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Kiln-Formed Glass: Beyond the Basics, by Brenda Griffith

This is a comprehensive, advanced guide on fusing and cold working glass. No matter how advanced you are in glass fusing, you will learn something in this book that will be worth the price of the book several times over. The book is highly readable and entertaining and includes beautiful projects and stunning gallery images.

Learn to set up a studio, keep a kiln logbook, and create glass samples that show the stages of glass fusing. Learn electrical theory, kiln theory, basic kiln maintenance, and the use of cold working tools. Learn to air brush, sand blast, and make molds. The book includes projects with step-by-step instructions.

AN INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR

Arnold Howard of Paragon Industries interviewed Brenda Griffith for this website.

Q: How did you get started in glass fusing? Who were your first teachers? Please describe the early days at Siyeh Studio.

A. I worked in a stained glass studio and retail shop when I was in college in Missoula, Montana during the mid-80’s. While I was there the owner, Katie Patten, went to Boyce Lundstrom’s Camp Colton in Oregon to learn about working with glass in a kiln. She came back very enthused and energized and immediately started creating her own works in fused glass. I was excited by what I saw her doing, and she encouraged me to learn, too. She introduced me to Boyce’s first book, “Glass Fusing Book One,” and sold me my first kiln--a Paragon GF-8B octagon 120 volt kiln with an element in the lid. It may have been small, but it had all the bells and whistles of the day including an infinite switch, an analog pyrometer, and a Dawson Kiln Sitter.

Right after I got my kiln--before I even had a chance to fire it--I took off for graduate school in Chicago. I had a 1967 GMC Suburban with the back seat taken out that I bought from my parents, and the back held more glass and tools than clothes and other personal effects. I had a case of glass up against the back of the front bench seat with a rope tied around the seat and the case to hold it in place. The kiln, my work table, and boxes of tools (mostly for stained glass) and books filled up the back. I think I put my clothes in a pod on the roof.

When I got to Chicago, I had a one-bedroom graduate student apartment at the University of Chicago. I put the kiln in the kitchen and set up the bedroom as a glass studio. I slept in the living room on a pull-out sofa. My first year in Chicago was spent splitting my time between my graduate studies in linguistics and teaching myself to fuse and slump glass from Boyce’s book. I learned by trial and error with meticulous logging.

Finally I was making work I considered good enough to sell, and I juried into Artisans 21, a thriving artists’ cooperative in Hyde Park, and also into the Illinois Artisans Gallery in downtown Chicago. I also began participating in craft fairs and taking commissions for my fused work. By 1989 I needed a second kiln, so I purchased one of Phil Teefy’s early Glass Glow fiber blanket glass kilns. It had a digital pyrometer for more precise firing, though it was controlled with a dial for the power instead of a computer.

I did production work for shows and had to fire 24 hours a day to get enough work done. Because there weren’t computer controllers, I would have to set my alarm so I could get up throughout the night to change the settings on the kilns. At the time I lived in a coach house above the garage of an old house in the Kenwood neighborhood of Hyde Park. The kilns were in a little room under the stairs, so I would get up, put on a robe, and patter down the stairs to adjust the kilns, note the time and temp of each in my log books, and then shuffle back to bed to reset the alarm and do it all again.

It wasn’t bad in the summer, but in the winter the garage under the coach house wasn’t heated, and the mice would hang out in the kiln area to keep warm. So I would often go from half asleep to screamingly awake in seconds when one would run over my foot.

Q: What was the most challenging aspect of writing your book?

A. In writing a how-to book, the most challenging thing is making sure you don’t forget any details or steps in the process you are describing. That was particularly true for this book, as the techniques are radically different from my normal daily work, and they also have so many more ways to go wrong. It wasn’t enough to make the pieces and then sit down and write them up--they were too detailed. Instead, I wanted to talk as I was doing, so I could be sure to capture as I went all the things to notice, check, and account for.

To this end, I purchased a dictation software package and spent several hours training it to my voice. Then I tried it in the studio, and it was a disaster! When I sat down and read through what the software had transcribed from my speech, I couldn’t even figure it all out enough to correct it. I had no idea how to fully remember what I had done, and I was in despair. It just wasn’t efficient to do and to take notes at the same time--there were too many interruptions to the flow and train of thought that also caused information to be lost.

Enter the solution: My mother. She moved in with us after my dad died a few years ago, and when she saw me break down into tears for the third or so time as I struggled to remember and capture all the relevant bits from the day’s work, she offered to polish up her old stenographer skills and take dictation in shorthand as I worked. We spent months in the studio together, and at the end of every day she would sit down and transcribe her shorthand into email messages and send them to me. Then I would edit them into the manuscript. The book could not, quite honestly, have been done without her.

Q: In the early days of fusing, what were your favorite types of glass projects?

A. In the beginning, it wasn’t so much the projects as the flexibility and freedom from lead that drew me. I loved cutting pieces and layering them to create new colors and shades—adding a dimensionality to my work that had been lacking in stained glass. The work also had a much greater instant-gratification component than stained glass did: Design the piece, cut the glass, put it together and into the kiln, turn on the kiln, and come back the next day to done! I used to be much more into instant gratification than I am now. I also think that because of my starting point--stained glass--I was predisposed to think of working with glass in terms of cutting pieces and assembling them. It felt radical and innovative just to layer them and skip the lead!

Q: What are your favorite types of glass projects now?

A. Now, again, it is much more about the technique than the project for me, and I have moved completely away from cutting glass and fusing the pieces together. I got burned out doing production work with cut pieces--be they strips or circles or puzzle pieces--because there was no surprise or “Ah ha!” moment from them when I opened the kiln. The nail in the coffin to making work from cut pieces of glass came the first time I did a wholesale show, the Buyer’s Market of American Craft in 2005. The orders for my Pop Art series of work required 57 hours just to cut all the wobbly circles on the ringsaw. (I calculated it, really I did.)

I almost quit glass right then. Instead, though, I looked deep inside myself and thought about what part of glass work was missing that used to make me happy, and how to get it back. People always warn you that making your hobby your job is the quickest way to suck the joy and passion right out of it, and I was finding that to be true.

In the course of my soul-searching, I realized that it was the anticipation and eagerness to open the kiln to see what the previous day’s firing had produced that I was missing. I knew how each piece would turn out, and if there was a surprise, it was most likely to be a nasty one like a bubble or a break. Like Stella, I needed to get my groove back, and the answer for me was to turn to a completely new way of working with glass: frit.

I experimented and played, and for the past several years I have worked primarily with frit in a layering technique I call Morceaux de Verre, or morsels of glass. To create these pieces, I place four layers of various colors of frit and chunk on a clear blank and fuse them into a new piece of glass. Though I can create pieces close enough in look and feel for gallery owners to be comfortable commissioning them from a sample, with this technique every time I open the kiln, I get the thrill of seeing something new. This is the one body of work that I have done that does not get old for me whether I am doing one piece or 150 of the same piece. I know this for a fact, as I once had to do 150 of the same 15” X 7” rectangular platters for the winter catalog of the Arts Institute of Chicago. I still love doing those pieces today.

Now when I have an order, I crank up the music in the studio and do all the cutting for the blanks. Then I place the blanks on my work surface and dance, shake, and shimmy as I lay the layers of frit and chunk down on top of them. It’s a very fluid process. The color flow (flow from the way the frit was laid down—not from the way it flowed in the kiln as it doesn’t move much in the kiln except to settle down), reactions between the glass colors, placement and size of the air bubbles, etc., all add to the uniqueness of each piece, and I see something wonderful in all of them when I open the kiln.

Well, almost all of them. If there is a piece that I don’t find wonderful, it goes into the bin to be cut up and used for pieces in my collaborative work with Todd Briske of Bentwell Metals.

And that brings up what I would call my favorite projects to work on: Projects in conjunction with artists in other media. I love producing steel and glass tabletop and wall sculpture with Bill and Elaine Snell of Black Cat Artworks, and I love working with Todd Briske of Bentwell Metals on our ever-expanding line of aluminum wire and glass pieces. There is no substitute for the creative zing you get from working with another artist as you pass ideas and designs back and forth.

Q: Please describe some of the most interesting glass mistakes that have happened in your studio and what you learned from them.

A. Number one on the list of interesting glass mistakes happened when I was fusing large, inch-thick awards on my wonderful Dyson baffled ceramic shelf in Bertha (a 72” x 36” Denver fiber kiln). Normally I use fiber boards in my big kilns as there aren’t one-piece solid ceramic shelves big enough for them. The Dyson shelf was a pretty big investment as it weighed a ton (slight exaggeration), had to be shipped from California to Georgia, and then took three people to lift into the kiln, but it was worth it as I was able to do very long, perfectly flat, smooth-backed pieces on it. One of the first projects I did was a pair of 72” X 11” sidelights for my studio.

Those and all the other earlier firings went fine. However, after over 100 firings on the shelf--all regular thickness pieces of ¼” to 3/8” thick--I fired the awards, which ended in disaster. Everything went fine till the second firing--a fire-polish. In creating my firing schedule, I neglected to take into account the effects of a piece of very large, very thick glass insulating the ceramic shelf from the elements in the lid of the kiln, and I ramped up too quickly (I believe) causing the shelf to crack. Either that or I was in a rush and cracked the kiln on cooling before it reached room temperature. I have learned over the years how far I can push glass, but what I didn’t consider was the amount of the shelf surface that was covered and insulated by the thick glass and the resultant temperature differential causing my shelf to crack in half, right under my piece.

Normally I would be able to tell if the shelf had cracked on the way up in temperature or on the way down by the back of the piece. If the outline of the crack showed up in the piece, it happened on the way up before the glass softened and took on the shape of the crack. If it happened on the way down, no impression from the crack. But the crack didn’t move the shelf much, and the piece was on 1/8” fiber paper, which would have kept the crack from showing in the glass, anyway. So, I couldn’t be sure. The lesson learned in either case was the same: Don’t rush your firings either on the way up or on the way down.

My second biggest glass mistake happened when I was making the pattern bars for a project for my first book. I was tired, and I got sloppy and forgot to put the dam on one end of the pattern bars . . . oops. Fortunately, I fire on the lower end of the full-fuse temperatures, so I neither held the bars at a high fusing temp nor held the top temperature for long, so the glass didn’t flow too far out into the kiln. The lesson from this mistake fell into what my grandfather would have called the measure-twice-cut-once bucket: Always double-check your work.

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