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Splendor in the Glass : From the Hot Seat of His Laguna Beach Studio Artist Freund Keeps the Creative Fires Burning

August 14, 1993|VALERIE ORLEANS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the end, it is graceful and cool to the touch; in the beginning, formless and fiery hot. In the middle, throwing, twisting and blowing the liquid glass into shape is artist Bruce Freund.

He has been mesmerized by the art of shaping the colorful, swirling forms for more than 16 years.

While there has always been interest in the artistry of blown glass, Freund says, it is enjoying a welcome resurgence in popularity. "People enjoy its beauty as well as the fact that each piece is unique," said Freund, whose studio is in Laguna Beach.

The process of glassblowing, however, belies the delicacy of the finished pieces.

"It's a cruel medium. It's hot. You get all sweaty. You're constantly burning yourself," he said. "I remember in college, we'd start out with 30 people in a glass class and end up with six. I think the reason I continued to work with glass is because it's so fluid and yet untouchable. But if you have the skill you can make it bend and take on different forms. There's something very intriguing in that."

Freund developed an appreciation for glass young in life--his parents collected modern glass, and his brother was interested in antique glass. He studied ceramics as an undergraduate student, but it was not until he was working on his master's degree at Cal State Fullerton that he took his first class in glassblowing.

"I was immediately hooked," Freund said.

The process itself is not easily learned.

Freund estimates that most beginners can count on losing as much as 80% to 90% of their pieces--as he did--while learning the craft. Even today, he estimates that he loses about 20% of his pieces, and usually they are the larger, more complex pieces.

His Laguna Beach studio consists of four furnaces (running 24 hours a day), steel tables and benches, rows of long metal pipes for blowing the fiery-hot glass, as well as various metal instruments for shaping and sizing. Thin rods of brightly colored Kugler glass (imported from Germany) are stacked on shelves, ready to be added to white glass to create a range of colors and swirls.

Freund starts his day by checking on the furnaces, some of which are heated in excess of 2,000 degrees. He performs his first "gather," using the end of a hollow 4 1/2-foot-long, steel blowpipe to dip into molten glass in the furnace.

A small amount attaches to the end of the pipe, and the process of shaping begins. The hot glass is shaped by controlled blowing through the pipe, swinging the blowpipe (using centrifugal force to pull the glass), rolling and prodding with various tools.

After cooling, the piece is thrust back into the furnace for a second gather and, upon removal, blown and manipulated again. The process is repeated until the desired contours are achieved. The glass must stay red-hot to remain malleable. (Because the furnaces are so hot and must run constantly, Freund's monthly gas bill often runs to $1,000.)

The number of "gathers" a piece requires is determined by its complexity and size. Small six- to eight-inch vases may take only two or three gathers, while larger pieces may take numerous trips back to the furnace.

The blowing of glass forms the base and helps shape the piece. Some smaller pieces might require only a few short puffs of air by the artist; a more complex piece might take extended blowing.

After each gather, Freund usually blows again to ensure that the sides are smooth and even. "It actually doesn't take a lot of air," Freund said. "Skill is more important than lung capacity."

So is the ability to withstand ongoing blasts of heat. While he works, Freund frequently has assistants shielding him with wooden paddles (placed between his body and the glass) to protect him from the intense heat as he shapes and forms the piece.

"It's like trying to roast marshmallows with your hand," he said. "You need to be close to the glass to work with it, but at the same time, you can get hurt if you're not careful."

Different colors and designs are created depending on the type of glass is used. Using bits of multicolored glass (called millefiori, an Italian term meaning "a thousand flowers") cut off longer rods that Freund makes himself, he adds touches of vivid color and patterns.

Most colored glass is made by adding precious metals to white glass--such as gold for pinks and peach tones, and cobalt or copper for blues.

A newer, metallic-looking glass (dichroit glass), has recently been made that is compatible with the glass used to make handblown pieces. Dichroit glass can also be added to create designs or sparkling patterns.

Once the form and design of the vase is created, one of the most difficult jobs takes place--removing the glass from the end of the blowpipe. A small mass of hot glass is gathered on the end of another metal rod called a punting stick. Very carefully, the handblown piece is transferred from the blowpipe to the punting stick.

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