From Canyon To Cove: Making 'guacamole' in glass

Glass is a mysterious substance. I never realized how interesting it was until I took a class in fused glass from Maggie Spencer, a Sawdust artist.

Glass, as Maggie explained to our small "Girls Night Out" class, is neither liquid nor solid. It's "amorphous," or formless.

Yet glass is one of the most common substances in our lives. If you look around, you'll see at least two to three, or more, forms of glass on your wall, on your desk, on your kitchen table.

It's not "formless" at all; it's able to take many forms.

And yet, as Maggie explained, when left to its own devices, glass tends naturally to take a quarter-inch, round shape. That's what it wants to be, and over time, glass will "melt" into a roundish shape, such as the glass on an antique piece of furniture or windows on a very old house. It will ripple and lose its hard edge as it succumbs slowly to gravity.

Our task in the class was to take a flat piece of clear, square glass and, using the principles of glass, make a decorative "origami" bowl or sushi set (curved plate and small dipping bowl).

I've always admired the fused glass pieces at Sawdust and the other festivals, as well as those found in many galleries. They seem to have an endless possibility for shape, design and color — a vast playground for the imagination. So I was delighted to be able to take the two-hour class, which is being offered virtually year-round at Sawdust through its Studio Classes as well as other programs.

I soon realized — when faced with a stack of square, brightly colored pieces of glass an eighth of an inch thick with which to "play" — that glass is probably the most dangerous artistic medium aside from maybe a blowtorch on metal. You can't do much damage with watercolors or oil paint (unless you decide to snack on it or drink paint thinner), and clay is pretty benign, but cutting and breaking off bits of glass — especially while ruminating about design effects and being "creative" — was a bit daunting at first.

Maggie had tipped us off that we might be putting a little blood as well as sweat (but surely no tears) into our work by noting that each work station came equipped with a Band-Aid. I looked down at my table and saw small shards of glass from previous users and immediately grabbed a pair of gloves. I was glad I did.

Maggie demonstrated the basics of cutting and snapping off glass pieces. For those who were reluctant to get too hands-on with glass, there was a table filled with small, pre-cut shapes and "leftovers."

My table partner happened to be a professional Sawdust artist, silk painter Olivia Batchelder, and I can tell you that Olivia proved her mettle as a real artist: Within 15 minutes of working with the glass, she was reaching for the Band-Aids and by the end of class had multiple fingers taped up.

Olivia had opted for the sushi set project and launched into a frenzy of cutting that yielded a simple and elegant Japanese design with a green mountain and crystal clear clouds. It was quite stunning.

I, on the other hand, became enraptured by all the colors and oddball shapes available in the studio, and, duly protected by my gloves, began to cut shapes at will and place glass-on-glass in various abstract patterns. Because Maggie had described the varied effects of combining colors and types of glass pieces, I was drawn to the idea of making a "sampler" using all the various bits and pieces we were offered — from large pieces to small cut-outs, transparent, translucent, opaque, and the most interesting of all, dichroic glass.

Dichroic glass is expensive and is made by applying different metals or metal oxides to the glass using an electron beam in a vacuum. This sounded wonderfully high-tech to me.

I found an interesting piece of dichroic glass with purple polka dots that became the anchor of my design. Maggie came over and pronounced what I was doing as making "vignettes," or little distinct pictures in the four corners of the glass. With that note of approval, I decided to go for it and kept piling on more glass bits until I reached a stage I called "guacamole."

I might have been unconsciously inspired by Maggie's comment early on in the class that the bowl design made a perfect guacamole dish.

After a while, I walked around looking at what the other class members were doing. I saw some beautiful work. One woman had cut out pieces to create a tree; another used blue glass (my favorite glass color, which I had vowed to resist) for a serene bowl design. Others were, like mine, rampant with colors and shapes.

The "Girls Night Out" classes come with a ticket for a free beverage at the Saloon, which was where Olivia and I headed after we were finished.

After the class, Maggie will take the glass pieces to her studio for a lengthy and complex firing process. It takes more than six hours of firing (to a peak heat of 1,435 degrees) to reach the stage where the pieces are malleable enough to be put into a mold for the "slumping" process, which will create the bowl or sushi plate form.

Slumping occurs when the pieces are cooled to less than 200 degrees, and then fired up again to a peak of 1,235 degrees, which takes another five hours and 20 minutes. We each got a ticket to re-enter the Sawdust Festival to pick up our work later.

The fused glass classes are so popular that some people take them many times over, Maggie said. Some use the classes to make gifts. One group took the class in order to make a set of sushi ware for a friend's wedding; they also gifted the couple with tickets to the class so they could complete the set. What a fabulous idea.

Sawdust offers a number of such classes in various mediums, including ceramics, jewelry making, and other fun crafts that let you be the artist and walk away with your own piece of handmade work. As some members of my class noted, the holidays are coming up and a piece of your own work — crafted under the guidance of a professional — makes a great gift.

The Sawdust Art Festival is ending its summer season this weekend, but Sawdust Studio classes will start up soon. For more information, visit http://www.sawdustartfestival.org.

CINDY FRAZIER is city editor of the Coastline Pilot. She can be contacted at (949) 302-1469 or cindy.frazier@latimes.com.

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