You’ll never understand how liquid glass can be until you see it spun at the end of a steel rod in a 2,000 degree furnace. In the hands of an advanced glassblower like Nikolaj Christensen, head glassblower at the East Falls Glass Works, the globe at the rod’s tip looks as harmless and thin as a soap bubble–until he applies what looks like tongs (but are technically known as tweezers) to one end of it and it suddenly sheds violent orange sparks as the tweezers widen the taffy-like glass into the shape of a bowl.
Nikolaj Christensen and Sean Bradley (Photo courtesy of Wingho Chan)
His assistant and teacher at the studio, Sean Bradley, works wordlessly on the other side of the bench, applying wooden paddles to the edges of the bowl to maintain its shape as Nikolaj continues to roll it over the workspace.
Take away the modern conveniences of their studio (fluorescent lights and gas-fired furnaces) and the two men working and shaping the glass could be a scene from over 150 years ago when the Dobson Mills were first built (or even further back into the early 19th century when glassmaking was one of the major industries in the Falls of Schuylkill).
But a few centuries is only scratching the surface, according to Sean. “The techniques we use have been around for almost 2,000 years. It’s a very ancient practice.” And one that continues to amaze him. “I’ve been an artist for a long time. I’ve worked in all sorts of media and glass was the one that really spoke to me. It’s got almost limitless possibilities. You can make something very practical, like a drinking cup, or a really ornate work of art and everything in between.”
The product isn’t what intrigues him most though. It’s the meditative quality of working with glass. “It requires total focus–to the point that you tune out the rest of the world. It’s very beautiful that way. I can come in here and forget about a bad day. Mindset is so important in what we do here because glass is a very telling medium. If you’re not focused, it’ll show up in what you create. I can tell looking at certain pieces I’ve made that I wasn’t completely focused.”
It’s a lesson that’s hard for him to teach beginners in glassblowing classes. “Learning the equipment is easy. It’s getting your mindset right that’s hard. Some of that has to do with being confident working so close to the furnaces. The rest is thinking about all the steps in the process, like spinning the rod constantly to keep the glass from losing its shape or falling off of the rod. It requires thinking about all the steps until you don’t have to think about it. It reminds me of meditation in that way.”
Nikolaj Christensen agrees that mindset is very important: “if you’re not confident and willing to take risks, that’s when things can go wrong. We like to say that glass can sense fear. Funny thing is though, when I teach classes with adults and kids, it’s usually the kids who do better. Maybe they just like to take more risks or aren’t as worried about making mistakes. It’s interesting.”
Nikolaj has plenty of chances to work with kids, EFGW has had partnerships with the Main Line Art Center and several schools in the area. The studio also offers summer teen camps, generally six week sessions in which kids learn basic shapes and work with clear glass, the easiest type of glass to work with.
“Working with colors in glass requires a good deal more skill because you have to know how various colors respond to heat. Depending on the type of color it can change your approach, the temperature of the oven, and even the cooling. So we start them off with clear glass and teach them to make something simple, like a paperweight. It’s a good way to teach them the basics about pulling, twisting, and cutting glass. After that they move on to ornaments, which introduces them to blowing glass and controlling heat.”
Nikolaj’s work: On the left are Chalcedony vases. This type of vase is named after an ancient style of glassmaking that relies on minerals with variegated coloration. On the right are “silvers,” glass pieces made with a layer of pure silver leaf that breaks apart during heating to give the finished pieces their shimmery, jewel-like finish. (Photos courtesy of Jon Goldberg.)
Although he hasn’t worked with glass as much as he’d like to lately, Nikolaj enjoys filling in as a teacher occasionally. “Whether they’re 13 or 80, we can tailor our classes to fit the student.”
Don’t miss your chance to find your inner artisan at the East Falls Glass Works. Their roster of upcoming classes has something for everyone, but even if you’re not particularly interested in blowing glass yourself…
FREE TOURS & DEMOS! They’re open weekdays noon to 6 pm and on the weekends by chance or by appointment — so probably best to email ahead, make a little daytrip out of it, even. Maybe for a birthday, or even Valentine’s Day if your S.O.’s into glass or local art or even history.
Definitely stop by Sweet Nectar first for coffee and one of their fruit-sweetened baked things, and then swing out to see a 2000-degree furnace in action, while grown adults use words like “glory hole” and “blowtime” without giggling at all.
The best part? A visit to their Gallery of really cool — sometimes experimental — glasswork, all handmade on the premises. A different store every time you go, you’ll find student stuff mixed in with local masters. All colors, sizes, price ranges at this funky little “museum gift shop” tucked away in our own backyard.
EAST FALLS GLASSWORKS
3510 Scotts Ln.
Phila, Pa 19129