Eric Edner adding the finishing touches to a gobblet.
For hundreds of years the art and science of glassblowing has been passed down through the generations, and local artist Eric Edner has picked up where many left off to carry on this age-old tradition. With a torch, a blowpipe and a special type of glass, Eric is capable of transforming the once hard and brittle material into a nearly liquid substance, allowing him to re-shape it into a colorful work of art. This amazingly versatile medium has become the source of an increasingly popular art form and Eric has spent the past ten years familiarizing himself with this ancient fusion of fire, glass and air.
Primarily self-taught, the 32-year-old has sharpened his skills by working with some of the most highly regarded glass artists in the country and has even given glass-working demonstrations at venues such as the Eugene Glass School and the California Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo. Adding his creative influence to the foundation of this fascinating process, Eric shapes and creates the molten glass into unique decorative designs, colorful cups and intricate vases. These extraordinary glass pieces reflect his technical skill and intimate experience with the natural world, which help inspire his designs.
Although Eric has witnessed the beauty of the western United States through his travels, the foothills of the Sierra is where he likes to call home. For the last three years Eric has been crafting his art out of his shop in Greeley Hill, a small town southeast of Groveland, and has since become well established in the artist community as an active member of the Central Sierra Arts Council, Sierra Professional Artists, and International Glass Art Society.
“I love it up here,” said Eric. “My family has been around Groveland since the late 1800s…so I feel pretty rooted here. Although I grew up in Pasadena I spent my summers up here and ended up finishing my high school career at Tioga High in 1994.”
Yet it wasn’t until years later that Eric stumbled upon his career in the art industry when unexpectedly, the spark for this flame-induced art form was suddenly lit.
“It really just fell in my lap,” he said. “My buddy got into it out of college and needed help with his work, so he talked me into buying a torch. I worked under him for a couple years and then started working with other people and began learning the basics.”
Although the title of this glassforming technique is pretty self explanatory, it is a very delicate and time-consuming process. By inflating molten glass into a bubble with the aid of the blowpipe skilled workers are capable of shaping almost any vessel forms by rotating the pipe, swinging it and controlling the temperature of the piece while they blow. As Eric immersed himself in the glass art culture, he discovered the difficulty of this process and the secrets to sculpting this remarkable medium. He learned to respect the art and the fascinating history behind it.
“The whole history of glass is super cool,” said Eric. “There is a lot that went into it.”
As a decorative and functional medium, glass was extensively developed in Egypt and Assyria and brought to the forefront by the Romans. The invention of glassblowing coincided with the establishment of the Roman Empire in the first century B.C., which served to provide momentum to its spread and dominance. The Phoenicians established the first glass workshops on the eastern borders of the Empire around 50 B.C. However, it was in Italy where the glass roots cut deep into the culture, and the Italians have been refining and expanding the techniques of glassblowing ever since.
“In Italy, back in the 1300s, they figured out the formula for clear glass,” explained Eric. “So the king at that time moved all the glassmakers onto the Island of Morano and wouldn’t let them leave. They were kind of like glassblowing slaves that rocked it out for the royalty.”
This island, which is still considered the birthplace of modern glass art, is where the majority of the refined artistic techniques of glassblowing (encalmo, reticello, zanfirico, latticino) were developed. Glass from Murano (also known as Venetian glass) is the result of hundreds of years of refinement and invention and generations of blowers passed on their techniques to their family. Yet these techniques didn’t stay confined to the island for very long. As glassblowers escaped, they continued their glass traditions elsewhere.
“Those that left the island went up to Czechoslovakia and Germany and they started their own little glass traditions,” said Eric. “Glass is demanding and it takes a long time to really get a handle on it, so it was very prestigious. This is why throughout history it has been this super prized, elusive thing. It was very coveted. Only in recent history has America had glassblowers. This process is only 40-50 years old over here! We didn’t have real far out glass like they had in Italy until the 1960s.”
This time period was known as the “studio glass movement,” which started in 1962 when Harvey Littleton, a ceramics professor, and Dominick Labino, a chemist and engineer, held two workshops at the Toledo Museum of Art, during which they started experimenting with melting glass in a small furnace and creating blown glass art. This quickly caught on in design schools and fine art glass programs spread throughout university curriculum. And, of course, a lot of the techniques and formulas were brought over from Italy.
“The reason Dale Chihuly and some of those other old guys have such huge names in glass is because in the 60s, when they were kids, they went to Italy and found a cool Italian guy named Lino Tagliapietra that showed them all the ancient techniques,” said Eric. “Without that knowledge it would take hundreds of years to figure it out. So when they came back they were fired up on glass and started the huge school in Seattle. They really developed glass art as we know it today.”
Thanks to the Pilchuck Glass School Seattle now has the largest concentration of glass artists and the city has become a Mecca for glassblowers from all over the world. The “glass island” of Murano, which once boasted more glass shops than anywhere else in the world, cannot even compete with the number of shops in Seattle. It was in this community where Eric really began to get serious about the art of glassblowing.
“After four or five years of learning the process on my own I decided to go to school up in Oregon and Washington,” he said. “While I was there I started chasing down big name artists and taking classes from them.”
These big name artists included the highly esteemed glassblowers Robert Mickelson, David Willis and Cesare Toffolo.
“The classes were primarily glass art technique classes and I started with Advanced Glassblowing under the instruction of Robert Mickelson, one of the big guys for the type of glass I do,” he said. “He is one of the originators.”
Eric also studied under Cesare Toffolo, a native of Murano and one of the most notable artists on the island. Born in 1961, Cesar followed in his father and grandfathers footsteps and learned glassblowing at the age of 15. Like his predecessors, he also became a Master Glassblower and began developing many flameworking techniques that had never been tried before. At the age of 21 he exhibited his work at the Palazzo Ca Vendramin Calergi in Venice and by age 30 he was teaching at the Pilchuck Glass School and a number of other prestigious art schools around the world.
“His family has been involved in glass for 100s of years,” said Eric. “It’s pretty incredible.”
As Eric learned more about the history and the art, the more he fell in love with it.
“Glass is the coolest medium!” he said. “I do flamework glass art, which I really enjoy because I am into 3-D art and making sculptures. Once you understand the engineering of glass and get the idea of what needs to happen for the glass to not crack or break, you’re only limited to your own imagination as to what you can make. It’s wide open…whatever you want to make! You can make everything from full-scale sculptures to the smallest most detailed work. You can do anything with glass.”
That is of course if you have the right tools. For Eric, these tools consist of a torch, a blowtube and an annealer.
“I have a really big, specialized torch with a flame of oxygen and propane that is designed solely for glass,” said Eric. “I wear Kevlar sleeves when I am blowing glass because the radiant heat gets pretty hot.”
However, he says that he doesn’t wear gloves because he needs the agility of his hands.
“You need dexterity because you are constantly spinning the glass in your hands,” he explained. “Heat and gravity are the biggest tools for glass blowing. You are spinning the glass constantly because as you use the torch and get it hotter and hotter it falls at the same rate. Ideally you are trying to spin it as evenly as you can and keep the bubble in. It’s like messing with honey. If you spin it at a certain rate, it won’t fall anywhere, it will just keep falling so it counteracts every fall it does and just stays in one place. The physics of it make it round.”
For this process a certain type of glass must be used.
“The type of glass I use is called borosilicate glass,” said Eric. “This is a Pyrex type of glass.”
Developed by German glassmaker Otto Schott in the late 19th century, this type of glass is known for having very low expansion rate making it resistant to thermal shock. Because of its durability, chemical and heat resistance it is most commonly used for making laboratory glassware such as test tubes and beakers.
“I use the same glass as the scientific glassblowers, except I use colored glass,” said Eric. “I order it in tubes and rods that come in five-foot sections in whatever diameter I want. You can get two-millimeter tubes all the way up to seven to ten inch tubes, but I generally use 50 millimeter to one inch tubing.”
The next process involves breaking down a tube into the desired size he wants to work on.
“If I’m blowing a vase or a cup I’ll take however big I want the cup to be and I’ll take that out of the tube,” he said. “I shrink it down and pull it on either side so it has really skinny handles that go to a big section, which are hollow so I can blow in one end.”
It is with the blowtube that he creates his desired shape.
“I blow whenever I am trying to expand the bubble,” he said. “Sometimes I blow and push together to create a squat ball, and sometimes I blow and stretch to get a long bubble (like in champagne flutes). Blowing is a special skill because if you attack the piece too aggressively when you blow you can blow it out too fast and it will get too thin, but if you take too long and don’t blow hard enough you will never get anywhere. Glass blowing/sculpting is all timing and feel. You have to anticipate what gravity and heat are going to do to the glass moments before it happens, that way you set up for whatever shapes you are trying to get. Basically it comes down to lots of time at the torch. People have no idea until they get the glass in their hand, and then instantly they realize that it will take sometime to get a handle on it.”
Near the completion of his sculpture he will add more color if desired.
“I apply most of the color by getting the sculpture hot and rolling it in a fine powder of crushed up color glass,” he explained. “Then I’ll take colored rods for the mouth of the vase to decorate the top.”
After he is done forming his art, he will put the piece in his annealer, a type of kiln.
“The annealing temperature for the borosilicate glass is about 1,050 degrees,” he said. “Basically the annealer is taking all the molecules that got all bent out of shape from all the abuse during the heating, stretching and blowing, and lines them up and calms them down so it doesn’t crack.”
Depending on how intricate the product is, it can spend anywhere from 20 minutes to six hours inside the annealer. The time spent on a project also varies depending on the detail.
“It depends on the size and how much color and technique or multiple parts I use to build up a vase,” he said. “I often do enclamo, which is the technique of putting two or more bubbles together to form a larger bubble with straight color line difference. But making a simple vase from cutting the tube up to putting it in the annealer takes about an hour. Yet it can take up to three hours or more if it gets elaborate.”
However, even at Eric’s level, mistakes still happen.
“Although it took at least five to six years to get a grasp on it and it’s gotten so second nature as to what needs to happen to keep it from cracking…it still happens,” he laughed. “Yesterday I broke a vase out of nowhere – which hadn’t happened in a long time. I didn’t pay attention to how long it had been out of the heat and when I was messing with the lip wrap it got splashed by the flame and it just cracked…so that stuff happens. But that is why I like it because there is always something new and it’s never really easy. There are always things you have to be aware of so it keeps me mentally engaged. It’s a great focus for A.D.D. You can’t not pay attention because it’s so dynamic.”
Most of his pieces pass through the process successfully and Eric creates a variety of products to sell or to give to friends and family.
“I don’t make that much functional art,” he said. “I do a lot of wedding stuff, which is cool. And some of those are definitely functional, like wine glasses, but they don’t make a big chunk of my work. I’d love to get into it more because it is a huge market and I like making that stuff because it has a lot of the Venetian techniques of cup making, which is a super hard genre. But it’s really hard because you have to compete with Wal Mart. No one can really comprehend how hard it is to make a clear cup and when you show people they say, ‘I can buy ten of those for like a buck at Wal Mart’. They are hard to make a living off, but they are definitely a worthy practice in glass. I mostly focus on the decorative things like low maintenance flowers.”
Eric is now at the point where he has created a style of his own, and beautiful decorative flowers have become his niche.
“Flowers are kind of my main focus,” he said. “I just dig flowers. My mom was a gardener and she always had lots of rad flowers and then when I got into glass, a buddy of mine, David Willis (a famous glass artist from up north), taught me a lot and showed me how to make real delicate glass work and realistic looking art. He had a bunch of orchids and I thought they were rad so I started building them. As I became more of a professional and started working on a career and going to shows…I just kind of took went with it and developed it as a kind of product line.”
These flowers often come out of a vase or are part of a cup, adding a new challenge to his glassblowing process.
“It took me a while to come up with the steps for a flower,” he said. “But I started in a production background so my background in glass at the very beginning was doing one thing a million times. My school of training was efficiency and trying to really get down the steps that it takes to create the product. But they are still all going to be a little different. I can get them close, but they are all hand made and I don’t use any molds. It’s all hot sculpted.”
So far his favorite creation is a flower vase he titles, “Never Mind the Fruit.”
“It’s my play on Genesis,” he said. “Adam and Eve are sitting at the bottom of the tree of life oblivious that their guardian angels came down and grabbed the snake before Eve could be tempted…a near miss. I’d like to do more of those type of things…my play on historical events.”
While he makes most of his art to sell, Eric’s favorite art to make are the ones he does for himself.
“I think the coolest things I do in glass are in private,” he said. “Just little things I can work on when I’m feeling stressed out or something is happening in my life. It’s nice being able to make something that is just for me that says it all. I enjoy free-flowing art because it is all new as you’re doing it. It is fun because I am doing something I haven’t done before and I don’t really know how to do it. That is the more liberating part of the art. It’s all fun, but it’s really fun is when you’re doing something that you don’t do all the time. That is the deepest, coolest thing about it for me. It’s an art…a form of self-expression. But then again I can’t do that all the time… I still have to pay the bills.”
And as most artists’ know, paying the bills isn’t always easy.
“It’s a lot of work,” he said. “If I have a show coming up I am pretty much in my shop 24-7 getting ready, but generally I try to do it like a regular job like five to six days a week. It’s not for the security seekers and it’s definitely dicey sometimes. But if you go to enough shows and get far enough away from California you can survive this economy thing. It is tough to be stuck in a small area – the foothills are hurting and I don’t usually get that much work up here…which is why I try to keep spreading out.”
To do this, Eric finds himself on the road a lot.
“I travel all over to go to different shows,” he said. “Just last February I spent the month on the road and went back east and gave demos in Georgia and Dallas and had a couple of gallery showings out there. Next week I am going to Las Vegas for a wholesale tradeshow for gallery and shop owners. I’ve never done one, so we will see how it goes. But it would be nice to get some orders from a bunch of shops. This is the direction I want to go. I am hoping galleries will pick me up and have a couple of pieces in their stores and shops. I am trying to get out there to broaden my market base.”
Eric is also thinking about broadening his study of art in the future.
“I’d like to take certain classes that are more art-oriented or expression-oriented and not so much technique,” he said. “I never went to school past high school…so I was never exposed to really heavy art. The classes I have taken were more on the technical side of how to get things done in glass. Now I would be interested in broadening my expressive capabilities. I would like to start thinking more about getting points across in glass…using it as more of a narrative instead of it just being glass for glass sake.”
As Eric continues to grow and mature in his creative capabilities, there is no doubt that his goals will be accomplished.
“A super lofty goal would be to make the Smithsonian or something, but I just want to continue to spread the art around,” he said. “Just to keep on making glass and to continue to be able to blow glass and survive blowing glass.”
Eric’s art can currently be seen at Groveland’s Mountain Sage and Yosemite Valley’s Ahwahnee Lodge. To see more of Eric’s artwork, visit www.ericednerglass.com.