When the Museum temporarily closed due to COVID-19 earlier this year, our glassmakers found themselves suddenly without access to the material they spent nearly every day shaping into beautiful objects. More than three months out of a hot shop meant they had to find new outlets for their creativity, and Museum glassmaker Chris Rochelle did just that.
“Glassmaking is therapeutic to me,” said Chris. “It’s active, it’s engaging, and it keeps my attention and focus. Not having that was tough. I missed the studio so much that I got busy making my own glass shop for a fun project during quarantine.”
Having spent more than 20 years in various hot shops—with 10 of those years at the Museum—Chris knows hot shops like the back of his hand. He could envision every piece of equipment, every tool, and all the materials that come together to enable the magic that occurs when a maker meets molten glass. Of course, creating a functional hot shop at home would be out of the question for most glassmakers for a variety of reasons. But that didn’t stop Chris from getting creative with his nephews’ Lego sets.
“I’ve always loved Legos but haven’t built anything with them since I was a kid,” said Chris.
Chris had a small Lego set on-hand that his mom had given him for the sake of nostalgia. Instead of building the intended creation, he constructed a glassmaking bench and a glory hole. He took a picture to show his sister who immediately offered a mountain of Legos that her three boys used to play with. After acquiring the 70-pound tub, Chris set to work sorting through a collection of Legos amassed over decades, complete with every part and piece imaginable.
“Some of the Legos were mine from when I was a kid, so there was everything in there,” said Chris. “Sorting was the hardest part—I had to give myself a palette to work with. It was amazing to dig through and say, ‘oh my gosh, this actually looks like a gas pipe I can connect to something!’”
Over the course of 80+ hours, Chris meticulously fashioned each piece of equipment, from a reheating furnace and annealing oven to benches, torches, and marvers. Sparing no detail, Chris considered each Lego piece and reimagined it to fit into his hot shop.
The final creation looks like a fully functioning hot shop, bursting with the hustle and bustle, sweat, and energy of a space where a material hotter than lava comes to life. There are many vignettes within the hot shop: the pipe warmer and furnace where the glass is gathered; the color cart where a gaffer can select rods of color to incorporate into their piece; the annealing ovens where gaffers are suited up in heat-resistant material to put their creations away to cool; buckets of glass batch getting ready to be shoveled into the furnace; a cleaning station where brooms and dustpans are mounted onto the wall; and so much more.
Chris tried to accurately represent the glassmaking tools at the bench, going so far as to make the traditional wet newspaper used for shaping out of a tiny Post-it soaked in water, then scorched with a lighter—the only non-Lego component. “That was a deep dive,” Chris joked. “Quarantine had an impact on me!”
Perhaps Chris’s favorite detail of his hot shop is a nod to the past. When he found round and square versions of transparent pieces, he realized he could make a large gather of glass that looked like it had been shaped in a mold. Throw in a staircase, a giant mold on a hinge, a number of dedicated glassmaking Lego people to operate it, and you have a blast-from-the-past, production-style element within a contemporary studio.
“Almost all of the hot shop has a modernized look, but I love the throwback section to mold-blowing,” said Chris. “It’s factory-style: getting a giant gather of glass, jumping up some stairs, and blowing it into a form. Having a production background, I’ve done some of this in the past, and it hit home for me.”
Although Chris is unsure what the future has in store for his intricate creation—he has thoughts of turning it into a display case/coffee table of sorts—the time he spent digging through piles of Legos provided him with a way to bring the thing he missed most back into his life during a challenging time.
“Glassblowing is something you come to need,” said Chris. “I longed for it—to gather glass out of a furnace and make something with it.”
And so he did the next best thing.
“It was too much fun to work on!”
Chris’s story was picked up by our local news station WENY and you can see Chris back in action at the Museum tomorrow morning, November 11, for a special live-streamed demonstration in our Bring the Heat series.