Arts October 13, 2010

The Alchemy of Glass

Freeblower Paul Downey

Paul Downey is a man of action. Had he grown up in Ireland, the home of his ancestors, he might have been a professional hooker—the little guy in the middle of a rugby scrum. (“If the scrum collapses, you have a ton of humanity coming down on your cervical vertebrae,” he says of the sport he calls his “other love.”) But that’s not the case. Downey was raised just west of Boston and has lived in the Wood River Valley for more than twenty years, so his cleats see action only on weekends. The other days of the week are reserved for his primary passion—the art of glassblowing.

The two pursuits may seem incongruous, but Downey uses the same word to describe both: Dynamic. “The situation is always changing, it’s very physical, and you’ve got to think.” After having spent two days in his studio, I would add a few more adjectives to the description: Hot. Intense. And, by turns, tragic and euphoric. No wonder Downey defines his relationship with glass as a love affair.

Only in the past forty years have advances in glassmaking made it possible to practice the art outside an industrial setting. It is so labor-intensive that most artists work in teams. Downey works alone, though, and thrives on the physicality of it. Wielding a five-foot steel pipe, its end glowing with molten glass, he moves relentlessly in a highly choreographed dance from furnace to glory hole (a small, standing furnace) to marver (shaping table) and bench. At the end of the day, I expect to see furrows worn into the concrete floor, like the depressions trodden into the stone steps of medieval cathedrals by centuries of foot traffic.

Unlike many glassblowers, Downey doesn’t use molds. What he does is called freeblowing. His award-winning constructions—elaborate works built from many separately blown pieces, fitted together to create a whole—have appeared in juried exhibitions throughout the country, including the National View at Grandview at the Atlanta Artists Center in Georgia, the National Goblet Exhibition at Seattle’s Glasshouse, and the Boise Art Museum’s Idaho Triennial.

Outside Downey’s studio, in Hailey’s light industrial district, slumbers an ’85 Volkswagen bus bearing a “Maggot Fest” bumper sticker from a rugby tournament in Bozeman, Montana. The studio is open to the hot July morning, but it is hotter inside, where four furnaces—two of them open—purr deeply at more than 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. At the entrance, a comfortable-looking old rocking chair sits on a worn Oriental carpet, surrounded by cabinets displaying bowls, vases, and phalanxes of glasses sparkling like jewels. One of Downey’s constructions—a wide, upturned cone of a bowl christened “Luge”—balances delicately on a small trapezoidal base adorned with styled glass tusks. Its translucent green flanks and opaque persimmon rim flash mesmerizingly; as with fire, or an emerald, it is hard to look away. Behind it, high whitewashed walls bear little more than a dartboard and a news clip of the Red Sox’s World Series win.

Downey has been at work since 6 a.m. to avoid the worst heat of the day, and I find him in torn khaki shorts and a T-shirt, turning a long pipe whose end has disappeared into the mouth of the glory hole. The pipe is supported by a stand that appears to be fashioned from a steel rod set into a cement-filled truck wheel. Downey admits that he’s made or modified most of his equipment. “You don’t just go down to Ace Hardware and buy a glass studio,” he says. “So, you weld, too?” I ask, eyeing the crude joins. He laughs, “I do now.”

Since opening Downey Glass in 2004, he’s learned to do a lot of things—how to sort out which art festivals will give him the best exposure; how to manage the business side of art efficiently . . . and how to set up tents (he moonlights as “muscle” for a party rental company to help cover the costs of setting up a studio). But it’s worth it: in a career highlighted with regional and national awards, Downey calls the opening of his own studio his finest moment.

During the thirteen years he was the assistant to internationally renowned local glassblower Craig Zweifel, Downey built labor-intensive constructions in his free time. Now, with the pressures of maintaining a business leaving little time for experimentation, he is focusing on producing affordable pieces for consumers. His freeblown vases, bowls, and glasses are being swept up by a public that is becoming increasingly aware of glassblowing as an art form, and appreciative of one-of-a-kind objects for everyday use.

This morning Downey is making what he calls a Saturn bowl, a wide-rimmed, two-tiered vessel whose easy grace belies its arduous birthing process. He invented the form as an undergraduate, eager to do something no one had done. I soon see why no one else had done it, as, through the next hour, the bowl seems perched at the edge of disaster time and again.

First, Downey selects a stainless steel pipe warming at the mouth of an open furnace, prepares the end of it with a rim of hot glass, and uses this to pick up a portion of colored glass (or “plug”) from a small floor kiln. He steps to the glory hole and rests the pipe on the stand at its mouth.

He turns the pipe continuously, first one way and then the other, heating the glass, letting it find its center. He then he backs up to the bench. Resting the pipe across two metal rails, he rolls it constantly across them with one hand while the other reaches into a bucket where several blocks of what look like drowning firewood bob in a plastic bucket of water. When he lifts one, I see that the end has been hollowed and smoothed. He holds this concavity against the hot glass, moving it subtly to define the curve he’s creating. The acrid smell of wet, burning wood conjures memories of the stubborn campfires of my childhood in the Alaskan coastal rainforest. I had no idea that such a smell could result in anything but a burned hotdog, but suddenly the gob of glass has become a perfect, pointed, glowing egg. Downey trades the wood for a thick fold of saturated newsprint and, as last week’s headlines blacken and smoke curls into the air, he further refines the egg’s shape.

The tools of the glassblowing trade have not changed much in a couple of thousand years, and many of the utensils on Downey’s bench look like the instruments of some wicked medieval dentist: iron shears and files, something long and pointy, and something else hooked and pointy. The muscles under the tanned skin of his thick forearms work like piano strings as he continuously rolls and shapes the piece. Then he swings toward a large furnace, in which 100 pounds of glass are kept at almost 2,000 degrees, 24 hours a day, and pushes open a small door. Heat pours out. I peer over his shoulder to find myself looking into a smaller version of the molten pit in which Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator character committed suicide.

Downey rolls the pipe across the fiery surface and steps back. Now there’s a bigger gob—technically called a “gather”—surrounding the plug, and he returns to the bench, where he repeats the shaping process. Leaning back, he places lips to pipe and gently puffs. The egg fattens into a globe, like a soap bubble on a plastic wand.

For the next forty minutes, Downey steps between kiln and glory hole and bench, adding gather upon gather, breathing gently at intervals into the pipe until the glowing, burnt-orange form has become the size of a large eggplant. He claims he’s not blowing hard, although more pressure is needed as the piece enlarges or cools and the surface tension grows. We wonder together at the huge forms that were hand-blown by old-time masters. A Romanian glassblower told Downey that 19th-century craftsmen blew large vessels by spitting a mouthful of schnapps into the pipe: the volatility of the alcohol caused rapid expansion and—voila!—a five-gallon carboy. We speculate about the proportion of schnapps that made it into the pipe, and the proportion that went into the glassblower.

Downey squeezes out the first rim and grips the neck with a large set of metal tongs, forcing it to narrow. Suddenly, as the widening rim and narrowing neck pull it off-center, the glass twists dangerously and wriggles like a fat, angry worm. Muscles flexing, sweat dripping down his temples, Downey says, “Don’t do that to me . . .” in a tone that sounds more like a polite request than a demand. He continues to cup the sizzling, smoking newsprint to the squirming form. Suddenly it’s centered and at peace, spinning insouciantly at the end of the pipe. The rim is wide and flat and round and perfect. As Downey continues to spin the pipe to keep it that way, I realize that I’ve been gripping my notebook so hard my fingers hurt.

“Talk about an adrenaline rush,” Downey grins. He pushes the half-formed bowl back into the glory hole to reheat for the next step. Flame whips around the edge of the glowing disk, and I’m reminded of photographs taken by the Hubble telescope.

Affixing a solid pipe (“punty”) to the top of the bowl, which will eventually be the bottom, Downey detaches the pipe with a file and some gentle taps. He works the top of the bowl, pinching out the second rim and hollowing the interior by blowing through the sharp and pointy thing, which I’ve learned is a “puffer.” After many more trips between furnace and bench, he returns to the glory hole. A few seconds of spinning in the intense heat causes the rim to fall open like the petals of a blooming flower. The bowl looks perfect.

Downey wets a file and applies it to the bowl’s narrowest point. It is already cooling from burnt orange to pale purple, which means its temperature has fallen to below 1,000 degrees. He raps the pipe sharply with a butter knife. I find I am holding my breath: Two days before, as he was tapping the pipe to free a bowl whose neck he was worried might be too thick to sever successfully, his fears had been realized and five pounds of hot glass had crashed to the floor. Without a word, he’d donned a pair of industrial-size oven mitts and hefted the piece into a bucket of water, where it sizzled angrily. I was motionless with horror, but he just shrugged, annoyed at himself. Today, however, the bowl topples gently, undramatically, into the annealing oven, where it will cool to room temperature over the course of the day. In a 1960s how-to manual, Harvey K. Littleton, one of the fathers of contemporary art glass, wrote, “[In hot glass], artistic creation must occur in crisis, it cannot be planned or divided up.”

“It’s just boomboomboomboomboom,” explains Downey, cutting his hand repeatedly through the air for emphasis. “It’s right there, and you’re going at it until it’s either in the annealing oven in one piece or it’s on the floor.”

It was this excitement and challenge that engaged Downey instantly in 1980, during his first glassblowing course at Albertson College of Idaho in Caldwell—where he’d enrolled to study philosophy. Philosophy made a good minor, and Downey is still influenced by phenomenology’s contemplation of the connection between the mental act and the external world through actions and the senses.

Downey is most comfortable while moving. When he’s stumped about a project, he shoots darts. Meeting me outside the studio for an interview, he suggests playing shuffleboard. The longtime flyfisherman and telemark skier (freeheeling, freeblowing—one glimpses a motif) came out west because there was “more elbowroom,” and there is elbowroom to spare in all of his idiosyncratic pursuits.

His biggest artistic influence is early 20th-century Swiss artist Jean Arp, a member of the Dadaists, who challenged the very definition of art. Arp dropped found objects on a surface and left them the way they fell.

“It was kind of anti-art, but it’s the same thing with shard work,” observes Downey, referring to a technique he employs in which hot glass is laid on cold shards so that the thermoshock blows the cold glass out over the hot surface. “You have no idea what’s going to happen.” His Shartzenrap series includes some of Downey’s most complex vessels, with glowing mottled skins, contrasting jewel-like interiors, explosions of color, and white threads of glass encircling their bodies as though holding together the chaos.

Glassblowers are such a rare breed that their art remains a mystery to many people. In hopes that awareness of the art form will continue to grow, Downey plans to mount a furnace on the bed of his 1940 Dodge three-quarter-ton truck one of these years, and blow glass in Hailey’s Fourth of July parade.

Participation in art fairs also helps raise public consciousness. Although some may not yet understand why every glass in a set isn’t exactly the same, more and more people are beginning to appreciate the subtle variations in the shape of hand-blown pieces. At last summer’s Ketchum Arts Festival, caterer Lauren Carr bought a set of Downey’s signature Pilsner glasses—tall, inverted triangles threaded with spirals of color. “They’re just so much more fun to drink out of,” she said, claiming that they make even a glass of iced tea something special.

Just a few days after we met at his studio, Downey pointed the van west for the prestigious 59th annual Bellevue Festival of the Arts in Washington, then north for a show in Coeur d’Alene, and then back home for the Sun Valley Center Arts and Crafts Festival. One of these days, he will get back to his constructions. Recalling “Luge” winking in the sun as though sharing the secret of the moment when it was a spinning globe of molten silica and sand, I hope that day will come soon.

Betsy Andrews earned a degree in art history from Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. She lives in Ketchum.




This article appears in the Winter 2006 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.