Magic in the B.A.G.I. – Learning to Dance in Thermodynamics

Two Days at the B.A.G.I. Red Oxx CEO Jim Markel treks to San Jose for his first lessons in the art of blowing glass.

We have all made plans to travel and had to cancel at the last minute due to circumstances that conspire to keep you at home. I never have a good feeling about doing so, but life has a way of getting in front of life. After almost a year of nonstop work on our factory 8 expansion project, I was feeling in dire need of something fun and less taxing then digging holes and eating dirt.

However, the world’s greatest dog had lived to an age where leaving her would be risking having someone else make the call. Little did I know that Greta the great would rally and live on another nine months on love and a large collection of meds from the Vet.

MAKING ART FROM MOLTEN GLASS

So with another birthday approaching it was time to cash that ticket in and get out to the coast for some sun. The Bay Area Glass Institute or B.A.G.I. in San Jose provides a unique opportunity to work in several glass art forms with highly skilled instructors and visiting artists. The trip was the idea of our general contractor Tony “el general” Neumann. His best friend from middle school Treg Silkwood just happened to have become a renowned blown glass artist. We would have two days of intense work with the sensei in our own private class.

But first, I would have to escape from Montana during a mid February snow storm. More than once I have been derailed by inclement weather and I was keeping my fingers crossed as yet another front moved in from the arctic. This would be a quick trip with very little sightseeing, so packing was going to be super simple. Opting for the Sun Chaser and looking to keep it well under-sized since we fly mostly CRJs out of this part of the world. For those in the know the Canada Regional Jet (CRJ) is without a doubt, the stingiest overhead bin in the business. So small that it barely fits a briefcase and as for wheelies…. Well forget about it! You’re going directly to the pink tag line of hate ‘n wait. Four days of clothing and a Tri-fold toiletry kit left me plenty of room and it still easily fit into the overhead storage.

Arriving in San Jose without hotel reservations we quickly found suitable shelter at the lovely St. Claire Hotel in downtown San Jose. Stashing our bags we set out for some Mexican food and we were not to be disappointed, having a local guide you in on the Mole is always a major score.

GAZING INTO THE GLORY HOLE

Arriving early at the B.A.G.I. the next morning to collect us for our full day in the studio, Treg was excited to fire up the glory hole (Molten Glass Furnace) and start with our instruction posthaste. Walking around the studio I was taken aback by the lack of glass handling tools. In our trade we have lots of machines and assorted processes that go along with making luggage. Not so here at the B.A.G.I., skill and experience account for just about everything when it comes to glasswork. The glass molding tools we would be using were fairly low tech and in some cases looked to be relics from the 18th century.

As Treg demonstrated some of the basic methods we would be using, I could feel the heat of a tiny sun at our backs. This was the heart of the whole operation and the power was to be respected. Monkey see, monkey do as we were first shown how to gather glass and then right into the fire we went for our own. Each skill is built upon the other and as we progressed with being able to actually get the glass from the furnace we then went straight to actually making something. Albeit a very simple alien flower but none the less it was now an object conjured from a pool of fire. Magic, is the best description one could give to this dance in thermodynamics.

Working our way quickly through the training regimen time seemed to vacate my conscious thought. The amount of focus required to handle a dangerous material like molten glass is something that drew both Tony and I in. Like a flash we had made half a day disappear in what felt like an hour at best. The growling in my stomach signaled it was time to roll over for some noodles at Kumako Ramen in Japan town. With all the heat around the furnace you really don’t realize just how much fluids your body is losing. After an excellent lunch and three glasses of ice water I could hardly wait to get back at blowing glass.

TEAM BUILDING EXERCISES

Treg’s teaching style is very hands off and yet he is there lurking in the periphery just in case something is going sideways. In some cases the glass is barely under control as your fighting gravity and viscosity. One thing is for sure though, you have to be moving with the glass and that the glass is always in motion. Since Tony and I had spent eleven months working together on the Factory #8 project we already had some great team working skills in place. The B.A.G.I. offers classes for team building exercises and I could see that this art form is a great muse for that. With the first day’s work safely in the annealing oven we would have to wait and see how things turned out in the morning. (An annealing oven is used to cool molten glass slowly to prevent cracking ~ Minister.)

The first time I ever experienced hot glass being worked on this level was at the Corning Glass Works in New York state. I was on a motorcycle tour of the Finger Lakes region and happened to roll by. Needing a short break from eating bugs I joined the long line to get inside the museum. The Corning Museum of Glass is one of the greatest collections of glass work in the World. While there are thousands of items in the collection it was one plate in particular that seems to have stuck in my mind for 22 years. They had on display a Roman glass plate that while humble in appearance represented the largest known specimen of its kind. A simple roundel it may be, but to me it spoke volumes about the people who built an empire. I thought how cool it would be to actually be able to make something like that one day.

I sat and watched the live demonstration as some of the very best at their craft wowed the crowd. Such skills look unattainable when you’re confronted with them for the first time. When Treg asked me what items I wanted to make, I immediately mentioned the roundels. We were sitting around Candace and Treg’s backyard enjoying the electric candlelight during a very pleasant evening. Life in the icebox can be a bit taxing on the soul and something as simple as oranges in the back yard is a poignant reminder on just how tough it can get in Montana. Treg being a Montana native knew from experience the kind of brutal winters we have back home. Looking around the yard you have a hard time picking out what is real and what is a creation from this dynamic couple. Stunning blown glass sea shells that look legit are actually something Treg is well known for. They have collaborated on many concepts and the efforts are present throughout the landscape. I could have easily tossed a sleeping bag out on the lawn and it was only nine o’clock! The heat of the furnace really takes it out of you.

Day two and teamwork was the name of the game. After our previous day’s instruction we were ready to crank out some roundels. Sipping coffee and waiting for the equipment to heat up, we got the chance to pillage Treg’s color box. Inside were chunks of brightly colored glass, the remnants of twenty plus years of projects and it was really quite the treasure trove. After practically looking at every piece, we all agreed on a large handful that went into the garage for pre-heating.

I found out later that if you put a cold piece of glass into the glory hole, it will cause it to explode.

After demonstrating the correct way to make a glass roundel we were then jumping in straight away. Treg emphasized that the set up is the most important part of any piece. Without out a good set up you’re already behind the curve when it comes to getting what you want from your work. Since our skill set was only a day old Tony and I had to work hard to recall the correct procedure. The medium of blown glass leaves little time for daydreaming and it is best to sort it out in front of your decisions. Without the guidance from Treg we would have made a hot mess of out of quite a few gathers. Working as a team we managed to create some roundels of a sort, actually some even looked like ancient artifacts… well at least that’s what I like to tell myself.

FROM MELTED GLASS ROUNDELS TO BLOWN GLASS VASES

Switching gears we brainstormed on a couple more forms. Tony had it in his head to make a vase or two and I was all in for that. Gathering ever larger amounts of hot glass we each barely managed with a minor save here and there, to actually get a couple of interesting vases.

Having scoured every junk store east of the Mississippi and a few other locals the world over, I have looked at a fair amount of colored glass vases. But actually making one from molten form is enough to cause a bit of preferential affection. Tucking the last of the day’s work into the annealing oven we would have to wait to see what the morning would reveal this time.

With our studio time completed, Treg and Candace had a day planned in Santa Cruz with a run up the coast to a nice little beach. With temps hitting the mid 60s and sand in my toes I was pretty much in heaven. Having record snowfall and freezing cold back in Montana I was thankful for an afternoon of dozing in the warmth while hunting for seashells. Tony and I made a small gentleman’s bet to see who could get the most beach days in this year.

REALIZE YOUR DREAM

I can only seem to remember a few of my birthdays as being memorable. I mean to actually remember where you were or what gift you may have or have not gotten is getting harder all the time. I can certainly remember turning 18 in Marine Corps boot camp and I do recall a really great trip to Panama when I hit 40. This year my birthday was, for one reason or another, a really significant one spent in California learning that it’s never too late to realize a dream.

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