Last Sunday was the day I had been waiting for for months—the first melt with my Dragon. We arrived at the art center around 8:30 and immediately started unloading the trailer and setting up. I had everything in position and assembled in about an hour. I hooked up the gas, and began the startup sequence—checking valves, turning on the blower, adjusting the air to the point it seemed to light up best on Thursday, setting the torch to point at the burner head, and then opening the gas valve. As I opened the valve and watched the needle gauge begin to climb, my heart raced. It couldn’t have been more than a couple of seconds, but everything slowed down for me as I waited for ignition. Then whoooosh, the flame roared to life all at once, the blower sound suddenly drowned by the sound of the flames.
I stepped back for a moment and then realized that I hadn’t put any glass in the pot to melt! I turned the gas off and let the flames go out. Thinking it would be easier to feed the dragon if she wasn’t breathing fire at me, I let her cool for a few minutes while I gathered the dragon food and a metal scoop to shovel it into the pot. I tried to pile the nuggets as instructed, with more to the edges of the pot and less at the center, but the pot is so small that it was rather difficult to get them to stay this way. Once the pot was full I went through the light up again. With flames licking the top of the glass nuggets I closed the door of the furnace.
I had a few small tasks to finish setting up, but for the most part all that was left was waiting for the furnace to get hot and the glass to melt. In most things I am extraordinarily patient, in this I was not. I was the closest I had ever been to blowing glass out of my own furnace and I just wanted to get to it! As the clock ticked away minutes, and minutes turned to hours, I got increasingly antsy. Having lit up just before 10:00, I expected to be approaching go time by 1:00. Around 12:30 I decided the wiser move was to go for a walk. Ed was at the studio so if anything odd came up he could call me back, so I was comfortable leaving.
A little after 1:00 we got back and the furnace looked less hot. I approached and opened the door, and discovered that I had run out of propane, there was no flame inside! With the noise of the studio glory hole Ed hadn’t been able to hear the sputtering sound of the emptying tank. It was a setback, but we had another tank on hand and got her lit back up as quickly as possible. With a window of 40 minutes in which it could have been off, my walk to avoid more waiting had backfired.
By 2:00 when I check, the glass was molten on top, but I could see through the clear smooth puddle at the surface to solid nuggets still in the pot. It dawned on me that the reflective glassy surface was insulating the glass deeper in the pot—by feeding the dragon when it was cold rather than preheating the pot I had further lengthened the time it would take to melt.
I was thankful that the open studio event went on with Ed doing demonstrations out of the studio furnace so that my exercise in waiting and chasing the learning curve could exist in the background rather than front and center. I had the opportunity to talk to people who were there about what the dragon was, and explain that it was the first time I was melting glass, but that it would be a fully mobile hot shop that could travel to events, street fairs, schools, etc. There was a lot of excitement about it which helped me stay positive.
A bit after 3:00, all evidence of solid glass was finally gone, and the bubbles that had formed the air trapped between the nuggets were rising to the surface. I decided that it was time to take my first gather—it was still stiffer than ideal, but it was hot enough to work with and I couldn’t stand to wait any longer. I moved my brand new blowpipes into position on the pipe warmer—hot glass won’t stick to cold metal, and less-than-fully-hot glass really won’t stick. I set out the colored frit and powders that I planned to use for my first piece.
My heart raced as I stood in front of the open furnace, pipe in hand, poised for the moment I had been waiting for. Slight yellow flames licking out of the mouth of the dragon, I perched the blowpipe on the yoke, and extended it towards the surface of the glass. I pushed the head of the pipe into the molten glass and began turning, gathering the hot glass like honey. I raised the pipe above the surface of the pot, continuously turning it as the glass trailed off until it broke free. Due to the lower than normal temperature I held the gather up in the flame for a few moments to add more heat, and then brought the pipe back to my bench for the first time. I blew into the mouthpiece of the pipe and popped a bubble into the glass.
As I inflated the bubble further I noticed that the inside of the bubble had taken on some color, which was unusual. It appears that there was some form of off-gassing from the brand new pipe, causing a silvery patina on the bubble inside. I let the glass cool enough to gather over, and returned to the furnace to get more glass. I plunged the glass bubble into the pot, turning the pipe as I did to gather as much as I could. The strange coating inside the bubble glowed bright orange from the heat when I brought it out of the furnace. As I blew into the pipe again the bubble grew and the silvery coating turned to tiny beads of silver with clear space in between the beads. As soon as I had seen the strange color I had abandoned my original intent to add colored glass to the piece, and instead decided to make an otherwise clear ornament to best be able to see whatever it was that happened on the inside. I finished shaping it into a ball, and opted to put it away in the studio annealer rather than risk losing the piece in the CAT-60 annealer that I had yet to attempt using.
I returned to the furnace to make a second piece, and to make the first piece I had intended to create—a dragon egg. I reheated the same pipe, to minimize the chances of another off-gassing, and took another generous gather. I shaped the glass with my new wooden blocks at the bench, popped a bubble inside, and brought it back to the dragon to reheat. When the glass was sufficiently hot I began adding coats of blue and turquoise glass frit, bringing the pipe back to the dragon to melt in each coat, careful not to allow any of the colored glass to fall into the pot. With nearly a dozen layers of color melted in, I gathered a thick layer of clear, and then added more coats of color—shimmering black aventurine powder this time.
When I was happy with the color I decided to make use of the bigger, hotter studio glory hole to get the piece as hot as I could handle much more quickly. When it glowed almost white hot and I lowered the glass into a bucket of water to crackle the surface. I held my thumb over the mouthpiece, trapping the air inside until I was sure the exterior was cracked and the interior still soft enough to stretch by blowing into it. I raised the pipe out of the water and blew hard, holding the end with the glass up in the air. The glass was stiff at first, but as soon as the cracks stretched apart, the warm glass inside inflated more easily. With the light of the sky behind the glass I could begin to see the blue glass interior shine through the cracks. I reheated, and returned to the bench to change the shape of the glass from spherical to egg-shaped with a wooden paddle and my jacks. For the sake of survival, I put this piece away in the annealer as well.
As I worked, the furnace continued to grow hotter, and the glass got softer. By the time I had boxed the first two items it was nearly 4:00, and the open studio event was officially ending. I had most of a pot (albeit a small pot) of glass to get through before I could shut down. I had a degree of uncertainty with the CAT-60 annealing tube, having never used any equipment remotely like it.
The tube pulls hot air from the furnace with a fan that is controlled by a computer attached to a pyrometer. The finished pieces are loaded through a door onto little train cars that allow me to pull them down the tube over an hour or so, progressively moving them further from the source of heat and allowing them to cool. In order for this method to work, the pieces have to be thin (less than ¼” thick), and small enough to fit. I made a couple of ornaments first, but decided that perhaps making some clear objects as test pieces while I learned the equipment made more sense. In the interest of time I designed a set of small clear air plant terrariums that I would open cold. I discovered how big was too big—one of the terrariums got jammed in the tube!
By the time I had a six pieces in the CAT-60 and it was pushing 5:00, I decided it was time to just pull the remaining glass out of the pot into a bucket of water, and shut down. We still had a three hour cool down before I could pack everything into the trailer, and a two hour drive home ahead of us.
With the pot empty, I turned the gas off, and began the shut down process. With pieces still in the CAT-60, I wondered whether shutting down would cause the temperature to drop too quickly. Fingers crossed, I continued pulling the train cars down the tube every five minutes. As the furnace temp dropped, I opened the damper a bit to allow more of the heat to enter the tube. One by one, the pieces came out—except for the one that got jammed they all survived! As things continued to cool, I broke the studio down and by 8:00 was loading the trailer.
All in all, the first day was a success. I learned a lot, figured out what my next questions and fine tunings were going to be, made a few pieces, and had a lot of fun (even the agonizing waiting for things to get hot was more like the anticipation of Christmas as a kid than anything else). I don’t think I stopped smiling the whole drive home.
One step at a time, one Moment of Truth after another… I suppose that is how all things are accomplished. Thursday’s adventure was full of both.
I was up before the sun, knowing that the 130+ miles to the art center was going to take much longer while pulling the trailer. I had everything packed into the car and the car pulled into position by 6:45am. The first stunt, was to maneuver the trailer out of its tight quarters, along the length of the parking space, and attach it to the hitch. The actual parking space is level, but my car was parked about 5’ outside of the space, down a slight decline. The trailer, despite weighing upwards of 700 lbs, pulls relatively easily even by hand. As I reached the edge of the level surface I realized that pulling downhill was one thing—stopping it before it rammed into my car would be something else altogether.
I armed myself with a few small blocks of wood to throw in front of the wheel, aimed the tongue of the trailer for the hitch and heaved forward. The trailer moved slowly at first, and then picked up speed. My aim was true, and a moment before the trailer cleared the hitch I shoved one of the boards at the wheel with my foot. She stopped perfectly positioned to lower over the ball hitch. I cranked the lowering mechanism and when the ball was engaged pulled the pin to rotate the trailers front wheel up and out of the way for travel. The trailer definitely sat a bit lower than when it was empty, but still had plenty of clearance for the journey. I hooked up the lights and safety chains and got ready to hit the road!
My drive to the desert took about three hours, instead of the two I am used to, due to the maximum speed posted for vehicles pulling trailers. My car’s lack of complaint with the extra weight in tow was one of those moments of truth I had been waiting for. All of the numbers and consulting I had done had given me the green light, but until I really had everything in motion I maintained a certain level of anxiety about it. According to the car, the trailer didn’t even substantially impact my usual mileage!
I arrived at the art center around 10:30am. I thought getting the trailer off the car would be as straightforward as it had been hooking it up. I pushed the front wheel/kick stand back into position and cranked it to raise the tongue off the hitch. I failed to fully engage the pin that holds it there and so the moment I tried to maneuver away from the hitch the kickstand slid to the side and the tongue plunged to the ground. Fortunately Ed was there to help me lift the 700 lbs enough to push the kickstand back into place, this time ensuring that the pin fully locked!
As soon as it was secure I pulled the trailer into the shop and began unloading. It took about an hour to unload, and reassemble everything. Around noon I called Mobile Glass Blowing Studios, who made the dragon, for my first time light-up walk through. My call was put through to one of their staff, and I explained why I was calling. There was a pause on the other end of the line, then,
“You want to light up right now?”
“Well, I have my mini dragon all put together and ready to go…” I said a bit nervously.
“Right now, right now?” The voice asks again, and I start to worry, after another long pause I hear him laugh and say “that’s awesome!”
He suggested we FaceTime so that he could see everything in front of me, and talked me through the various knobs and valves and what each adjusts and how to light up. Within a few minutes we had dialed in the right gas/air ratios to get the optimal flame.
After months of planning, working, waiting, problem solving, and anticipation—My dragon finally breathes fire! I let her run for about three hours to come up to temperature and see that beautiful red-gold glow, cook off some of the fumes and such that I had been told to expect on first firing, and so I would really know how it felt when it was hot. I was thrilled to find that the exterior of the furnace didn’t seem to get as hot as a wood stove (while the internal temperature climbs above 2000*F), and the burner system remained cool enough to touch throughout operation. When I shut down, it took about three hours to cool enough to maneuver, and to use my bare hands when removing external components. Having shut down at 3pm, I was able to load everything back into the trailer and be on the road by 6:15.
I can’t wait to light up tomorrow morning, and melt glass for the first time!
When I woke up Saturday morning, knowing that it was the day I had set aside to assemble my dragon, my nerves were all set to high alert. It was kind of like first-day-of-school jitters, full of excitement and anticipation, tinged with the instinctive fear of the unknown.
For several hours I lingered in the house. I don’t know now whether the dominant force behind my hesitation was my penchant for delayed gratification or if it was my anxiety about what lay waiting outside the gate. Faith suggested that rather than worrying about documenting this part of the process, she wanted to give me the space and time to just be with my dragon. When she suggested it, I felt suddenly a bit shy and anxious about being alone with it, but I am so grateful now that she suggested this. A little after 1:00 I finally gathered my tools and made my way out to the driveway.
I pulled the trailer out of its corner to a position where I could open and unload it, and began taking out all of the carefully labeled boxes and parcels. Piece by piece she came together. I worked slowly, wanting to be careful not to miss anything, and committing each component to memory so that once they were free of their labeled packages I would still know what was what. Around 3:00 I stepped back and realized that I was standing in a hot shop. Despite knowing that all of the same equipment has been sitting in the trailer since the unboxing, it had somehow still not been fully real to me. Standing there, with a fully assembled furnace, annealer, marver table, and bench was cathartic. For the first time, I was standing in the center of my very own hot shop.
The day was perfect—cool but with bright, warm Southern California sun shining down from a cloudless blue sky. As I sat at my bench for the first time I noticed that a hummingbird kept perching nearby. As he flew off, I turned my gaze upwards to the brilliant sky above, and was amazed to see a flock of huge pelicans soaring in two opposing spirals immediately overhead. For several reasons, these sightings caught my attention.
My art lineage has always provided a sense of grounding and possibility to me in my pursuit of art (I am at least a 4th generation artist). When I was 18 I learned from my grandfather that my grandmother, whom I had never known, had shared her love of birds with my mother; which she in turn passed on to me. To have been visited by one of the smallest and one of the largest birds on the continent within moments, while sitting for the first time at the bench in my mobile glass studio made me feel like I was being prompted to take notice, to feel a part of something greater than myself. Like ripples intersecting and bending light into brighter focus, each appearance focused and brightened my awareness of those I’ve come from and whose joys I have shared.
On a whim, I googled the meaning of each of these birds, to see what they have meant to other people. While I am not attached to them as absolutes, the things that came up felt particularly in tune with my experience at that moment. Symbolic meaning of hummingbirds include:
Everything had gone smoothly, all the parts and hardware were easy to identify and assemble. I itched to light her up, but there wasn’t enough daylight left to light up, cool down, and pack everything back into the trailer for the night. After I had had my time alone with the dragon, Faith came down and shared the moment with me. As exciting as it was to have assembled everything alone, sharing my joy and excitement was even better. Seeing her response to the assembled shop—slightly overwhelmed and surprised at its full scale—and seeing that shock overtaken by the reflection of my joy was everything I could have hoped for.
Before packing the shop back into the trailer, I took a few moments to FaceTime with my parents, reveling in the capability of modern technology to shrink the distance and share this day with them in such an immediate way.
Thursday, I will be lighting up for the first time, letting the empty furnace cook as instructed in preparation for next weekend’s first glass melt.
One of the most frustrating feelings for me is feeling stuck or realizing that I am the only thing standing in my own way. I have been feeling like I am in limbo since my dragon furnace arrived right before thanksgiving—and here it is, already the second week of the new year and still I haven’t even put it together, let alone lit up. It’s not that there haven’t been legitimate things in the way—getting the insurance straightened out, busy time with the holidays, inclement weather, the limbo of waiting to hear after applying for Blown Away Season 2, working at my other job… But even in combination, these are not the real things that have stopped me. It hit me like a ton of bricks yesterday while I was working at the cafe, that fear was the real hurdle. What if something goes wrong? What if I light up and my work just isn’t good enough? What if I can’t do the things that I committed to do? What if I fail? When I name these fears out, they are manageable. I can work through and troubleshoot the furnace—and I don’t have to do it alone, the folks who built it are just a phone call away and more than happy to talk to me and help me sort it out. If my work isn’t as good as I want, it just takes practice—and I love practice so that’s moot. My work will get there—but only if I start working. I haven’t committed anything to anyone who wouldn’t understand if I need more practice to make the things I have said I’ll make.
Standing behind the counter at the cafe, waiting for the clock to tick down to closing time, I was hit with an overwhelming sense of not living up to my potential. There is an economic truth that I need to be working outside of glass for the moment, that I need to have guaranteed income through outside employment. But, I also need to be taking active and daily steps towards my studio being up and running. I was able to articulate to my coworker, that one of the reasons I love working at the cafe is that I don’t have to be the boss—I just do my tasks, take direction, and the day sorts itself out and nothing really comes down on me. I take pride in doing my job well, but at the end of the day I have the security of knowing that I have a job regardless of how good sales were that day, and I don’t have to worry about solving any of the big questions for the business. I absolutely love the idea of getting to work on my own glass production, making my own art, but the business side of the studio is terrifying. Bringing Lemon Glass into being and then from hobby level to business level is going to be rocky, and I need to figure out how and when to ask for help.
[It also occurred to me that if I felt like I was floundering in a Sea of Unknowables when it came to the business side of things, I wasn’t—it might be a Sea of I-Don’t-Know-Yets, in a Land of Unfamiliar Territory, but that there is a reason that people go to school for business! There is a lot to learn that one may stumble through and figure out, mostly by pulling oneself out of one hole after another, but which can also be learned more efficiently if willing to seek out some guidance or take some classes… This isn’t the first time this has struck me, but it hit with a particular vehemence this time, so this time I will commit to following through with a pursuit of knowledge that should ease the path going forward…]
Many times I have recounted the single most influential comment I received from a teacher. My high school ceramics teacher wrote on my report card, “Jesi is daunted by nothing, no, she is undaunted for not even ‘nothing’ would daunt her.” Any time I realize that I have hesitated out of fear, this rings in my head and I pull myself up and find a way to push through—as though it is my responsibility to live up to this huge statement and prove Teacher Cara right. To me, what this really means, is that the only way to truly fail, is to fail to try—any other failure can go down as a learning experience, be problem solved, tried again (and again, and again if necessary), until success is either reached or the target redefined.
Things that I know to be true that give me the confidence to move forward: I am persistent. I have a solid foundation for glass blowing, and plenty of people I could turn to and ask for guidance or advice when I need it. I have a gift when it comes to creating—I am creative and have vision, and I have hands that consistently manage to pull my vision into physical reality in whatever medium I take on. I am smart and love problem solving. Even thinking about making glass feels like it opens the flow of energy centered deep in the core of my body, it causes a physical sensation of knowing that this is what I am meant to do. Being in front of a furnace produces a kind of calm unlike anything else for me—it feels like a truly spiritual experience, like breathing, like conducting energy, like a connection to some vast lineage of makers who have come before me and will come after me… it is beyond words, but it is something I know so completely to be right and true that any steps I make away from this path feel draining. I know that it is rare and precious to have such certainty in my right path, and that I mustn’t squander the opportunity to follow it.
Tomorrow, I will be assembling the dragon for the first time. A dry run, just to make sure that I figure out any questions that I may have and to become familiar with the mechanics and be ready for lighting up next week.
Being undaunted isn’t about being fearless, it’s about being smarter than my fears. It means acknowledging them and facing them; giving them their rightful place, and choosing to move forward on my path knowing that they are there to help me see potential problems so that I can be prepared to solve them.