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Raw materials: Dudley Giberson

Dudley Giberson is a glass artist, and one of the key figures in the development of the medium -- as an innovator of new techniques, and as an inventor of studio equipment. (His ceramic burner, invented in 1968, is used in roughly 75% of small glass shops in the United States.) 

The income from equipment sales give him the freedom to pursue historical research. He has rediscovered the techniques used to make glass art more than 3,000 years ago -- a time when there was no way to generate the high temperatures needed for modern glass work.

When Giberson began his career in the 1960s, glassmaking was almost entirely a matter of industrial mass production. In fact, his hometown of Alton, Illinois was home to the Owens-Illinois glassworks, one of the nation's leading industrial glass factories. 

In this excerpt from our interviews, he talks about how he became interested in glass art and technology. 


Over time, [glass] has had such a wide range of value. In the ancient times, it was worth its weight in gold. Today, it's hardly worth anything. We throw it away. Glass is made in huge, huge furnaces. Raw materials are put in the other end, and it just rolls out the working end. So our view of glass, as common laypeople, it's just a factory product. Ancient glass was material that the common person never saw. It was made for the elite. 

I see why you were so interested in ancient techniques. When you were growing up, glass was a common thing; you've spent your career turning it into art -- which is, in a way, a return to pre-industrial times. 

Absolutely. It was a factory thing to the point that, when the bottle-making machine came into use sometime in the late 1800s, the hand-blown glass industry disappeared. The need for handblown bottles disappeared. In one generation, those people were dead, who knew how to work glass. Glass was manufactured by hand in a few shops. But they didn't really want a person like me coming in there.

Back in the early 60s, when I had an interest in glass, there was no one willing to say, "Oh, come into my shop and see how we do it." They were closed shops. 

They didn't want to give away their secrets. 


What were the secrets? 

First of all, if you knew how the furnace was built, that was a big one. The second was how the glass was manipulated, how the glass looked -- I can see someone do an activity, and I can go home and replicate it. They didn't want the common laypeople to know. Factory secrets are the only way to keep -- a patent isn't really where it's at, because you have to publish that idea. But if you can keep it secret -- there are times when I'm working on something, when I just close the door. I don't let people see what I'm working on, because I don't want to be invaded. I don't want someone else stealing my thunder. 

When you were growing up, were you a tinkerer, an experimenter?

Yes. I would frequently get the house furnace up to temperature, and my brother and I would melt aluminum in a shovel in the furnace heat. We'd be pouring aluminum things. I used to hammer copper, make all kinds of objects out of that. And I did experiment with lamp blowing, taking Pyrex tubing and doing some heating, bending, that kind of thing. I learned to weld when I was 12 years old, and I've been making things ever since. 

With that kind of background, I can see why you wound up in glassmaking. There's a lot of technology, science, and engineering in glass than in most art forms.

I was probably more drawn to the use of heat. I went to RISDI [Rhode Island School of Design] in sculpture, and in my sophomore year I was pretty much running the foundry. And you know, you learn how to build kilns, use burners, do burnouts, heat up the metal, pour bronze and aluminum, it was pretty exciting. So that was my introduction to the big-time stuff. When you're pouring metal in a foundry, it's pretty exciting. 

From that, I had this natural interest in working with furnaces. And a fellow named Norm Schulman came to RISDI from Toledo, he had taught ceramics there. And he knew how to build a furnace. He had been part of the original Toledo workshop, 1963, with Harvey Littleton, Dominic Labino, and he was the one who did the plumbing, he did the pipe work and he built the burner for that furnace. It was the beginning of the studio glass movement. 

So my route actually goes through this man, Norm Schulman. He organized a small group of students to help him build a studio out of his garage in Rehoboth, Massachusetts. And all these rudimentary skills that I had, like knowing how to do electrical hookups and plumbing, building things, came in real handy. 

If you don't know how to build a glass furnace, you're stymied. But if you see somebody who says, this is how you do it, all of a sudden you're given the keys to the kingdom. I knew, from the very moment when I started blowing glass there, put the blowpipe in there and make a big gooey gather on this thing, you know, and block it up, and the smell of the smoke and the wooden blocks, the atmosphere and the heat, it's very dynamic. It's drama, high drama. You don't know what's going to happen to that glass, you know. It might drip on the floor. 

And nobody knew how to blow glass. We learned. We would blow in the end, and try to figure out how to make this thing happen. 

It must be satisfying to see the development of glass art, and know you've played a significant part in it, both as an artist and as an inventor.

Yep. It's a lot of fun to work with. You know, I get the opportunity on a daily basis to work with people. I get phone calls form people who are putting up new studios. I do some design work. I've written a book called The Glass-Blower's Companion, and it has 25 studio designs, 10 furnaces, 5 glory holes, 5 annealers, and 5 accessory pieces of equipment. 

I wrote that because, over the years I've had thousands of people call me and need help. They need burners, they need elements to make their kilns hot. It's not in everyone's temperament to work with newcomers like that, but I really enjoy it. I get remuneration, it's what I do for a living. But I also do it for spiritual reasons. I really enjoy helping people. 

E-mail me at john [at] johnswalters [dot] com