The heat's the thing. Gas-fed flames rage at 2,000 degrees inside cylindrical ovens known as "glory holes." These are used to heat glass for shaping and blowing. Glass blowers hover close to the heat in a sort of fire ritual, wielding their "blow pipes" gracefully.
The moves are slow and deliberate, like the Oriental martial art known as t'ai chi ch'uan.
Barry Reed sits on a bench watching two students work, their foreheads beaded with perspiration. Through portholes in two glory holes, you can see flames swirling. Even 15 feet away, the heat is intense.
Reed heads the glass-blowing program at Palomar College in San Marcos, the only such program in San Diego County. The department is so well thought of that artists often come down Los Angeles for the summer session.
Reed worships this art. As he uses a chisel to break colored rods of glass into hunks for melting, the metamorphosis begins. Until this point, he has moved slowly, talking casually, hiding from the bright fire behind dark glasses.
As he becomes engrossed in the work, his movements quicken. He moves on the balls of his feet, thrusting the blowpipe into a glory hole for several seconds. He pulls the end of the pipe out of the hole and begins shaping the softened glass at its tip by rolling it on a flat steel table, a technique known as "marvering." Occasionally, he adds more glass by dipping the tip of the pipe into a pool of molten glass at the bottom of a special oven, a step known as "gathering."
Throughout the process, he rotates the pipe in his hands to keep the hot glass from sagging.
Blowing gently into the pipe, Reed watches a vase bloom at the other end. He thrusts into the glory hole, marvers, blows, gathers, thrusts, shapes the hot glass against a folded newspaper in the palm of his hand, repeating the motions in different combinations over and over.
Reed started out as a ceramic artist, earning his fine arts masters from Humboldt State University. When he took a glass-blowing class at Palomar College in 1976, he was hooked. By 1979, when the glass program's founder, Val Sanders, stepped down, Reed was the resident expert, so they put him in charge.
He is not the only one to become suddenly entranced with the fragile art.
Tom Licone, one of Reed's students, played bass in a rock band--until he tried glass blowing. Now he spends most of his time dancing gracefully with a long metal tube.
Rina Fehrensen studied art at UCSD, but when she experienced the primal energy of glass blowing, she too became a "vulture," spending much of her free time waiting to swoop in on an available glory hole.
Licone is attempting to duplicate a difficult glass pitcher he made a few days ago. Sitting on two front "legs" and a "tail," it looks like some odd sea creature; Licone calls it "nuclear scampi."
After several thrusts of the pipe into the glory hole, a number of gentle breaths to expand the evolving creation, and a variety of shaping techniques, the replica is coming to life.
Then Licone makes a crucial error. He lets the vase get too cool.
When he puts it back into the glory hole, the change of temperature is too drastic, and the glass explodes. He has worked for an hour or so, but seems unperturbed. Almost immediately, he starts over.
Reed said glass blowing taught him control in his life. "I used to be angry all the time. I thought my fists were immune to solid objects."
Now Reed takes a turn at the glory hole. In 30 minutes or so, he has grown a foot-long cylindrical vase at the end of his pipe. He "punti's off"--attaches a steel rod to the bottom of the vase with a hot piece of glass and cuts the blow pipe loose. Using the rod as a handle, he finishes the top of the vase, where the pipe was attached.
After some shaping, the piece is complete, a perfect form with a swirling, marbly array of fine colors embedded in the glass.
Reed places it with several other pieces in a 1000-degree "annealing oven." Overnight, the temperature of the oven will drop gradually so the pieces inside will cool without shattering.
All of this heat and drama does not come cheaply. The gas bill for a one-man studio can easily top $1,000. Blow pipes are $50 and up. The $220 fee that advanced students pay each semester helps cover the cost of glass; more than 1,500 pounds are used by the department each week.
But Reed prefers to describe glass blowing in more reverent terms.
He recalls the words of a friend who seemed to capture some of the spirit: "We'd come in here in the morning, and it would be mystical, with the coastal overcast. He said that our pipes were swords, and he was fending off the dragon. This is about as close as you can get to the fire and the material."
MORE ABOUT GLASS ART
Shows: Several times a year, Palomar College's Art Department holds a show and sale of student work, with pieces priced from under $100 to several hundred dollars. The next sale will be in August. For information, call 744-1150.
Galleries: Several San Diego area galleries feature blown glass art, including the work of Palomar College graduates. Among them: Lane Gallery in Horton Plaza, Clear Horizons in Seaport Village and Gallery 8 in La Jolla.
Artists: Among the artists who studied at Palomar College and whose work is nationally known are Buz and Wally Blodgett, who have a studio in Leucadia, and Noel Laue, who works out of Escondido.
Classes: Visitors are welcome to visit Barry Reed's glass blowing classes at Palomar College. Those interested in watching or taking a class, can call 744-9933.