Adventures of a beginner glassblower: At age 60, I’m putting hot irons in the fire — literally
Bridget Tapia is finding her post-retirement mojo with a new hobby right out of the Middle Ages: glassblowing. It’s dangerous, fiery and full of unexpected weirdness. “It’s as if someone turned up the heat on my retirement plans and threw me headfirst into a furnace,” she writes.
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Well, well, well. Who would have thought that at the ripe, old age of 60, I would find myself embarking on a glassblowing adventure?
It’s as if someone turned up the heat on my retirement plans and threw me headfirst into a furnace. But life is too short for the couch and rom-coms, right?
What started as a fun Davenport stop on a First Friday art search three months ago is quickly turning into a lifelong obsession to overcome my fears and, with any luck, discover at least one hidden talent within myself. So here I am, ready to work fast and think fast … with fire.
Maybe I’m just a glutton for punishment?
I owned and operated a small pub in San Jose for 25 years. After 30-plus years in the service industry, running back and forth in a 6-by-20-foot space, keeping 100 people entertained and satisfied slinging cocktails, I’m slinging glass now … for me.
My fearless guide on this molten escapade is Chris Johnson, a true master who has been blowing glass for 25 years and living in Santa Cruz since 2006. Having taught at many studios, and at California College of the Arts, San Jose State University and even at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Chris now teaches glassblowing both privately and through Cabrillo College’s arts extension program in his Davenport studio.
Chris’ passion is clear, his love for the craft evident. I’ll always remember when he said, “There is no other medium besides glass that places color in such a relationship to light, and it is only by light that we perceive color. Because of the ability of light to pass through and illuminate the glass, we can experience color at its most beautiful intensity.”
I get it. I am seeing it. It’s remarkable.
They say patience is a virtue. And if that is so, Chris is right up there with the saints.
With a steady hand and years of experience, he guides me through the mesmerizing world of glassblowing in his glass shop, which feels right out of the Middle Ages. I’m talking four fiery ovens, iron pokers, torches and hand-forged iron tools.
I marvel at his work. He wields his pipe, and each tool, as though they are extensions of his hands. Each of his fingers are in constant fine movement, turning and molding molten color into grand works of art. And here I am, stumbling alongside him, much like a bull in a fine crystal shop.
Chris teaches me, over and over, the multitude of steps required to transform the blob at the end of my pipe into a piece of artwork: load the pipe, add color, shape, reheat, “pop” the bubble, reheat, add more glass, reheat, shape, reheat, blow it larger, reheat, swing it, and on and on.
Each step requires keeping the glass hot and fluid, and on the pipe, which is easier than it looks. Glassblowing requires intense heat, constant turning, fine hand movements and a multitude of tools and torches.
Of course, I quickly and regularly forget the steps, and the order.
It will take years to teach my hands, but Chris never loses his cool (pun intended).
He encourages me to do it again and again, and that gives me hope.
I have my fair share of physical challenges — and I don’t mean just a few wrinkles and creaky joints. No, I’m talking about the kind of challenges that make you question your sanity — aching muscles, a back that groans louder than a rusty gate and feet that sometimes barely hold me.
Yet, here I am, attempting to work with molten glass. It’s like a cosmic joke, and I can’t help but laugh along.
I know I’ll never conquer this complex, ancient craft. I’ve realized that this attempt to master glassblowing will be a lifelong journey and I’m just taking my first wobbly steps.
I’ve made a paperweight, glass flowers and even a small vase. My big goal is to make my own glasses and light fixtures.
I doubt I’ll live long enough to make anything “praiseworthy,” but I revel in the feeling of being a bit of a mad scientist. I’m in a lab of molten glass, mixing heat, breath and a bucket of clumsiness to create something that’s either a masterpiece (very unlikely) or a disaster (most probably). Either way, it’s mine.
For me, it’s not about becoming a world-class artist and making a living. I mean, who needs a steady income when you can fill your house with wonky glass creations that double as conversation starters? Picture this: a living room filled with lopsided vases, colorful bowls with mismatched rims and abstract sculptures that defy any attempts at interpretation. It’s like an avant-garde art exhibition — except everything’s made by me.
And let’s not forget the joy of giving gifts to friends. I know they’ll appreciate the effort. I mean, who wouldn’t want a neon green paperweight that looks suspiciously like a mutant lime?
And lest I forget my sweet, also retired, former firefighter husband. My dearly beloved feigns such joy and awe with each of the little miracles I’ve made and brought home, like the lopsided shot glass and the “appkin” (the apple that was supposed to be a pumpkin).
His appreciation for my infantile work is concrete proof of his undying love for me.
Amid all the molten chaos, I’ve also made some unexpected friends among my beginner classmates. We stumble, fumble and occasionally shatter things together. We laugh at our missteps and find solace in the fact that we’re not alone in this wacky adventure. In this molten process, we have formed a bond fueled by shared clumsiness and a love for all things glass.
Blowing glass has become my personal therapy session, with an extra dash of chaos and danger thrown in. As I stare into the molten abyss, my mind races with thoughts of the beauty of the fiery glass, fear of fiery explosions and the absurdity of my own audacity.
But here’s the thing: With each step I take, I realize that fear is just a figment of my imagination, a puny adversary compared to the sheer joy of creating something unique and utterly unpredictable.
Sure, my heart might skip a beat every time I approach the scorching furnace, but in those moments, I’m reminded that life’s most memorable adventures often lie just outside our comfort zone. I refuse to “go gentle into that good night.”
Why do that when I can go headfirst into that amazing blaze of color?
So, with a determined grin and a firm grip on my trusty blowpipe, I face my fears head-on, ready to conquer the glassblowing world one wobbly creation at a time.
Bridget Tapia, 60, is retired and lives in Ben Lomond with her husband of 30 years, Michael, a retired San Jose firefighter. Both are San Jose natives who moved to Ben Lomond in 2014. She owned and operated Taps Keyes Club for 25 years. They now relish their retirement with their three dogs and visits from their children and grandchildren.