Fire and Water

This story originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of WV Living magazine.

At first, it seems a little ironic to watch the artisans at Blenko Glass make giant water droplets out of glass. Working with glass means working with fire. Each step in the creation of these drops begins and ends with fire as workers move the molten orbs in and out of Blenko’s glowing ovens. But water also plays an important role in the process. Workers constantly dunk their charred wooden shaping tools in buckets of water before they touch the red-hot glass. The shop’s hand-carved wooden molds are also doused with water before and after artisans blow the glass inside them. Water might not play a starring role, but it’s difficult to imagine what the glassblowing process would be without its aid.

Charleston artist Barrie Kaufman can imagine it. That’s why she designed these big glass droplets. Like hundreds of thousands of fellow Kanawha Valley residents, she spent days without potable water after the January 9, 2014 chemical spill at Freedom Industries’ site in Charleston dumped industrial cleaner into the Elk River, which flowed into West Virginia American Water’s pipelines. It was a disturbing experience for Barrie, to see something as essential as tap water snatched away by corporate carelessness. “Clean water is vital to all of us. You don’t know what it’s like to lose it until you don’t have it,” she says.

Barrie responded to the crisis in the way she knows best: with art. This is where those giant water droplets come in. Shortly after the water crisis Barrie began drawing and painting water pipes, twisting and turning around one another. Objects began to emerge from the pipes—flames, branches, leaves, animals. It captured how Barrie felt about the water crisis, how everything was connected and affected by it. The images were powerful, but Barrie realized her idea would work best in a different medium. “I thought it would be dramatic to have this three-dimensional,” she says. “When you have a bigger scale, it calls more attention to something.”

She came up with an idea to turn her twisting, turning pipes into a six-foot-tall glass sculpture. She pitched the idea to the Pittsburgh Glass Center, which made Barrie an artist-in-residence. She began working with its in-house glass artists, along with Washington-based glassblower Karen Willenbrink-Johnsen, to bring the work to fruition.

But Barrie also wanted to involve West Virginia glassmakers in her project. Blenko, the 120-year-old factory in Milton, was a natural choice. Where Pittsburgh Glass Center specializes in art glass, Blenko are experts at industrial glass production. She wanted to produce 100 raindrops in shades of blues and greens fading to greys and blacks, to serve as a backdrop for her larger sculpture. The mass-produced drops also would allow individual art collectors to purchase pieces of the work.

She wrote up a proposal and Blenko agreed to sponsor the project. Ron Hinkle, Blenko’s plant manager and a glass artist in his own right, says the company loves any opportunity to “become a part of what’s going on…to mix history with what’s going on now.” Barrie sculpted a droplet from clay and then made a blueprint on a large sheet of graph paper. Blenko’s in-house pattern maker Daniel Chapman hand carved a mold from cherry wood.

West Virginia Living stopped by Blenko as artisans were making Barrie’s water droplets. The process began with glassblower Perry Bays gathering molten glass from a 2,100-degree oven onto the end of a metal rod. While the glass was still blazing hot, he used wooden hand tools and a slab of metal to roll the glass into a preliminary shape. When it cooled to 1,000 degrees, another worker drizzled a second color of glass onto the end of the bulb. The glass then went back into the oven to melt the two colors together.

With the glass again glowing bright orange, Perry climbed a five-step staircase and lowered the molten orb into a wooden mold while worker Randy Rider held the mold steady. Steam rolled out of the mold as Perry blew the glass. When Randy removed the mold, the glass finally resembled a water droplet. The piece then went back into the oven, after which Randy snipped off the end with metal shears to give it a curved shape.

The finished droplet was transferred to an annealer oven to cool for four hours before heading to Blenko’s “cold shop,” where worker Michael Stratton cuts the droplets in half using a saw fitted with a diamond blade and polishes the edges on a grinding wheel. Back at her studio Barrie affixed the droplet halves with pieces of wire, so they can hang on the wall.

The complete exhibit will be on display at Pittsburgh Center for the Arts from August 19 to October 19. After that, Barrie hopes to move it to a gallery in West Virginia—somewhere audiences will understand the irony of an exhibit inspired by the water crisis that brings together between artist and industry, water and fire.