John Carlson: Heated Expressions

An array of art glass can be an eye-catching sight. Photo by: Nancy CarlsonAn array of art glass can be an eye-catching sight. Photo by: Nancy Carlson

By: John Carlson—

One thing I know about glass blowing is, it’s not for wimps.

Actually, there are two things I know about glass blowing, the second being, when you’ve got that glob of molten, fiery-hot glass stuck to the end of your air tube, DO NOT INHALE.

Not that anybody actually mentioned this while Nancy and I were sitting in the bleachers at the Morean Glass Studio and Hotshop, watching a glass-blowing demonstration. But as a general rule you could infer it, kind of like you could infer it’s probably not a good idea to wrap your head in salmon patties and stick it inside a grizzly bear’s mouth.

Inhaling would likely blister your lungs, if not ignite them outright.

This knowledge came recently while we were touring the Chihuly Collection down in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Chihuly, of course, is Dale Chihuly, America’s preeminent glass-blower, he of the wild hair, the black eye patch and the kaleidoscopic artistic vision. When I was a teenager growing up in the 1960s, my experimentation with mind-altering substances was pretty much limited to Pabst Blue Ribbon. But to walk the darkened halls through Chihuly’s permanent collection is to embark on a stunning visual trip. If I could adequately describe the vibrant shapes and colors I would, but I can’t.

It’s too intense for me to do it justice.

But after viewing it and heading just down the block to the hot shop, its art was easier to wrap your mind around. Here, one young guy narrated as another fashioned what turned out to be a human skull, dipping and forming and cutting the glass in an intriguing process. The temperature in the kiln topped 2,000 degrees, which made the casual way they worked around the molten glass seem almost lackadaisical. Not that there was some safety trick to this. There wasn’t. After yanking it from the kiln, were you to misplace your hand near the hot end of the punty, also known as “that thing you blow into,” your fingers would look like sausage links.

When our demonstration was over, Nancy bought what amounted to some cool glass trinkets in the gift shop. We could have gone back to the Chihuly Collection’s gift shop and bought ourselves an actual Chihuly, but we figured we might need that money to buy some groceries over the next year instead. What would a real Chihuly artwork cost? As the saying goes, if you have to ask …

What’s truly cool is, Ball State University may well be turning out the world’s next Dale Chihuly just a quarter-mile from our neighborhood, on campus at the Marilyn K. Glick Center for Glass. Glass blowing is an art major there, and you have to think for most kids, making a cool human skull would be lots more fun than, say, studying for an accounting final.

But glass blowing hereabouts isn’t solely relegated to BSU’s campus. You can also find glass blowing on the west side of Elwood, at Joe Rice’s House of Glass. Over the years, Nancy has bought plenty of stuff from Rice, who has been awarded the prestigious title of “Indiana Artisan.” His pieces include fetching paperweights shaped like pumpkins and birds, apples, baskets, candleholders, bookends and more.

Now, nobody is ever going to mistake Rice’s art glass for Chihuly’s. But while that’s due to its artistic scope, it’s also due to the price.

You can buy a piece of art at House of Glass and still have money left to hit the drive-thru at Elwood’s McDonald’s. What’s more, Rice’s pieces are mesmerizing, filled with little colored spouts, spheres and flutelike extensions. Study a piece for a short while and you sort of get lost in it. At Chihuly’s, it simply happens on a grander scale.

Besides that, each one of Rice’s works comes with its own security system. By that I mean, these pieces are hefty enough that, should you bounce one off the head of an intruder, he’s going to see things that even Dale Chihuly hasn’t envisioned yet.

Rice’s work, then, is a very cool feature of the Hoosier art scene, something important to keep in mind these days. There is more than corn – not to mention breaded tenderloins and basketball – in Indiana.

In these days of meth and opioid craziness, it can’t hurt to keep reminding ourselves of that.

A former longtime feature writer and columnist for The Star Press in Muncie, Indiana, John Carlson is a storyteller with an unflagging appreciation for the wonderful people of East Central Indiana and the tales of their lives, be they funny, poignant, inspirational or all three.