In glassblowing, if the necessary risk is taken, the outcome must always be in doubt.
From "Glassblowing, A Search for Form," by Harvey K. Littleton, a founder of the American Art Glass Movement
In some ways, Friar Jerry Hovanec's life is like the art glass he blows -- both have been through a fiery trial that can either shatter or temper.
The good brother, with his furry face and long, cowled brown robe, at 37 looks like Friar Tuck in the 1938 movie "The Adventures of Robin Hood." Capuchin friars, Hovanec says, "have worn this habit for 800 years. It's a recognized symbol with a glorious history. I've given up a lot to wear it."
His face is full, like the drawings of the four winds on old maps. "But I don't have chipmunk cheeks -- those are the guys blowing into big molds in glass factories. For art glass, it's more manipulation than blowing."
He is a familiar if unlikely sight at art previews around town, yet people still do double takes when he is introduced as an art glass blower -- probably the only one with an art glass studio in Washington, and one of the few in the country. "It's a small group. We're like a family," he says.
Hovanec is also a member of another select group. He suffers from manic-depression, more properly known as bipolar illness, a condition believed to be inherited. "Thinking back on the way he worked as a builder, I'm sure my father had the problem," he says.
Recent research suggests that a chemical imbalance causes wide swings in mood, from elation to despair. With Hovanec, these symptoms had for years been masked as artistic temperament. "Actually, glass blowing takes a certain amount of that," he says. "When you fire up the furnace, you need to work fast and furiously for a while. I've gone at it for as much as 15 hours without stopping."
The illness was diagnosed for the first time last summer, after Hovanec had, during a manic cycle, "really been cooking . . .
"I was king of the world. It impairs your judgment, makes you feel grandiose. The downside was far worse. On the downside, I can't work. Frustration on top of depression. I withdraw. I was out of commission for a year.
"At one stage there, I became very interested in sporting goods stores and their .357 magnums. It finally became so bad I had to check myself in for emergency treatment, three or four days on the locked ward. But I learned something -- that I had more going on outside than in that confinement."
Hovanec is grateful, he says, because his community "hasn't shut down on me. You dedicate your life, and the order meets all reasonable needs. There's never a question about proper medical treatment."
He found the willpower to "hang in there" with the help of an outpatient program at the National Institute of Mental Health and a careful regime of medication designed to level out the wild mood swings. Unfortunately, he says ruefully, "the drug of choice is lithium, better at calming down highs than raising the lows. And there are some side effects. Heat can cause you to be dehydrated, a problem when you're working with the hot furnace in the summer."
Dr. John Nurnberger, an NIMH psychiatrist who knows more than most authorities about bipolar illness, says, "There can be arguments over whether controlling these episodes harm creative people. Some artists think lithium will cut into their output. The answer is not as clear. But highs, if left to themselves, could be disastrous . . . In most cases lithium doesn't abolish mood swings altogether, but it puts a cap on, making highs and lows less severe."
Hovanec is very matter-of-fact about his medical problem. "I've been on the roller coaster," he says, "we'll see how I can work on the level. I don't know yet how the medication will affect my creativity and insight. In the past during a high stage , I could work for weeks very productively, even five days without sleep. Now that will be precluded by the medication. Trying to find the right drugs to treat the condition is like waiting for Godot."
He is back at work now in the tiny studio, a partially converted garage, in the back of the Capuchin College on the hillside above Catholic University. His days are divided and bordered, like an illuminated page, by the Capuchin community's eons-old daily rituals of prayer, mass and meditation.
"I'm doing some shows to get my confidence back," Hovanec says. "Fortunately, blowing is like riding a bicycle -- you don't forget how."
His work is included in the current group show at the Plum Gallery, and in early December he will have a show at the Capuchin College. Last year he received a D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities fellowship. And his work, sold by galleries in New York, Cleveland and other centers, is displayed on collectors' shelves abroad as well as in the United States.
He finds nothing strange about being both a Capuchin brother and an artist. "Capuchins, an order who follow St. Francis of Assisi, have never been locked into a specific kind of work," he says. "In Paris, for instance, the Capuchins started the first volunteer fire company."
During the 1968 civil disorders in Washington after Martin Luther King Jr.'s death, Hovanec says, "our people were the first on the streets building emergency houses. We're not afraid to get our hands dirty. When Bishop Sean O'Malley was in Washington, he lived at 16th Street and Irving Street and knew both Central American ambassadors and the undocumented workers. Now Capuchin Friar John Pfannenstiel is director of McKenna House for the homeless."
The Capuchins were often brewers in Bavaria. "Hyacinth Epp, who founded the American province, is quoted as saying, 'Without beer, things just don't go right.' " Cappuccino (espresso with foamed milk) is named after the Capuchin habit. Some brothers are sandal makers, tailors, bookbinders.
"I've done most of those things," Hovanec says. "I grew up with tools and working with my hands. Brothers don't have to be in the priesthood." Hovanec decided to work with his mouth in a different way from preaching. "Glass blowing is something I'm good at and brings in money for the community."
Father Ward Stakem, guardian of the Capuchin College where Hovanec lives, says, "In our province of 275 men, only two other friars are involved in artistic work -- a Baltimore woodworker, a cabinetmaker and a carpenter; and a Pittsburgh dancing teacher, the head of a dancing school for underprivileged children. After all, St. Paul was a tentmaker. We all take the same vows and live the same religious life, but not all are called to be ordained to the priesthood."
Hovanec joined the order when he was 20, after a novitiate and a three-year trial period living as a friar. His brother, who grew up with him in Swoyerville, Pa., was also a Capuchin, but has left the order.
"While I was in the seminary, I took an elective pottery course at Slippery Rock State College, nearby in Pennsylvania," Hovanec says. "I thought it couldn't be worse than metaphysics. And at home for Christmas, I built me a pottery studio. I was a production potter for 10 years."
He was first taken with glass blowing when he was studying pottery techniques at Penland, in Asheville, N.C. "I found glass is the most interesting challenge -- for one thing, you can't walk away from it." As a religious traditionalist, he also likes the fact that "the basics of glass blowing haven't changed in 2,000 years."
"The first thing you learn as a glass blower is how to weld," Hovanec says, showing off his surplus shipping crate turned annealer and his workbench made of castoffs. The small furnace -- called a "Toledo tank" after the famous glass workshop at the Toledo Museum of Art, which revived glass blowing in this country -- is burning fiercely. "I built it before I knew how to blow glass," he says. It holds 100 pounds of molten glass and heats to about 2,200 degrees Farenheit. Today Hovanec has shed his long robe for his glass-blowing clothes -- a wet T-shirt bearing the Capuchin Glass logo (a monk with a blowpipe), a long-sleeve french-cuffed shirt he bought at a yard sale so he could wear cuff links, and old trousers.
He dips the blowpipe -- "it's like a honey dipstick," he explains -- into the molten glass on the furnace floor and twirls it around. In the next 45 minutes he works intensely, at a furious pace, with only brief minutes for artist and glass to rest. He delicately blows a bubble, dipping the blowpipe several times to gather the liquid glass and rotating the molten, now cylindrical blob. He wipes it with 12 pages of wet newspaper. "I like this part," he says. "Having been a potter, I miss being able to touch the work." Then he adds mischievously, "The New York Times works better than The Washington Post."
When the glass has reached the right point of density and heat, he swings it like a pendulum gone mad, careful not to hit the floor. "I know an abundance of ways to lose them," he says, "but I hope not to repeat any of them. Once I made a great big, beautiful piece, and as I was putting it in the annealer to cool, a drop of sweat fell on it and it shattered."
And then comes the 15 seconds he likes best, "when it takes its final form in a centrifugal swing, opening in an irregular form as I rock it back and forth, responding to what I see. I make 8 billion quick judgments, which cause it to work, or not. At this stage, World War III could start and I would never know."
At any point along the way, the liquid glass can refuse to congeal, the bubble can burst, the finished artwork can crack into a thousand pieces. And it has yet another ordeal, a night of cooling in the annealer. Until recently, Hovanec had to wake up every hour to turn down the heat, but a gift of a small computer has freed him of that task.
To be an artist is to be a seeker, always looking for the perfect form, always hoping that the next creation will be the one. "Lots of glass blowers do tight, formal pieces," Hovanec says. "Nobody was doing loose work, but now it's catching on. I hope to make large, architectural pieces, perhaps some that hang from the wall."
He has worked in a wide range of styles -- his comic circus figures are reminiscent of those of Alexander Calder -- and now he's working on ethereal pieces that recall great fluffy clouds, colored by the sun.
On the final swing, the glass cylinder explodes into a shell-pink abstraction of light and color and freezes forever.
Friar Hovanec looks to heaven for his art.