I have discovered the hottest core of Salem. It is within The Enterprise Center of Salem State University. Suite 750 reveals Glassworks Studio. Adorn a pair of safety glasses and be conscious of the space you occupy. The radiant heat alone burns. A waist-high security gate protects the gallery-viewing public from the working floor. For the curious, observational bleachers seat 30.
The studio’s furnace is to the left of the gloryhole oven. At 2400°F the furnace turns raw material into liquid glass. Its crucible emanates an alien blank-white heat. Its cousin, the gloryhole, at a lesser 2100°F, reveals a slight red-orange hue of mother earth. Working glass is periodically thrust into this oven to maintain the necessary plasticity to manipulate its form. Above its hearth someone with chalk has scrawled the philosophical advice: “CHILL!”
John Volpacchio is Salem’s glass maestro and he directs the fire and brimstone of Glassworks with ornery zeal. He began his studies in glass at the R.I. School of Design as a ceramics graduate and later found himself drawn to the Venetian island of Murano to be immersed in the European epicenter of the art. The last seven of Volpacchio’s twenty-two years teaching art at Salem State University have been primarily concentrated on glassblowing.
At Glassworks, the fleeting nature of cooling glass accentuates time and puts this small team in quick concert. Mildly complicated works demand partnerships of three. The spectacle resembles the choreography of an old-fashioned assembly-line. The glassmiths orbit each other with fixed intention. Hot iron rods tipped with syrupy molten glass swing about. Misfortune lurks.
“Because it’s all intuition and failure, the only way to teach is through experience,” Volpacchio ruminates in Emersonian fashion. “Always turning,” he emphasizes while spinning his work to maintain its fundamental vase shape, “Always turning.”
Nearby, two young lady students work together. They wear hip clothes and fashionable eyewear. Their neophyte attempts crash tenderly into a bucket on the floor. Volpacchio quickly eyes them with a sweaty brow and the passing suspicion of a busy instructor. Disappointed, the ladies ready themselves for another attempt. Teaching assistant Jeff Mentuck, while wearing giant yellow oven mitts, declares that “heat, gravity and perseverance” are Glassworks’ three articles of faith.
“The Four Elements,” Volpacchio declares while igniting a blowtorch, “are One: Withstand heat, Two: Think sequentially, Three: Communicate well, and Four: Know your time frames.” He quickly heats his work within the gloryhole and removes it. Then, acting as a human pendulum, he swings the iron rod several times east to west, elongating the glass at its neck. A move clearly reserved for a man possessed with the mystical intuition of applied physics.
“You can’t slow down,” Volpacchio says, reducing the reality to its lowest terms. “I love the physicality of it. If you don’t like the sweat then you shouldn’t be doing this.”
Historically, Volpacchio looses 10 to 15 pounds during the summer months. Such extremes are expected in this exotic and unforgiving land where “cold” is 1500°F and heat is the rule of law.
To find out more about the studio visit them on facebook.
The Glassworks Studio’s 30-seat viewing area and glass gallery are open to the public most days.
Story by Sean McCrea with photos by Lilly McCrea.