Humans have experimented with embers to make glassware since at least 1,000 BC. From the sacred shores of ancient, hallowed lands to a hip little enclave of the ‘Mad City’, the art of glass blowing continues to captivate its practitioners, awe its constructors, and keep those working within its domain and energy both vigilant and respectful.
“Glass blowing is a fast-paced, productive, alert, amazing medium,” says Richard Jones, owner of Studio Paran Showroom and Glassblowing Studio, 2051 Winnebago Street.
Located two miles from the Capitol on Madison’s near eastside, Jones constructs a striking mix of utilitarian and elegant invention, a commitment to radiantly, exotically sensible art. With a few tools and the spark of adrenaline, he pumps out decorative, functional art at its fieriest.
“Glass blowing is much less about self-expression to me, than it is about self-actualization,” says Jones. “My theory of art is about getting rid of the ego, getting out of the way of my work, and best focusing on the conduit. I try to get my small self out of the way, so that something bigger may be created.”
Jones’s ego indeed seems removed from the power of its creativity, aloof of the spectacular objects spawned from its own invention. When I compliment his work, abstractly comparing the beauty of one of his vases to an absolutely elegant sip of wine, he interjects, not rudely, but almost apologetically, “being a craftsman, I often only see the flaws.”
Early glass blowers often used their skills to make small items for personal accouterments, such as beads, small perfume bottles and oil, candle, flower, perfume and incense containers, some of which Jones also creates.
Glass making is precise, cautious, grimy, and dangerous work. In order to perform glass blowing, Jones uses a blowpipe. He pre-heats the tip of the blowpipe by dipping it in the molten glass of a sweltering furnace. Soon, a ball of the molten glass accrues on the blowpipe. It is then rolled by Jones onto a tool called a marver, a stout sheet of flat steel.
The marver is important to the glass blowing process, as it develops a cool outside layer on the glass and makes it possible to tinker with aesthetics. While Jones holds the blowpipe, an assistant craft puffs air into one of its ends, forming a bubble with the molten glass. Once the glass is blown, Jones is free to design an endless variety of shapes and combinations. By using large steel tweezers, he can pull or pluck the glass to shape detail.
Jones invites visitors to tour his workshop and adjacent studio, a gorgeous salon of exotic glassware, which opened in May 2009. The workshop allows guests to witness the intense heating process that makes this ancient art so unique and impassioned. Studio Paran also carries handmade glass marbles, sculptural graphite drawing tools, and a selection of handcrafted wooden furniture.
With more than two decades’ worth of experience immersed in the flaring, flaming art of glass blowing, Jones still takes pleasure in its powerful emotions. His world is one where so many expressions of awareness take place daily. “There are still always horizons to work towards,” says Jones. “There’s a comfort to doing this skill-based craft for so long, as it’s a space I’m familiar with. But I’m certainly open to finding things in my work that I do not expect, seeing them as an opportunity. I lead the work, but I do not follow it. I engage in a familiar yet fresh process.”
Indeed, at Studio Paran, there is no chance for Jones to rest on his laurels, no autopilot button to push, no coasting on the job, no daydreaming around the bonfire. Heat, glass, flare and fire obligate Jones to keep all internal mental noise and distraction to an absolute minimum.
“If I’m not paying attention, or if I’m somewhere else mentally, things don’t go well,” says Jones. “Paying attention causes old ideas to be replaced by new ideas, and forces priorities to shift. That’s all part of the maturity of glassblowing.”