The Quest for Opal: Specialty Glass Resident Mark Peiser Finds Joy in the Journey

There is something fascinating about obsession. About searching for a form of perfection that proves so elusive, it’s the journey itself that becomes sustaining and gratifying, if maybe only to you.

The Specialty Glass Residency, a collaboration between Corning Incorporated and The Corning Museum of Glass, creates an environment where that pursuit is not only welcomed but encouraged.

Artist Mark Peiser working next to his assistant, studies a large piece of clear glass on a tabletop.
Mark Peiser with his assistant Jeremy (Jake) Chamberland working at Sullivan Park.

I interviewed Mark Peiser, the 2019 recipient, shortly before he began his year-long residency in Corning, and what struck me most was his passion to develop a glass that might so closely resemble mist in a bottle, or “the haze on the Blue Ridge Mountains” as he described it, that you could be forgiven for thinking yourself lost in those Appalachian hills whenever you peer into the depths of his glass creations.

Peiser thought then that he might find a glass at Corning that would bring him closer to that goal. When I caught up with him more recently, that discovery was forefront in my thoughts, and it didn’t take long to get to the heart of the matter. “This residency is an extension of a body of work I started years ago,” he confirms. “Which is essentially an investigation into opal glasses and new forms of opal.” Here is his connection back to the mountains and valleys of home and the beautiful opal-blue aura to which his surroundings surrender themselves.

A row of six test samples lined up on a table. Each sample is a short glass cylinder with varying degrees of opal coloring.
Graduated set of tint tests developed for Mark.
One man pours molten glass into a small mold being held in place by another man.
Pouring color test into a graphite mold.

Peiser, a methodical glass sculptor by nature, fascinated by glass itself as much as he is the working environment and the machinery, is the perfect candidate for a residency like this. Stepping into the laboratories at Corning’s Sullivan Park facility, he was reminded of the offices and factories of his earlier career as a designer and model maker. He immediately felt an affinity with the scientists he met and was able to trade figures and formulas as if he were one of them. In fact, when Peiser’s assistant, Jake, noticed a plaque on the wall of one office describing the discovery and benefits of alumina titanate, they both recognized this as identical to a problem they had overcome independently in their own studio. This “aha” moment helped cement the relationship between artist and scientist.

“The people at Corning have a desire to share, and an openness and enthusiasm to help,” Peiser says. “In the labs, they often don’t have an outlet to share what they are excited about, so we let them communicate it to us, and we wouldn’t know what we know without that—which was very exciting. When I go into their worlds, I find new possibilities for me.”

Four men wearing protective clothing and face shields gather around a mold before starting to pour glass inside.
Mark (second from the right), Jake, and the production team about to test pour a full-sized graphite mold.

In this way, Peiser found understanding and a lot of common ground, for inspiration goes both ways. “Everything I know about glass is all trial and error,” he says. “One of the nice things is that everyone at Corning knows that. We’re like kindred spirits.”

But the work wasn’t without its challenges. “Of course, making anything out of glass is a challenge,” Peiser reminds me. Working with new formulas and new molds, especially on this large scale, is a slow process. It could take 24-hours to pour into one mold and prepare for the next. A method of work that Peiser is now all too familiar with.

A close up of a glass test sample with the number 6 written on, showing the opal-blue color the artist is striving for.
Detail of a color sample

Of his time here in Corning, Peiser says, “Initial findings suggest there are aesthetic advantages with these new glasses over anything I’ve seen before. These opals look much better and seem more brilliant!” But, of course, they have different working properties that present new challenges—like the fact that this particular glass melts at a much higher temperature than anything he can replicate in his own studio. “But we’re working on that,” Peiser says.

Peiser is hesitant to say more. The project team has just received some very encouraging news and he is eager to get back and see where this new avenue will lead. But his obsession for opal will continue. He is reminded of it even in the heavy fog that settles into the hollows and valleys surrounding Sullivan Park. “As the sun comes up and through the fog,” he says, “that is exactly the effect I’m trying to capture. It just does my soul good when I see that.”

Mark Peiser will reveal more about his process as the 2019 Specialty Glass Resident during his Behind the Glass lecture at The Corning Museum of Glass on Thursday, February 13, at 6:30 pm.

My first interview with Mark Peiser appeared in Gather magazine, issue 33, you can read it here.

2 comments » Write a comment

  1. His presentation was fabulous – made many aspects of glass creation clear to the listener. His resulting pieces were spectacular. It is such a pleasure to have an artist admit to failures yet continue with new methods to find the desired end result or accepting the surprise result as a new medium for art glass.

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