Senior Marisa Kindsvater softly makes a "dimple" in the base of her piece and then "punies" the vase. (Photo by Kelsi Thomas)

Finding her passion, Marisa Kindsvater explores the challenging art of glass blowing

I don’t know what hell looks like, but I have a feeling it is similar to what I am about to be shown.

Senior Marisa Kindsvater and I stand awkwardly behind a half-wall in partial darkness. Something crunchy is underfoot, and the hot air smells like a mixture of fireworks and gas.

Some light comes through the empty frame where a window should have been, but it’s only enough to make visible the large ceramic machines that clutter the corner, filling the tight space with unbearable, waving heat.

“Are you ready?” Kindsvater asks me expectantly. “Are you ready to see where it all comes from?”

I nod.

Without hesitation Kindsvater lifts the lid on the largest of the offending ceramic machines.

Yep. Fiery pits of hell, for sure.

Inside is a well of bubbling, writhing, radiating, bright, orange and yellow molten—

“Glass,” Kindsvater says.

Welcome to Rainbow Glass, where they make all sorts of glass pieces and ceramic machines (called kilns, annealers and glory holes), as well as teach classes on the various glass arts (blowing, fusing, bead making, etc.).

Kindsvater is there for the latter reason: this is her fourth class in glass blowing, and this time she plans to make a vase.

A glass vase? On the fourth class?

“Yep,” Kindsvater replies, picking up a heavy-looking paperweight from a nearby table.

“You make one of these on your first class, and that’s only if you pay for a half day.”

The paperweight she holds is perfectly shaped, with an intricate, convoluted orange-and-green glass mass held inside. It’s something I would easily buy in a store, no questions asked.

Setting the piece back down on the table, she gestures to the other works that crowd the outdoor workshop.

“You don’t have to be super experienced to make many of these pieces,” she says.

“With the right instruction, anyone and everyone can blow glass.”

And that’s exactly what Rainbow Glass is—an anyone and everything sort of shop.

Located at 4556 Auburn Blvd., the store’s façade is simple, and little hints at the business run inside.

The owner, Phil, leads me through the inside workshop (where he explained fusing—when sheets of glass are combined, layered and heated—takes place) into the outside one.

Here, Kindsvater uses flatjacks to shape and elongate the mouth of her vase under the scrutiny of her instructor, Renee. (Photo by Kelsi Thomas)
Here, Kindsvater uses flatjacks to shape and elongate the mouth of her vase under the scrutiny of her instructor, Renee. (Photo by Kelsi Thomas)

This is where the glass blowing happens.

I spy Kindsvater standing next to a guy in his late 20s, whose bangs are a little raggedy in places (Kindsvater says he probably singed them off). This is Renee, a master glass blower who helps teach classes sometimes.

The two are goofing off, watching another woman in her mid-20s make something that appears to be a paperweight.

She rapidly turns the rod as she shapes the hot glass at the end of it with a shell-like wooden tool, and all of a sudden Renee breaks out of his conversation with Kindsvater. In a cool voice he scolds her.

“Calm down, slow and steady!” he says, resting his hands on her shoulders.

“Don’t force it in the mold—come back and get it hotter. You’ve got to be tired of smooshing the glass all up like that.”

The shop is a conglomerate of people and items. Yet they all come together to make something you never would have expected—kind of like glass itself, as Kindsvater points out.

Around this time, she walks over to Phil and me as we stand by a low ceramic machine called an annealer. She and Phil talk for a bit and he hands her a name tag. And then I ask the obvious question: what exactly is an annealer?

“Oh, the ending stage,” Phil explains, patting the machine.

“After this, the piece is infinite. Diamonds, glass—they’re all the same.”

Phil begins to teach an older couple how to move from collecting the molten glass from the pit with a rod to sitting down in the workbench/chair contraption to shape it.

“And pivot! Stepping, stepping—never walk backwards!—now open, now close.

“And you’re rolling, rolling, rolling it center—you’re a set of wheels!—now, leg against the triangle of the chair, and breathe.”

Phil is conducting. His voice, perfectly timed, sets the rhythm, and his hands, which have been guiding the student, move almost imperceptibly in time to the beat. But there’s no music to the piece, and this isn’t your traditional dance.

I ask Kindsvater if this is the first time she’s heard this lecture.

“Oh, no I’ve heard this so many times, but this is what I want to do for the rest of my life,” she says, gesturing to the student in front of us who’s now almost done with his paperweight.

Next year, Kindsvater will attend California College of the Arts (CCA) and pursue a bachelor’s degree in fine arts with a focus in glass blowing.

“You don’t meet many glass blowers, especially younger ones, who actually mean it,” she says.

“When I tell people, they get excited for me. If you meet someone young who has big dreams of not doing something normal, it gets your adrenaline going.”

Her parents exemplify Kindsvater’s generalization and are supportive of her goals.

“When I first told my parents I wanted to become an artist, they thought I was just going through a phase, but two years later they realized that it’s not just a phase. It’s what I want to do.”

But right now it’s her turn to make the vase she set her sights on at the beginning of class.

She starts by “gathering”—collecting the molten glass from the fiery hell pit—at the end of the rod. She then makes a “finger” by rolling out the gather (what she “gathered” from the pit)  at the base and then flattening it like a miniature bottle neck.

Then she heads to the workbench/chair contraption by going through the same dance Phil conducted. There, she uses the wooden “block” the girl before her used to shape the glass. Phil interrupts by saying, “Touch the glass so softly there is no tension. Caress it into shape; never muscle it.” She gathers again and makes another finger.

After that she inserts the rod into a glory hole, the machine that heats the glass. These glory holes contain the same insulation used in the Space Shuttle Challenger, as it’s the only kind that will allow for such extreme heat (the glory hole gets to around 2200 degrees Fahrenheit).

Next she rolls on the color (glass art gets color from glass frit, which ranges in size from sand-sized pieces to pebble-sized pieces), choosing pink and white.

Kindsvater keeps dancing: block, heat, block, blow.

And all the while she is rotating the rod evenly, always keeping the piece on center.

As Phil says, “Repetition is the key to glass blowing.”

She begins to cool the top so the air bubble thins out the sides more, forming a vase-like globe.

Next she lengthens the piece. She heats it, hangs the glass down by her shins, and then quickly swings the rod like a pendulum to help it elongate.

Then she grabs what looks like a big pair of metal tweezers (“flatjacks”) and “necks” the piece—in other words, she softly closes the tweezers on the molten glass near the end of the rod to form a thinner section of the piece, similar in diameter to the rod itself.

After, she quickly blows into the rod, and the piece goes back into the glory hole for 10 seconds: a “flash.”

This new heat allows her to flatten the bottom of the vase with a board and make a tiny “dimple” in the middle of the base. It’s in this little space that a “puny” (a little glass finger on another rod) is placed by another glass blower.

Renee does this for her, and simultaneously Kindsvater takes the tweezers, wets them, and drips water on the neck she just formed.

She then swiftly taps her rod with the tweezers. The piece separates from her own rod, leaving Renee with the piece.

Renee, still constantly rotating the rod, calmly gives the piece back to Kindsvater, who flashes the vase (focusing on the top because that’s the part she’s about to work on). Then taking the flatjacks, she inserts them into the mouth of the vase to slowly widen it. She presses lightly on the top while rotating to make the opening even bigger until it becomes the size she wants and then flashes the piece one last time.

Calmly, she dances towards the “knock-off” station, where she takes a butter knife and chips lightly at the connection between the puny and the piece. Finally, she takes the end of the knife and lightly knocks the end of the rod until the piece separates from the rod.

With a tiny clunk it falls onto the pad of Challenger insulation. Renee, wearing a thick pair of orange gloves, carries it across the workshop to the annealer.

Sighing in relief, Kindsvater turns to me and exclaims: “Done!”

My only response for her: “Wow.”

Kindsvater may think lots of people can do this, but after watching that, I certainly doubted my ability.

“Every art medium is different, and with glass blowing, as you just saw, you actually get to make the object,” Kindsvater said.

“Say you’re drawing: you have your pencil and you make a beautiful drawing but you can’t do anything with it,” she explains. “With glass blowing you’re shaping it exactly how you want it. Every shape starts the same way, but you can go in any direction you want.”

But I have to ask: how easy is it to burn yourself?

Phil laughs as he walks away towards his next student, saying he’s burned himself only once—and it was a student’s fault.

But Kindsvater isn’t so cavalier.

“I singed all the hair off my arm once, and it was because I was focusing on Phil, not my work,” she said, laughing, as she showed me her right forearm. The little hairs have almost fully grown back.

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