Nothing, it seems, makes the hand of Vernon Brejcha quiver.
Not the heat from a furnace that burns a few thousand degrees, not the weight of a five-foot pole with a ball of fire attached to its end, and not even the frailty of a very, very old bottle.
Brejcha lets the two- to three-inch piece of clear glass rest in the palm of his hand, and announces to visitors that the bottle is from the Roman Empire. Then he plays the game he always plays with guests: Guess what it is.
A medicine bottle, I say. The most common guess, but both wrong and boring.
Its true use is more interesting, but Brejcha is fascinated by it for another reason as well: How it was made. More than a thousand years ago, it was made much the same way he makes glass objects today in his rural Lawrence workshop.
"It was a Roman who first blew through a hollow pipe and blew a glass bubble," Brejcha says. "Why he decided to do it a second time, I don't know."
That's probably not true. Brejcha knows. Brejcha is a master glassblower — a retired art professor from Kansas University and a glassblower who has pieces displayed across the world in corporate lobbies, fine museums and private collections. He surely has a pretty good idea of how that first Roman felt because he and other glassblowers still feel it all these years later.
"There is just something about the process," Brejcha says. "The process is magical. Glass is magic."
About Vernon Brejcha
Brejcha quit his high school teaching job in 1969 to attend graduate school at the University of Wisconsin under famed glass artist Harvey Littleton, considered the father of the American studio glass movement. There was a problem, though: Brejcha had never applied to the school.
"I was so naive," Brejcha said. "I just showed up."
Brejcha was accepted, graduated, and was among the first group of artists in the new American studio glass movement. Brejcha was an associate professor of art and design at KU for more than 25 years. More than 50 museums across the world have collected his glass pieces, including the Smithsonian, the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, and the Wedgwood Museum in England. His work sells in several galleries regionally and nationally.
Good glass has to start out pure. As Brejcha explains, glass starts out just as sand, but it needs to be "pure white sand, not the stuff you find in the river."
But here is something about pure sand: Good luck melting it. It melts at 3,000 degrees, a heat so hot man can't reasonably approach it, Brejcha says. So man combines the sand with other minerals— a process called fluxing — that lets it melt at lower temperatures. Brejcha's electric furnace — it adds more than $700 a month to his electric bill — operates at a little more than 2,000 degrees.
In summary: What was once pure is dirtied, exposed to intense heat, to be molded by man. Yes, we could spin quite a metaphor here, but there really isn't time. If you watch a glassblower in his studio, you'll come to a quick conclusion: Every second is precious.
Brejcha starts out with molten silica — or, as is the case today, shards of recycled glass — in his electric furnace, and then inserts the end of his long glassblowing pipe into the fire. The melted glass forms around the pipe — a process called gathering — and at just the right moment, Brejcha blows through the pipe to expand the glass bubble. Brejcha has been blowing glass since 1969, but that first blow of a new piece is still the hardest part of the process. The blow has to come at the moment when the molten glass is just the right consistency. During tours of his studio, Brejcha will stop in mid-syllable to provide a puff at just the right moment.
"If you start to puff a little too soon, a whisper will expand the glass and it will pop," Brejcha explains. "If you wait too long, you'll blow your ear drums out and it still won't expand."
If you get it right, don't take long to admire your work. After all, you've still got a ball of molten glass on the end of your pipe to do something with. Molten glass likes to be turned, but — you guessed it — in just the right way. The trick, Brejcha says, is that the glassblower must turn the pipe at the same speed the molten glass is falling.
"Fortunately, I don't have to think about it anymore," Brejcha says. "It is like you don't have to think about your heart beating."
Eventually the glass will cool, making it impossible to shape, so Brejcha frequently inserts it into another furnace to reheat the glass, all the while turning at just the right speed. More gathering of melted silica will make the piece larger. More well-timed puffs will as well.
Today, Brejcha is making a small bowl of about six inches. ($600, if you are interested.) It will be reddish-purple when it is done, thanks to the right combination of minerals added to the silica at the beginning of the process. But you'll just have to trust me on that because during the 45 minutes it takes for Brejcha to create it, the piece is never anything other than molten orange.
A few neat tools are used along the way. Just like his Roman predecessor, Brejcha uses tools carved from wooden fruitwoods that are used to mold the hot glass into different shapes. The sap from the fruitwoods stops the wood from burning.
Eventually, you'll get to the point you've been waiting for: You get to break the glass. What? No, you have to, unless you want to have a glass bowl stuck to the end of a blow pipe forever. Brejcha sticks a short rod — called a punty — to one end of the piece. Then he takes a long metal caliper like device — called a jack — and starts making a groove into the hot glass, near where it is connected to the blow pipe.
Then, the secret ingredient: water. "Water is the enemy of glass," Brejcha says. He dips a metal file into a can of water, and lets it carefully drip along the groove he has created. Then a slight tap of the glass, and it breaks along the groove. (Don't forget to hold onto the punty rod, or else you've just watched your glass fall onto the floor.)
The punty rod is easily unstuck, and then the entire piece — with the aid of fireproof gloves — is put into a cooling oven, which operates at a mere 925 degrees. The piece will cool and harden for about 12 hours. Then it will come out beautiful. Or it may just break and crack. That's glass for you. Brejcha's success rate is about 98 percent, but failure can be as unpredictable as the wind.
"Working glass is almost like working a material that is alive," Brejcha said. "It will tell you when it is ready, and it will show you when it is not."
Back to our game: a perfume bottle. That's the second most popular guess, Brejcha says, and also wrong. I won't get into the other guesses made, because some of us, evidently, thought the Romans did some pretty odd things with bottles.
And they kind of did. Brejcha explains that the wives of Roman soldiers would shed tears for their husbands before they went off to war. The tears would be kept in this small glass bottle. It is a Roman tear catcher.
Experts have dated it as being made sometime between 10 B.C. and 10 A.D. Think about that for a moment, especially during this season of Christmas trees and crosses. This bottle is from his time. It is a good reminder of how much has changed. We don't catch tears in a bottle anymore.
But it also is a reminder of how much hasn't.
"All this, goes back to primitive times," Brejcha says of his tools and processes.
The finest glass in the world is still made essentially the same way as it was during the time of Jesus: a pipe, a well-timed puff, and a craftsman in tune with an enchanted process. What a great holiday reminder of how beauty endures.
Maybe glass really is magic.
— Each Sunday, Lawhorn’s Lawrence focuses on the people, places or past of Lawrence and the surrounding area. If you have a story idea, send it to Chad at email@example.com.