The art of moulding glass

The Kingston Glass Studio and Gallery brings to life the ancient practice of glass blowing

Mischka Alexi Hunter (left) and Mariel Waddell (right) took about 30 minutes to make a small lampshade for a local vendor.
Mischka Alexi Hunter (left) and Mariel Waddell (right) took about 30 minutes to make a small lampshade for a local vendor.

You may not have been to the Kingston Glass Studio and Gallery, but Bob Dylan has.

“I’m thinking to myself, you gotta be kidding, Bob just walked in,” said glassblower Mischka Alexi Hunter, who owns the studio that the legendary singer-songwriter visited when he was in Kingston for a show in 2008.

Dylan is one of many people who’ve been drawn into the studio for its glass blowing demonstrations, an art form dating back to the Phoenicians in 50 B.C.E.

When you walk into the Queen Street Studio, you’re overwhelmed by the heat. The studio racks up a $1,600 monthly utilities bill to power the three furnaces involved in glass blowing. The first furnace holds the glass, with the glass blower sticking their pipe into the furnace’s crucible to pull out the molten glass. As the glass blower moulds the glass, it begins to cool, so they must stick the pipe in the second furnace called the glory hole. This reheats the glass to keep it malleable. Once the product is finished it’s put in the annealer, the third furnace which cools the glass for approximately 12 hours.

The furnace holding the clear glass is heated to 900 ˚ C, explaining why Hunter and co-owner Mariel Waddell were wearing flip flops and short sleeves on Wednesday, despite the single-digit temperatures outside. The pair were working on creating lampshades for the grand opening celebration of a local business.

Waddell explains that glass blowing is all about teamwork, making it less surprising that the pair are actually a couple, who plan to marry next year in Waddell’s native Trinidad. The two met over a decade ago at Sheridan College’s crafts and design program.

“We complement each other,” Hunter said. He laughs as he describes Waddell as having the necessary mind for numbers, since he failed Grade 9 math.

Their bond is obvious when you watch the pair perform the delicate act of blowing glass. As Hunter moulds the glass on the work bench, Waddell assists him using the paddle to shape the end of the glass. She knows what he needs before he even asks for it. The duo are perfectly in sync with each other, which is necessary when both are wielding pipes of hot glass.

Hunter worked on the lampshade from the bottom up — the way all glass structures begin. He said all glass blowing is basically the same, pieces just differ in their colour application. This is where Waddell comes in.

Waddell dips her pipe with hot glass on the end into frits — tiny condensed pieces of colour which melt into the glass.

The colour in glass blowing is unique in comparison to other glass, like the glass found in a beer bottle. If you break a beer bottle, the glass is all one colour throughout. But in glass blowing, the colour is only a thin layer on the outside of the glass.

After the glass cools in the annealer, it moves from the hot shop of furnaces into the cold shop. This is where any holes or other additions are put into the glass — like the rusty screws seen in Hunter’s work New and Used, inspired by his aunt and uncle’s farm.

Hunter originally went to Sheridan College in Oakville, Ont. for ceramics and had to pick an elective out of furniture, textiles or glass blowing. He said he chose the latter because he was intrigued by the art, quickly becoming addicted.

“It was the heat,” he said. “Whatever it is you make in the hot shop you can see it the next day, it’s quick. For people who are impatient, it’s nice. Furniture guys would spend all semester making a rocking chair. We could, it was kind of a joke, I wouldn’t recommend it but we could pull something off pretty quick at the end for critiques at the end of the semester.”

The gallery’s current exhibit Urban Manipulation displays glass from Hunter, Stewart Jones’ oil paintings and Rick LaPointe’s steel sculptures. Hunter describes the exhibit as “metal heavy,” with the nails in his glass works, the metal in Jones’s buildings and the abstract structures of LaPointe’s, one of which was rented for the 2012 film Total Recall.

“It’s an interesting combination of glass and steel,” Hunter said of New and Used. “Glass can potentially outlast metal. Each has its own weakness, but also its own strength.”

Hunter and Waddell opened the gallery six years ago, needing time to raise funds for all the equipment, with the furnace alone costing $40,000. Waddell said most of the tools have been around for centuries. The newest and most inexpensive tool is a pile of newspaper sprinkled with water, used to cool the glass while moulding.

Since hiring a curator to run the gallery, the couple only have to work nine to 10 hours a day instead of the 15 to 16 hours they did before. In that time they can make 70 glass bottles or two larger pieces.

Hunter hopes that he will be able to continue his hobby for the rest of his life.

“I hope I’m 85, 90,” he said. “I may not be making the biggest pieces, but glass tumblers or candy canes for the grandchildren.”

Urban Manipulation is at the Kingston Glass Studio and Gallery until June 15.

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