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Inspiration in Glass

When and where does the inspiration come from to create a work of art?  For me it came unexpectedly in 2012 when I was confronted by one of my own sculptures during the preview for the “Playing with Fire” exhibition commemorating the 50th anniversary of the studio glass movement at the Oakland Museum of Art.  A sand cast Totem that I had made during a residency at the Creative Glass Center of America in Millville New Jersey in 1985 was included in the exhibition.  I felt honored to have one of my earliest works displayed among a collection of outstanding examples of contemporary glass art. 

I began to ponder what I had accomplished since I had been ladling hot glass into sand molds at the CGCA studio 28 years ago. I clearly remembered the hours I spent pressing bisque fired ceramic forms into beds of damp sand in order to create molds for hot glass.  The Totem in the “Playing with Fire” exhibition was one of around a dozen sand castings I completed during my five-month residency at the CGCA. One of the Totems from this series was acquired by the Corning Museum of Glass for its permanent collection. The Totem on display at the Oakland Museum looked as interesting to me as it first had when I dug it out of its sand bed all those years ago. Looking back into the past is not something I have been prone to do but the “Playing with Fire” exhibition along with the 50th anniversary event organized by Mary White and Michelle Knox at the Crucible made me aware that I was passing through the mid-point of my career. 

I decided that it was time to pursue an idea that I had been toying with for several months and was reminded of by seeing the Totem at the Oakland Museum.  The original sand castings I had done in 1985 were made by pressing bisque fired clay forms into a bed of sand and then pouring hot glass into the resulting mold. I wondered what would happen if I used a bed of wet clay instead of sand to make a mold? What if I poured hot wax into the wet clay mold and then made a plaster silica mold from the wax? My studio practice has long been based on using clay as a sculpting material and simple open face molds for kiln casting glass sculpture. I create each sculpture in solid clay exactly as it will be in cast glass. Having recently worked on a series of vessels using a lost wax process I had been able to work out the steps for creating wax positives from a wet clay mold. Could I adapt this same technique for making sculpture? After several initial trial runs using this method on a small scale I decided to really try to push the limits of the technique. 

Wet clay mold for wax

I thought that in order to accomplish this I would look into the possibility of finding another residency that could help me to expand the scope of my work. The five month residency I had at the Creative Glass Center of America in 1985 had really helped to change the direction of my career by allowing me to explore the potential for developing imagery using sand cast glass. My experience at the CGCA in making sand cast sculpture led me to develop my own work with kiln cast glass.  Fifteen years later in 2000 I was looking for new sources of colored glass. I arranged for a two-week residency at the Bullseye Glass Company to experiment with their newly developed casting glass colors. I arrived in Portland with a truck -load of molds, which I had made in advance.  Spending two weeks working with the highly skilled group of people from the Bullseye R&D department and simultaneously firing several different kilns was an extremely valuable experience for me.

In order to push myself to go beyond what I had been able to do in my own studio I decided to apply to work at the Uroboros Glass Factory in Portland Oregon because they were making a high quality casting glass and they had a very large Euclid kiln.  My proposal was accepted for a residency that would take place in March of 2013.  I suddenly realized the significance of the saying “Be careful what you wish for because you might get it”. I had four months to finish the molds for this project so I could drive them up to Portland by mid-March. The technique involved in making the molds was simple but I wanted to drastically increase the scale of the pieces to take full advantage of the kiln space. I decided to try and create two large Totems as well as an Ancestor Boat that I could complete later with the addition of figures, which I could cast in my own studio. 

I started by throwing hollow clay forms on the potter’s wheel and sculpting the shapes into a variety of heads.  Animal, human and imaginary creatures took shape with no preconceived idea for exactly how they would be used in a finished sculpture. All of these ceramic heads were bisque fired so that they could be used to press into a bed of clay that would work as a mold for wax. I also collected a large assortment of different materials with which I could add texture to the surface of the clay mold. 

Driftwood, rocks, weathered lumber and anything else I could find that had an interesting texture became part of my tool kit.   Once I had prepared a bed of solid clay on my worktable I was ready to start pressing images.  The largest mold took 400 pounds of clay and was over six feet long. Using blocks of wood and a rubber mallet I made a hollow form in the clay, which I could fill with melted wax. Now I could choose which bisque fired clay heads to use to build up multiple layers of imagery in the body of the piece. Melting and pouring 50 pounds of wax was a challenge. I wound up using a very large double boiler and a hoist to move the pot of wax over the mold.  Using a 1” ball valve attached to the bottom of the pot I was able to pour wax directly into the clay mold with the pot hanging from the hoist. Opening the valve and releasing a torrent of hot wax for the first time I remember wondering; “What could possibly go wrong?” Fortunately at each step in the process everything worked.

Wax removed from clay

The wax forms came out of the clay molds complete with perfect detail. I coated the finished waxes with several layers of a splash coat containing plaster and silica and then backed that up with a jacket coat layer of plaster, silica, fiberglass and pearlite. I was able to melt out all of the wax from the molds in a steam chamber I built using a watering trough made for sheep. The molds sat inside the trough with several wallpaper steamers running underneath and the top covered with heavy-duty aluminum foil. After all of the wax was steamed out the molds were left to air dry.

Mold after de-waxing

On a Sunday morning in March I left California in a truck packed with molds.  I hoped the 600-mile trip would not cause any structural damage to the dry plaster molds before I could even get them into the kiln. Again, I was fortunate that all went well with the trip and I arrived at the Uroboros Factory on Monday morning ready to start loading the kiln. Everyone at Uroboros was very helpful and I was able to use my own hoist to get all of the molds into the kiln by the end of the first day. By the end of the second day I had filled all of the molds with a calculated weight of glass billets.

Loading molds with glass

Each mold had an extra amount of depth built into it to act as a reservoir for the glass that was needed to fill the casting. The glass colors were mixed by adding different layers directly in the molds. Being in the factory where the glass was manufactured made choosing colors a matter of walking around the corner to search through buckets and boxes of billets. After receiving expert advice from the staff at Uroboros we decided on a 21-day schedule for firing and annealing the glass. Each large mold held around 100 pounds of glass making the total amount of glass in the kiln load around 350 pounds. Once the firing was started I headed for home and left the Euclid kiln to run the program. 

I returned in April to unload the kiln. The molds were intact but it was hard to see exactly what the castings looked like as they were still encased in the plaster molds.  I had decided to pack the castings still in the molds for the trip home to protect the delicate glass forms. After a long days drive I arrived back at my studio in Northern California. I soaked the castings in water to remove the plaster so that none of the details would be harmed. Watching the glass forms emerge from the plaster as it dissolved into the water was an amazing experience. 

Mark and Uroboros Totem

Here were the images I had pressed into clay a month before now transformed into luminous glass glowing with color. Weeks of cold working ensued before I could finish each casting.  I also still needed to make a base for each totem and figures for the large boat.  As the work has progressed over the past six months I have been able to realize my vision for taking inspiration from a 28-year-old sand casting to the next level of artistic expression. The new pieces have a wonderful translucent color and a highly textured surface that I could only achieve using the lost wax process. The images I make by pressing the ceramic forms into the clay are a spontaneous creation based upon what I see in that moment of interaction between the material and my imagination. I have intentions for a final image but I am working with a technique that only reveals the result after the wax is poured. By using this method I am able to produce work that can have unexpected results. I hope that people who see my work will experience the same sense of excitement, mystery and discovery that I do when I create my sculptures.

To see more of Mark's work, visit www.markabildgaard.com

[Mark Abildgaard]