Torch Rises in Ensemble Performance

After an hour collecting molten glass, adding a layer of air bubbles and removing impurities, glass blower Marcus Thesing on Monday began shaping what is to become a Sawdust Festival memorial. Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Something akin to magic was forged in the blast-furnace heat and sweat of glassblower Gavin Heath’s studio this past Monday. Nine Sawdust Art Festival glassblowers collaborated to create a sculptured glass memorial, a singular pursuit of ensemble choreography.

The nine artists, including Heath, Loren Chapman, the Sawdust’s original glassblower, John Barber, Michele Taylor, Nicole McQuaid, Jason McQuaid, Christopher Jeffries, Marcus Thesing and Muffin Spencer-Devlin exuded cheerful camaraderie as they set about their task.

Even so, their outer exuberance belied the inner intensity demanded to successfully manipulate 30 pounds of molten glass. In what looked like a well-rehearsed dance, glassblowers seamlessly shifted tasks between maneuvering a long blowpipe between the furnace, the bench and the fiery glory hole to reheat the glass. Egos were in check as they spelled each other at the more strenuous tasks, anticipated each other’s needs and shouted words of encouragement in an atmosphere of controlled euphoria.

“We do have our moments,” explained Heath, also the Sawdust Festival’s current board president, who admitted that glass guild members sometimes lack harmony. “But this is a good one,” he said.

Until now, deceased contributors to the Sawdust community, now in its 46th year, have been honored with plaques on the wall of Healy House, one of the few permanent structures on the eucalyptus-covered grounds. An art piece commemorating their contributions makes a more fitting tribute, said Heath, who would like to see more permanent artwork embellishing the festival grounds in the future.

“This is an exciting morning for us,” said Sawdust board member Jay Grant, as he witnessed the collaboration between what he described as “some of the world’s greatest glassblowers.” He said they conceived the sculpture as a way to properly remember “those who have contributed their heart and soul and creative energies to the Sawdust.”

Last year, the board approved replacing the plaques with a memorial sculpture, said Grant. Among several proposed concepts, board members decided to combine one from the glass blowers’ collective with metal sculptor Larry Gill’s. Festival artists will be asked to contribute to foot the bill for materials, Grant said.

Gill and Heath previously teamed up for public art bench commissions. Additional art pieces on display in Gill’s Sawdust booth demonstrate their talent at fusing the two mediums.

“I feel like I’m a part of something really worth while,” said Gill, who earlier wrestled sheets of stainless steel into submission to fashion a sleekly curving base for the amber “torch of life,” as the artists dubbed their handiwork. The base will be engraved with the 75 names of those being remembered and can be detached from the torch to add new names as needed.

Goodwill aside, the fashioning of the glass torch demanded teamwork. Beyond the strength needed to constantly manipulate 30 or so pounds of glass, which feels even heavier when it’s molten hot, explained Michele McQuaid, extra hands are needed to accomplish simultaneous tasks. At one point, for example, as Jeffries rolled the blowpipe on the bench while Barber strategically directed a blow torch at the evolving piece, both Thesing and Taylor wielded wooden paddles to shield Heath’s hands from the scorching glass as he shaped it. The dance took two hours, accompanied by blaring music and punctuated by shouts of  “Woohoo!” as they successfully maneuvered the evolving orb from bench to glory hole or furnace and back.

In the climactic finale, they knocked the finished torch from the blowpipe into the thickly-gloved forearms of Jeffries, who placed it reverently in the annealing oven for a slow cool down. Its release let loose a series of whoops and high fives among the physically exhausted but exuberant crew.

“This morphed into something way bigger and more beautiful than you can imagine,” said Heath, calling the project a testimony to both the guild and the Sawdust spirit. “We fight, then we get along. But in the end, we are all together.”

A dedication for the completed memorial is expected before the summer is out.

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