The air was hot and heavy, and I was greeted with the strong smell of burning wood as I walked into the studio. Seldom is this the scene we imagine when we think of conventional forms of art, though this is a typical day in the Banana Factory’s glass studio. While artists rarely have the opportunity to work with glass as their primary medium, South Bethlehem has acted as a hub for glass blowing since 2006 when the Banana Factory opened the only glass studio in the Lehigh Valley.
The studio, which is currently managed by Dennis Gardner, has evolved to offer a variety of classes from beginner to advanced levels, including glassblowing, flame working, and fusing. The glass studio even appeals to the most inexperienced artists, encouraging people of all ages to take part in one of their signature First Friday Hot Glass Experiences. These short, 20-minute sessions give people the opportunity to create their own small glass piece with the help of the studio’s experienced artists. The diverse array of classes and events invites all types of artists—including myself—to reconsider how we think about art.
On February 1st, the Banana Factory buzzed with activity for its monthly First Friday event, and the glass studio was no exception. The artists put on a demonstration, and while I have attended beginner glass blowing events in the past, I was curious to see what an advanced glass project would entail. For this occasion, they chose a seasonal design, which was sketched out and taped on the wall for guests to view. The piece focused on a big heart, while other small additions, such as a few flowers and a ribbon that read “xoxo,” would be arranged and attached at the end of the process.
It was difficult to determine when the demonstration even began, as everything was quietly executed as if each artist was engaging in some type of meditative process. I sat patiently in the balcony, embracing the heat of the studio in the midst of a frigid week and watching them move in small teams on the floor below. The artists began with a long steel rods, most of which were hollowed out and featured a piece at the end used to blow air into the glass. One artist would cautiously open the small door to the vat that held the molten glass, and everything lit up with a scorching, neon orange as the small opening emitted a hot blast reaching temperatures of approximately 2000°F.
The artist dipped the rod in the molten glass, spinning it several times to gather material, then carefully slid it out as to not disturb the red, viscous substance glowing bright at the end. It was a cyclical, rhythmic process, with each artist moving back and forth, blowing and gathering the glass, only to be interrupted by the quick yet essential moment when they would shape, pull, and press the glass into the desired position. This was done primarily using two tools known as the block, a wooden, cup-shaped utensil, and the jack, which resembled large, metal tweezers. The artists moved in swift, fluid motions, constantly turning the rod on a workbench and working the glass with the 10-seconds they had before it became unmalleable.
After two hours of hot, tedious work, the sculpture slowly took its shape. I watched as one artist gathered glass in several iterations, eventually working with a ball of molten glass the size of a human head. This ball would eventually turn into the heart at the center of the piece. Another artist worked quietly on the side, using the jack and smaller gathers of glass to piece together the letters that would eventually be placed on the banner. Glass projects such as this one are undeniably a team effort, and while each member works in quiet contemplation with limited communication, it is hypnotic to watch the glass come together to create the final, detailed result.
Without any hesitation, I would recommend that everyone should make their way over to the Banana Factory’s glass studio at some point. It is absolutely captivating to watch every painstaking moment of this beautiful, underrated art form. And who knows? Maybe it will even inspire you to take to the floor some day for one of the studio’s events, where you, too, could feel the intense heat of the glass and the orange glow on your skin.
The glass studio offers short glass sessions on the first Friday and second Saturday of every month, with the themes of these project changing seasonally. Additionally, the studio frequently offers weekend workshops and intensive classes. If you are interested in participating in one of the glass studio’s events, please visit https://www.bananafactory.org/classes/current-classes/glass-classes/ to explore options and reserve your spot.
*Feature photo credits: Victoria McCulley*