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Personal Renaissance – Exploring the Maestro’s of Italian Glass Blowing in Murano

Murano Island at sunset.

Murano Island at sunset.

Discovering artistic talents hidden within one’s self is an exciting thing. After 30 years of building Red Oxx into the powerhouse luggage manufacturing facility it is today, CEO Jim Markel found out he wanted to learn the fine art of glass blowing. A brief introduction a couple years back visiting the BAGI on the west coast introduced him to the art that would be a prelude to his journey home to Italy, the land of his birth. Here he met masters of the craft and gained insights he could have never discovered on YouTube.

The Glassmakers of Murano

In the back alleys not far from the cruise ships and tourists the glassmakers of Murano are still quietly plying their craft. Globalization has affected even these artisans with the squeeze of knock-offs from China. While there may not be as many artists as before, the craft still persists among the hardy few called to practice the art. From soft glass to borosilicate lampworking, you still find a dedicated core group of talented glassblowers living the way their ancestors have for the better part of seven centuries.

The Ballarin brothers are just such a family and would be hosting us in their studio while collaborating with Dustin Revere. The Italian glass market has been on the run, but it’s been a different story here in the United States. In my quest to learn how to work with glass I soon ran across a subculture that’s booming all around us. After researching equipment and safety concerns, I constructed a lampworking and fusing studio behind my home in a 1920s Model T garage.

Now all I needed was a little instruction and I’d be creating my own masterpieces in short order.

Searching locally and finding little love here in Montana it was time to surf the Internet seeking advice. I found a class available in Golden Colorado at Glasscraft and signed up for what they had. No bead making, no pendant making, nothing but pipe making? Yes if you want to learn borosilicate (or Boro) you’re going to learn pipe-making first.

YouTube’s Glass Pipe University

It was online where I also found YouTube sensation Dustin Revere from Berkley California. His instructional videos were something of a Fast Times at Ridgemont High meets the art of glassblowing. After attending the two day class in Golden and setting up my studio I was left with lots of questions and pretty much YouTube to find the answers. Dustin’s videos were exactly what I needed to get the glass rolling.

After months of slow progress between glass fusing and lamp-working, I decided to reach out to Dustin. Much to my surprise I heard back. Shortly thereafter he appeared in Montana and we spent the weekend working on the basics of goblet making and solid sculpture. After our work sessions we would discuss his path in pursuit of the glass-making art. Dustin’s career started with foundation of a classical arts degree followed by practical application at several arts and crafts schools back east.

It was while studying at Penland School of Crafts he met two of the great Italian glass maestros. First was Gianni Tosso. Dustin soon relocated to Baltimore where he was given the Karate Kid treatment of apprenticeship. From fetching sandwiches to breaking concrete the master impressed upon him the importance of always being an artist in every endeavor. This would lead him to his next apprenticeship under Italian Maestro Cesare Toffolo in Murano, Italy.

Of course the path of life takes many twists and turns and before long he found himself deeply involved in the American pipe scene. The documentary film Degenerate Art does a great job of capturing a snapshot of what those early days were like on the scene. Sitting in my living room in Montana with a side-running commentary from Dustin was quite the education. This subculture had been running along for years and I had no clue.

Leaving me with tons of homework I set about working on my skills for the next year until my phone rang. "Want to go to Italy?"

Murano Bound – Packing the Right Bags for European Travel

Packing for the journey would require being able to transition from planes to a bus and finally a boat. Sometimes the biggest challenge for me is deciding which of the Red Oxx fleet I will travel with. I sometimes wonder what it would have been like to travel with a half dozen steamer trunks. Each filled with an endless ensemble of cool threads and personal comfort items. Of course my baggage train would be something like two of every bag we make. But alas the reality of the situation is that I fly commercial and suffer with the rest of the travelers in the TSA purgatory.

I vacillated between the Sky Train and the Tres Hombres as my carry-on bag. Finally deciding to go with the Tres Hombres just in case my shopping got a bit out of control. For my personal item I opted for the CPA Laptop Briefcase in which I stuffed three Vinni Bags for transporting glass work.

Also some gifts for the maestros in the form of our venerable Nomad toiletry kits. For my personal toiletry kit I still rock the Tri-fold Shave Kit and some Nalgene bottles to re-bottle my toiletries. These containers are the best I have found and keep the messy stuff nicely contained.

Finally I chucked in a Laundro bag as an afterthought for day trips and shopping at the market. Cinching down the compression straps on my Tres Hombres had things compressed to way under the carry-on size limit. Over time I have been really paring back the amount of gear that I travel with. This has taken a bit of getting used to but overall I have been satisfied with the experience. More importantly it’s given me the ability to move quickly and easily through the world.

The Lost Art Of Old World Apprenticeship

Murano is the ancestral home of the modern glass art movement and has for centuries been the center of the universe when it comes to glass work of all forms. Apprenticing here is the ultimate homage to all the previous generations of artisans who have come before us. It’s not only the intrinsic knowledge ingrained into the very fabric of the island, it’s the art of place that manifests itself in so many small ways; from the bronze door knockers that appear to be older than America or the paving stones under your feet.

Walking the streets you’re literally enveloped in the very texture of history itself as the creativity seeps into your subconscious. We had booked a place via Airbnb with Fabio Fornasier. Fabio is yet another maestro and he gave us a personal tour of his glass works on site. The accommodations are excellent and very much in the modern feel. The really cool part was his glass creations adorn the lodgings and are just amazing works of art and function.

Studio work with the Ballarin brothers could go in so many directions. Each brother specializes in a unique discipline of borosilicate lampworking. From Danilito pulling points to solid sculpting by Maximillo and assembly by Carlo. Their system reminds me of the way we tend to manufacture our bags.

Each stage seems to find a home with one personality or another depending on how each craftsperson develops. For example I always preferred to make the pieces and parts of bags while Perry loved assembling them. Of course it requires a full set of skills to be able to make a finished bag. In the production world this translates to finding your niche and being able to move if needed.

The Ballarin boys have all the hallmarks of a full production facility and they have so many designs just sitting on the shelves it was a bit overwhelming. They’re like jobber artists with an eye to repeat-ability and yet still remaining true to their heritage. The quiet confidence in which they approach the work is something I’ve picked up on in the realm of glasswork. It takes a steady hand and mind to keep ahead of the molten glass as it fights gravity.

When Art Transcends Language Barriers

With our intrepid interpreter and fellow lampworker Federico handling the linguistics, Dustin did his best to communicate his vision of how the collaboration would work. Language gap notwithstanding he had a large chasm to close on function and consumer tastes back in the States. While the brothers have been producing a large number of traditional goblets and assorted sculpture like very complex crucifixes for the tourist trade, this was going to be something out of left field for them and completely out of their comfort zone.

Watching reactions and animated gestures I could tell we had their attention. So the first step was to try and create some prototypes in clear glass before going all-in on a color piece. Breaking new ground along the way with design and production techniques really ups the ante. The suspense in the room was quite palpable.

Those who have worked in this medium know that pieces fail for one reason or the other. Sometimes they can be "saved" by using experience and changing the piece while in progress. This of course is the part where the glass is telling you how it is and not the other way around. Failing to understand that fact you’re more than likely to see your creation fail at some point in the process. So the first day was all about proof of concept and getting these experiments into the kiln. Morning would reveal what worked and what would need more improvement.

Exploring A Classical Italian Town

Murano is small, restaurants are limited but the food never disappoints the taste buds. The commute back to the casa just happens to go right past such a little restaurant. Osteria al Duomoserves a great little squid pizza if you’re in the mood. Never one to turn down the calamari I just had to try it. Not sure if squid pizza is going to catch on here back home but needless to say it was very interesting.

With most of our time spent working we stocked up at the local market and prepared the majority of our meals at the Airbnb. Along with being a great value this gives you a chance to explore the market. I always find the local market to be a unique window into each culture I visit. No wasting time at the museum if you’re interested in how the people of today are eating and living, hit the market.

Collaboration Between the New World and the Old World

In an effort to save time and maximize productivity Dustin had brought along stunning custom color tubing he’d created. Producing the tubing is a process unto itself and the wow factor of his color combinations is not to be denied. The basic tube form is the foundation for many of the shapes in lamp working.

One of my next goals in this art form is to be able to create this tubing with my own color combinations. For now though, I’m still building my basic skill-set and learning the craft from the ground up. At the other end of spectrum is Maximillio Ballarin and his gold encasement techniques. Gold has mesmerized the human race for centuries with its near mystical properties. Gold is fleeting, gold is precious and gold is where you find it. Working with micro thin sheets of gold leaf and encasing them in glass is a highly skilled Venetian technique. Watching him work with the delicate leaf was like watching a tight-rope walker working without a net. The consequences might not be the same but the concentration certainly is.

While each of the artists built their respective parts for the collaboration I ran the camera and did my best to absorb all that was going on around me. You can watch several times and still miss a key element on how to accomplish a move. With so many variables from wall thickness to heat saturation it has been said that you’re always learning when it comes to working with glass. Of course the same could be said of just about any complicated process that allows you to create something from a raw material. With parts stacking up in the kiln we were getting close to our first assembly.

The orchestration required to bring the 1050 degree parts together is a coordinated effort. With Carlo bringing it all together we had Federico and myself pulling the parts from the kiln. You have to be quick when working with hot glass or it will stress crack due to a rapid cooling. It’s all a bit nerve-racking and yet the Italian’s have serene approach to working in the medium. It’s as if they were simply gifted from birth with a calm demeanor when it comes to this aspect of their work.

Working quickly and efficiently as a Zen Master he made it look easy and our first piece was safely back in the kiln. Here it would sit until the annealing process was complete and the kiln would "crash" – return to room temperature. The process is necessary as it aligns the molecular structure of the glass and removes the thermal stress imparted during the shaping. Knocking off for the day we were told to be back at sunset for a special treat…

Water as Walkway, Highway, and Thoroughfare

Strolling back along the canals of Murano at sunset, one thing you’re not going to see is a car or truck. You will however, notice the boats of all sizes and types from freight haulers to vintage personal watercraft. For someone like Maximillio though the need for speed is in his blood. So the mild mannered maestro loves his boat. His boat is no luxury ride however, having been stripped of the seats for speed so we all had to pile in and make do.

It was more than I could have hoped for motoring out into the night towards the lights of Venice. Thinking back to your teenage years and comparing that to running around the back water ways in a hot rod boat. Makes you wonder just what kind of mischief they were up to back in the day. Cruising the pitch black canals we got to the tour of a lifetime.

Pulling up to a rather large non-de script home Max pointed and simply said "Marco Polo". Winding our way along the fortress wall while glimpsing into ancient homes, you can sometimes catching a fresco on the ceiling or the antique furnishings of a bygone era when the Merchants of Venice plied the globe.

Tools of the Trade

We all like to pick up a few things when we travel and finding things unique to your particular locale should be paramount. Carlo Dona Tools was founded in 1923 and makes some of the very finest glass-working tools in the trade. Being trained in the hot shop first Dustin had cut his teeth on working with furnace tools which he then applied to lamp working. Finding Dona’s is like searching for a private club known only to the initiated few who practice this art of fire.

After a short walk we came upon a nondescript door and rang the bell. The door buzzed open and we were greeted by a smiling Roberto Dona, grandson of the founder. Squeezing into the show room you spy the neatly hung implements of a bygone age. You just have to be a little impressed at the sheer ingenuity of the tools they make in this tiny fabrication shop.

Combine that with an artistic flair and a deep knowledge of the trade and you get a pretty good idea of just how special this place is.

While Dustin and Roberto conspired on a new Mini Jack design, I set about augmenting my tool collection. In some cases I actually ended up buying pieces that I already had on my bench at home. While similar in appearance the quality and fit was out of this world in comparison to those sorry examples. With a fair pile of standard and rare items we took our leave. Dustin had to take a moment on the street for reflection. At the time I hadn’t realized the impact this had on someone who actually made their living with these special tools. That in mind, perhaps some day I’ll visit the Mitsubishi factory in Japan where our sewing machines come from.

Davidae Penso is known for his incredible beads which have a certain Italian style that sets his work above the rest. He taught at the Corning Museum of Glass and also hosts students at his studio in Murano. There are many forms of which the art of glass-work can take with functional art colliding with the purely aesthetically pleasing. Davidae is one of those rare personalities in that he seeks to be a creative and kind person but with a sense of getting the party on.

We were collaborating with Dustin on a functional necklace that he was really excited to begin when we invaded Davidae’s tiny studio along the promenade with our cameras. Firing up his bumping stereo, the magic started. Dustin created the centerpiece that’s a functioning pipe using his custom-colored borosilicate tubing that he’d made in California. While more of a symbolic piece it represents exactly where the American pipe culture’s been heading.

Davidae works in soft glass. As he started pulling it around like taffy, I was struck by how different it is compared to working borosilicate. The time you have to manipulate the glass is much longer and the ease with which it heats up is far faster. Making side pieces for the necklace collaboration he was able to bring up some of the colors Dustin had incorporated into his piece.

Meeting the Mentor

For Dustin the meeting he was really looking forward to was a reunion with Cesare Toffolo, his former mentor. I felt privileged to be part of this meeting and Cesare was very gracious as he invited us into his 14th Century home. We went through the gallery and he showed us the ground-breaking work that comes from a lifetime of effort and dedication. He’s currently working on a comprehensive book about lampworking up through the modern era. This book will be a rare look into the history of this secretive art form. He collected rare and fine examples of historical significance while compiling research for his book.

One-by-one he took the time to explain the history and how he came to own these treasures. With each one we were transported through the centuries the progression of the art from memory. It was a true master’s class on the historical relevance and building blocks that we all stand upon in the modern age of lampworking.

My Own Renaissance

It had only taken me 45 or so years to make it back to the country of my birth. Not sure why I have roamed all over the globe and yet never found the time or inclination to visit this beautiful and ancient country. My short but brief trip had filled me with many thoughts of what I would compare it to. Kind of like an upmarket Guatemala and yet the culture and history is so much more than that.

With the onslaught of globalism and the pressures of the modern world this aspect of the fine art of glass making may be in the twilight of its existence or it may be on the verge of a renaissance. I like to think the latter and I certainly plan to be a small part of that re-invigoration. Things may never be as great or robust as at the height of their ascendancy in regards to manufacturing and art, but these values will always persist, both here in Italy and back home in America.

Ciao,

Jim
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