I like to write, and this was something unique to write about.

You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air features on WFRV between 6 and 8 a.m. Sundays.

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