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Pittsburgh Glass Center melts hearts for Valentine’s Day

By Elaina Zachos / For The Pitt News

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If you dropped most valentines into a 2,000 degree flame, it would be the worst-case scenario. But for couples on a date at Pittsburgh Glass Center this Valentine’s Day, it’s a necessary part of the art.

The East End’s PGC hosts its seasonal Make-It-Now workshop for glass-art amateurs to make their own glass-blown flowers, fused valentines or pendants on Friday, Feb. 13, from 4 to 9 p.m. This beginner workshop, which costs $25 per person, is just one of the many classes that PGC offers throughout the year.

“Our mission is glass art,” marketing director Paige Ilkhanipour said. “We teach it, we create it, we promote it and we support those who make it.”

The PGC opened its own glass doors in 2001 to start teaching glass-blowing classes to the experimental artists and glass-enthusiasts of Pittsburgh.

The studio is comprehensive, housing the entire production process of glass-art from start to finish. The PGC hosts a hot shop with furnaces for glass-blowing, a flame shop to manipulate smaller pieces over a torch, a kiln shop to fuse glass and cast pieces and a cold shop to finish, polish, etch and grind any final details.

“There’s almost anything [in glass] you can do in this building,” Ilkhanipour said.

Today, the PGC is still mainly a school that offers classes almost every day — ranging from quick Make-it-Now sessions to eight-week courses — but it also has a gallery and lends its studios to local artists who don’t have their own workshops.

Glass-artist and youth education coordinator Jason Forck teaches and demonstrates techniques in glass-blowing at the PGC. Forck has worked with glass for over 12 years.

In the toasty upstairs hot shop, Forck demonstrated the process of making a glass flower, similar to the ones that will be offered during the Valentine’s Day workshop. First, he dipped a metal cane into molten glass, which congealed into an orb-like mass at one end. Forck then lifted the glass-dipped end of the pole into a furnace, which reaches temperatures hovering around 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit. Forck rotated the pole to heat the congealing glass from all angles.

“It takes a long time to kind of get comfortable with your hands that close to the heat,” Forck said. “[But there’s an] excitement or danger aspect with working with fire.”

Metal-and-glass scepter in hand, the artist quickly stepped over to a small metal work bench before the molten glass could cool. Two metal bowls filled with colorful, room temperature crushed glass sat on the table. Forck dipped the glass mass into the bowl that had yellow-red flecks in it.

The colors began to meld together to form a miniature, mandarin orange sun.

Forck jumped back over to the furnace and repeated the heating process, rotating the sun-on-a-stick back and forth over the flames .

Though exciting to watch, a mini jewel-toned sun did not really resemble a flower. But then Forck was on to the next step.

As if he were about to impale his workbench, Forck pressed the orb face down on the metal surface. The mass now resembled a glowing, vaguely mushroom-like shape.

To form petals, Forck pulled at the top perimeter of the glass shape with a pair of extra-large metal tweezers, called jacks. The form blossomed into a vibrant tiger lily.

Forck then held the pole vertically with the newly-formed bloom facing downward. The heavy bloom began to rapidly slip to the floor. The bud threatened to slide right off the pole, but the glass was cooling too quickly. 

Before the blossom could hit the ground, the stem began to harden and take shape.

“It’s kind of a strange sensation to feel it get rigid in your hand,” Forck said.

Forck twirled the metal pole, letting the flower’s stem twist into a gentle curlicue. The flower cooled enough to hold its shape, and he freed it from the pole with a large pair of pliers. It rested bloom-down on the metal table.

A glass-artist would then grind down the broken-off tip of the stem in the cold room, and, in 14 hours, this little flower would be fully set, cooled and bloomed.

“They all make it look so easy,” Ilkhanipour said.

Forck said glass-blowing is an atypical and social art form. The craft involves a lot of physical back-and-forth work, and many of Forck’s friends are also glass artists.

Typically, large-scale glass-art production involves a team of four or five glass-artists. Each artist has a specific role to make production run like clockwork.

Sam Foreman, another glass-artist, has worked at the PGC for the past five years. He teaches workshops, mainly in making glass paperweights, pumpkins, ornaments and flowers. He also instructs private lessons and TAs a beginner class with fellow artist Zack Layhew.

Foreman graduated from Lycoming College in Williamsport in 2010 with his Bachelor of Fine Arts, focusing in painting, print-making and ceramics, but not glass. His interest in the medium started with his Mount Lebanon High School art teacher, who was also a glass-blower.

While still in high school, Foreman experimented with fusing slumped glass at around 1,150 degrees Fahrenheit. He recalls visiting a glass studio when he was nine years old and telling his mother that we wanted to work in the medium when he got older.

Outside of the PGC, Foreman works on custom commissions, such as a recent lighting project commission for a beer company. Foreman also sells his art at the Three Rivers Art Festival, the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and other local shows as well as to local galleries, including the Shop at Phipps Conservatory. 

Foreman said that, like many other artists, he looks to nature for inspiration with his craft.

“It’s kind of [a] cliché, but there are so many beautiful things in nature. They might not be 100 percent life-like, but it’s still the abstract nature of glass,” Foreman said.

Foreman added that every glass artist looks up to at least one Italian glass-blower for inspiration. He is inspired by Lino Tagliapietra, a Venetian glass-artist who has worked extensively in the United States.

When Foreman was first experimenting with glass, he watched instructional videos about Tagliapietra at work. Foreman actually had the opportunity to work with Tagliapietra over the summer during one of the PGC’s week-long summer intensive workshops.

According to Foreman, PGC’s ability to bring in the world-famous Tagliapietra shows how far the Pittsburgh art scene has come in recent years.

“The art scene’s really growing in Pittsburgh,” Foreman said. “And I think glass is definitely going to be one of the leading elements that pushes [it] forward as well.”

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Pittsburgh Glass Center melts hearts for Valentine’s Day