Sonoran Glass art studios preserve ancient traditions

By ROBYN ZELICKSON

Glass artist Bronwen Heilman blows into a sophietta to help create a wider opening at the top of Bryan Scofield’s vase. The two were working at the Sonoran Glass School’s Hot Shop.
Robyn Zelickson / Aztec Press

Glassblowing is an ancient art. Historians believe shipwrecked Phoenicians accidentally discovered glassmaking around 50 B.C. when they built cooking fires on a sandy beach.

Fast forward to Tucson in 2001. Tom Philabaum and Dave Klein transformed an old tire-changing station near Interstate 10 into a home for glass artists. Over the years, the Sonoran Art Foundation became the nonprofit Sonoran Glass School.

SGS has three studios: the Hot Shop, the Flame Shop and the Warm Shop.

The Hot Shop uses a furnace for the glassblowing process. The Flame Shop relies on torches to create art projects while the Warm Shop creates kiln-fired works.

Pima Community College partners with SGS to offer a furnace glassblowing course, ART 265, at the Hot Shop for academic credit.

Bryan Scofield, who took ART 265 five years ago, and Sean Coleman, a current Pima student, both work in the Hot Shop creating blown-glass pieces.

Coleman is majoring in art education at the University of Arizona and wants to learn new skills to apply in a multitude of ways. Seeking his own style, he experiments with different techniques and mediums.

“With glass, you go into a zone until you mess up,” he said. “You have to let go and roll with the punches because you’re at the whim of the glass.”

Scofield, who started as a sculptor and painter, was intrigued by glass art and now works with different forms of the medium.

He is a military veteran who has learned that glass blowing gives him power he doesn’t normally have.

Bryan Scofield blows air into a metal blowpipe to inflate and expand his piece of molten
glass. The artist started as a sculptor and painter but became intrigued by glass art.
Robyn Zelickson / Aztec Press

“You have to be able to react positively as soon as the glass does something that you don’t want it to,” he said. “You have to learn that you can’t control certain things. A lot of the glass ends up on the floor.”

There is lots of science and physics involved in the various techniques and mediums, an aspect that appeals to both men.

“Different colors react differently,” Scofield said. “There is silver, gold, cadmium and ruby, for example, and they all react differently to the heat.”

Scientific glassmaking is a very technical and highly skilled field of work, Scofield said. One former SGS student now works at Corning, making specialized glassware for science labs.

In the Hot Shop process, an artist gathers glass onto a blowpipe and inserts the pipe into a 2,100-degree furnace using an opening called a ‘glory hole.’ After a few minutes, the artist removes the glass from the heat and then twists, turns and blows it into a desired shape.

Artists use various hand tools to pinch or flatten the glass to create vases, tumblers, bowls and ornaments. Once the piece is finished, they gently knock the artwork off the blowpipe and place it in a kiln to cool gradually overnight.

Flame shop director Bronwen Heilman, an artist who has made jewelry since the ‘90s, began working with glass because she wanted to make her own stones.

“The best part is how you can manipulate the glass,” she said.

In addition to beads, Heilman makes hummingbirds and other animals. She also creates delicate scenes that represent the ocean floor, complete with plant life and turtles swimming among the plants’ fronds.

Using specialized tools, hot glass can be
crimped into a more familiar vase shape.
Robyn Zelickson / Aztec Press

She too talks about the challenge that glasswork sometimes provides.

“Tom Philabaum says ‘it’s just glass,’” Heilman said. “You can’t fall in love with a piece until after it comes out of the kiln.”

SGS offers a variety of classes for children and adults, at both beginner and advanced levels. For details, visit sonoranglass. org, email info@sonoranglass.org or call 884-7814.

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