Zelezny Brod, Czech Republic
After spending the weekend in Prague, I made my way north out into the Czech countryside.
I had been in contact with Martin Hlubuček, the head of the casting and hot glass programs at the Skola Sklarska Zelezny Brod (Zelezny Brod Glass School). I met Martin and one of his prized students at the entrance to the school at 7:30am. Michal Stehlik, the prized student, speaks excellent English and he comes from a very famous family of Czech glass makers. Martin’s English is good, but Michal’s translations were very helpful. He is a second-year student and showing a lot of promise in design and hot glass work.
The school opened in 1920, and the glass curriculum at the school incorporates many different processes, including flameworking, jewelry design, glass-blowing, casting, cutting, engraving, product design, and glass painting. The students typically choose one area of focus. Traditionally, the students are trained to be ready for the many factory jobs that were once available in the Czech glass industry. As in many other parts of the world, a lot of those jobs are tougher to come by as the industry has taken a big hit by the shifting economy and international competition. So, many of these students are now looking more to develop their own studio glass as they graduate. Many of them will go on to more advanced art school educations as they graduate from the Zelezny Brod School.
On our way to the flameworking studio, we passed by several display cabinets that were filled with works by the students.
There were only a few students in the class, and they were working on jewelry and furniture accessories. Most of the torches they have run on natural gas and air. For the most part, they are using glass rods and tubes from a local factory. The glass is fairly soft with some lead content and a COE of around 98. The gas/air torches are ideal for this glass; however, they did have a few gas/oxygen torches for some students who had recently begun to experiment with borosilicate glass. One of the more unique things I noticed in the shop was the lack of annealers. There were annealers in the building to be used when necessary, but at each work station there were pull out drawers…like a desk. The top drawer of each station was filled with fiberfrax, and they would simply put their objects in the frax for slow-cooling/insulation.
From the flameshop, we moved to the engraving room. The majority of what these students focus on is traditional, Czech copper-wheel technique. However, they did have several stone wheels as well. I was amazed at the quality of work these young kids were producing.
Next, we moved to the hotshop. We entered onto a mezzanine above the shop, which made for a great vantage point. We then descended down a spiral staircase to the floor of the studio. The shop had two 600kg melting furnaces and a few glory holes. They had recently converted the melting furnaces to run on electricity, and they were nice and quiet. The glory holes ran on natural gas, as the gas ovens will hold temperature better with the doors constantly opening and closing. There were two benches in the studio, but they had both been pushed out of the way. The Czechs and many other Northern Europeans have a tradition of working from a standing position and simply turning the pipes on standing yokes.
We then made our way through the painting, mold-making, and cutting studios. All of these studios were well-stocked with all of the supplies necessary for these aspects of the Czech glass tradition. I was blown away at the extensive selection of cutting wheels they had on their shelves, and the students were quite adept at techniques as they have had world-class instruction.
In addition to the traditional hands-on approach to the material, the students are well-schooled in drawing and 3D computer modeling. Martin was very proud to show me their 3D printer. It was great to see how a school so steeped in tradition was pushing their students along with some of the newest technologies available as well.
One other thing of particular note from the visit was another tradition for the soon-to-be-graduating fourth-year students. Fortunately, I had been prepared for this the previous night. This was the final class day for these students, and they were all dressed in lab coats. Some had different types of noise-makers, and they were all armed with bottles and cups containing awful mixes of different household liquids. The tradition is that they wait at the entrance to the school and travel throughout the hallways insisting on money for safe passage. If you don’t pay…they will soak you with the liquids. They were nice to me, but Martin had run out of coins by 9am. I can only hope that he made it through the rest of the day okay. The school janitor was working overtime too.
We then made our way down the street about 200 meters to the Zelezny Brod Glass Museum. The museum had three rooms for exhibitions. The first room we entered is permanently dedicated to the works of the world-renowned Czech duo of Libensky and Brychtova. Their works have held a special place in my heart for many years. It was so great to see their glass works and sketches.
On the second floor of the museum are two galleries that were filled with the works of many of the talented, former instructors, students, and independent artists from the area. They also had references to some of the older traditions of their cottage industry of lamp working and glass jewelry. Being a flameworker myself, I really enjoyed the vast selections of flameworked pieces from Jaroslav Brychta.
When we finished at the museum, it was about 9:30am. We had to move quickly that morning, as I needed to catch a bus at 10:15am to begin the trek to Novy Bor for my next appointment at the glass school there. This gave me just enough time to shoot some pictures of the town, grab a delicious pastry and coffee, and still catch the first of three buses I would need to ride. Stay tuned…