Thursday, August 28, 2008

Tribal art - Tracking down Ira Lujan, Taos glass sculptor

We had been tracking down Ira Lujan, a Taos Pueblo artist who has broken new art ground by working with traditional Native American themes in glass.

We found him at Santa Fe Indian Market this past weekend and purchased some art objects from him. As we talked, he mentioned that his studio is located at Jackalope on Cerrillos Road in Santa Fe, which also happens to be an expansive marketer of ethnographic material, principally from Mexico but including many other exotic countries .

We filed away that information in the memory file, where it promptly was lost. Then we visited Jackalope as one stop on a quest for a special gift for a friend. As we walked through the grounds, we spotted the sign for Prairie Dog Glass studio. We looked inside. There was Ira, working on a glass creation.

It turns out that Ira has use of the studio in trade for blowing glass items of a more commercial nature for Jackalope to sell. Among the items that are popular are hummingbird feeders, decorative glass balls (doubling as ornaments), flower-esque rain catchers, glass bulb drip irrigators, glass vases and other decorative accessories.

The real treat, however, is that you can actually watch Ira and his colleagues, including Okey Owinge artist, Robert "Spooner" Marcus, at work.

Ira explained that the basic furnace is fired at high enough temperatures to make glass material molten and hold it in that state. It burns 24 hours a day and 7 days a week, since it is more costly to stop and restart the furnace than to sustain the heat needed to work the glass.

There also is flash furnace used to reheat the glass objects as they are being worked. Various tools, such as tongs and torches, also are used.

The process starts by inserting a long metal tube into the glass furnace and allowing a glob of molten glass to collect on the end of it. This clear glass is withdrawn from oven and rolled on a metal slab, on which grains of colored glass have been spread. The molten glass picks up the colored grains and the color begins ot suffuse the mass of hot glass.

The glass glob now is rolled, swung and blown by mouth to shape it. One of the fascinating aspects of this process is the smoothing of the glass item, which is done with a water-saturated thickness of folded newspaper. You read it right. Newspaper is used to rub and form glass that is hot enough to burn through it if it was not thick and wet.

Another key step in the process is periodically returning the object to heat, this time in a flash furnace, to maintain its malleability. Curves, twists, bends and trim are created by alternately heating the areas to be formed with a torch and pulling the molten glass in the form and shape desired.

Finally, the items are "cured" in a kiln so that they will be less fragile in final form.

You get to sit and watch the entire process, as I did recently. I had asked Ira to interrupt his commercial production to take time to create a glass corn maiden. It was in process as we returned to the studio to watch it taking shape. Ira was working with Spooner. Together they were making an object of great beauty. (Ira refers to the process as glass sculpting instead of glass blowing.) Such teamwork is required when working with molten glass, that can take on a behavior of its own if not attended to at all times.

The body had taken shape. The head, which had been created earlier, was now added to the body, by melting the collar at the neck, and attaching the pre-formed head. The point of joining must be repeatedly reheated to make sure it fuses together.

It was close to the final step as the bottom of the body was being
torched to be removed from the tube.


The entire piece exploded. After all that work.

"I've have never had that happen!" exclaimed Ira. "I've lost pieces but
never had one explode like that."

Spooner joined in, philosophically, saying, "That's glass."

Both workers had been hit on the chest by small shards of glass.

"That's why we wear safety glasses", added Ira.

So, we agreed it was necessary to start over again. It will e a few
more days. But Ira and Spooner assured me that it will be done.

When completed, it will join the other Ira Lujan works of glass art that we have acquired. Look for it on future issues of theis blog and on our website at .

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