An early childhood memory: my mom’s face lighting up when I gave her a clay ashtray I’d made with my very own thumbs. I was in elementary school; cute kids can pull off such useless, artless gifts.
I’m now out of the burnt-tobacco-receptacle business and into glass blowing at Hot Sand, a studio in Asbury Park, N.J. Despite my graduation to fine arts, I haven’t outgrown my need to please and delight, especially where holiday gifts are involved.
Blowing air into a long metal rod, my breath expanding the ball of molten glass attached to the tip, I wondered whether my mother would still find joy in her child’s creations. Although a parent’s love is limitless, kitchen shelf space is finite.
The tight economy, Martha Stewart and the proliferation of craftsy blogs have conspired to change the gift-giving landscape. Do-it-yourself presents are no longer the domain of children and infantile adults on small allowances. Friends and family swap home-knit scarves, self-beaded jewelry and personally preserved jams and vinegars; strangers exchange gift cards.
“It feels more in touch with the person you’re giving it to,” said Thomas Stevens, who founded and runs the glass-blowing establishment with an artist friend. “It’s more real.”
To experiment with this trend — and to start filling up my Santa sack — I signed up for a 60-minute class at the hybrid gallery, working studio and theatrical show.
Hot Sand opened on the boardwalk in 2006, offering visitors quick sand-and-glass casts of handprints, shells and the random detritus you find in toy chests. The tightly packed facility, which plans to move downtown by the end of the year, has since expanded its repertoire to include more elaborate forms of glass-blown art, such as bubbles (basically decorative balls), drinking vessels, vases and ornaments. Guests can watch demonstrations or try their hands at the art. During the casual walk-ups, visitors grab a seat on one of three wooden benches and assist the expert in small doses, such as providing a burst of air. The workshops allow greater interaction and involvement in the process, but with a safety net. My net was named Matthew Donofrio.
Matt and I started with what should have been the easiest step — deciding on the two items I would make — but it turned into a ponderous task.
I initially chose a snowman, fat and happy with a round glass belly and coal-black eyes. But Matt kindly informed me that I was too much of a novice for the advanced techniques that Frosty required. He steered me toward the paperweights, but my family’s homestead does not possess indoor winds that disperse loose papers. I had to nix the fused tiles as well, even though I could have added candied-fruit-colored accents. My folks have reached the perfect coaster-to-drinking-glass ratio; I don’t want to upend this delicate balance.
I finally settled on an apple-shaped ornament and a bulbous vase with a small hole for a single daisy. With the objets d’art selected, I raced ahead to the next big decision: choosing the design (twist, spiral, mold, etc.) and the colors. I chose pink and mandarin orange for the vase, and blue and aquamarine for the apple. Avant-gardists like myself prefer to color outside the lines of nature.
I took a seat on the center bench, surrounded by the tools of the trade (wooden blocks, jack, tweezers), which have changed little since the advent of this craft thousands of years ago. Placed in historical context, my vase and ornament were descendants of the Egyptians and the Romans, among the earliest cultures to play with fire and glass.
“Everyone has a glass-blowing memory of Williamsburg or Corning [in Upstate New York] or Cedar Point [a theme park in Ohio],” said Stevens, who learned the art while living in Amsterdam.
With the calming ocean to my left, I faced the 2,100-degree furnace pooled with melted glass as clear as a Minnesota lake in the winter. Two smaller ovens used for reheating sat on either side of the monster cooker. (You have about 45 seconds to shape your orb before it hardens and needs a quick burst of heat.) Matt started me off with a blob of glass on a long, hollow pole. He dipped the glowing ball of glass into the trays of colored glass bits, rolling them like ice cream in sprinkles. He reheated the mixture, then handed me the apparatus for a second coating.
The entire session followed this master-and-apprentice, me-then-you routine. Matt would perform a step, such as rolling the glass in the hollow of a giant wood scoop, and I would copy his motions. We were like mirroring mimes on time delay. He would spin and shape; I would spin and shape. He would blow air down the tube; I would puff my cheeks and exhale. Every so often, Matt would race to the rescue. For example, in my zeal, I nearly decapitated my vase with the tonglike jacks. Matt loosened my grip and saved its neck.
The final phase of the process — releasing the object from the rod with a few drops of water and some gentle taps— was exciting but also tinged with melancholy. I was eager to see my completed artworks but also slightly deflated after the high of do-it-myselfing. And what if I was disappointed by my creations? Parents love their children unconditionally and spin their flaws as individuality. Could I feel so magnanimous about my vase and ornament if they were to come out lopsided or pocked with pimples? Would they be good enough and strong enough to send into the world alone?
I wouldn’t know the answers to these questions for a while. My items had to spend 24 hours in the annealing oven, where their surfaces would harden against life’s drops and chips. Once they were ready, I still had an additional wait while Hot Sand shipped my glassware to Washington.
Yet no matter the outcome, polished or flawed, I felt fairly certain that my DIY gifts would be well received. If my mother could treasure a ceramic ashtray, she certainly has room in her heart for sparkly bits of glass.