Hot Glass Team Collaborates on Special Project for Venice Biennale

I remember hearing the sound of rain hitting the roof of the Amphitheater Hot Shop on a Monday morning in March, but the atmosphere inside was anything but dreary. There was a lot of excitement, especially when the Hot Glass Team filled a child-sized swimming pool and placed giant wooden molds into the water. They were clearly doing something very different from our regular glassmaking demos.

Over the course of those wet, cold days in March, the Hot Glass Team worked with American artist Virginia Overton to realize her visions in glass. Known for her site-specific and sculptural work which often incorporates found materials, Overton was at The Corning Museum of Glass to do something truly special: develop glass components that would be used in her installation at the 2022 Venice Biennale. Those components? Giant pink bubbles in glass!

The Hot Glass Team has to work together instinctively when the object is big as Virginia Overton’s 20-inch glass buoys.

Making elegant forms out of molten glass always looks like magic; this was no exception. The energy in the hot shop was electric and urgent. This is where our glassblowers thrive. They strive for perfection, especially when collaborating with other artists to make something new and bold. The team has an extraordinary way of getting into the minds of artists who don’t work in glass, to turn their concepts into reality—and all in front of a live and thoroughly captivated audience.

Overton is one of 213 artists featured at this year’s Venice Biennale—a prestigious international art exhibition that’s taken place since 1895. Curated by Italian-born, New York-based curator Cecilia Alemani, the 59th International Art Exhibition, The Milk of Dreams, represents work by artists from 58 countries.

Virginia Overton

Overton’s Biennale installation incorporates both glass and concrete, two dissimilar materials made from sand. The large pink orbs—a homage to the famous pink streetlamps of Venice— are installed in the water along the edge of the canal, like glass floats used for fishing nets. Overton salvaged defunct fishing nets from Venice, sewing quilt work patterns to encapsulate the glass buoys.

“I really loved that these glass buoys could withstand all that time in the water,” Overton said. “There’s a strength in glass and the shape of the sphere. It’s been great to work with the Hot Glass Team. I’ve had so many questions, and their answers have given me new ideas for incorporating glass in future sculptures and installations.”

The Hot Glass Team collaborated with Overton over the course of three days, prototyping ideas and tweaking the process depending on the results. Working closely with glassblower George Kennard, Overton started to see her installation take shape. Kennard used Reichenbach 5: gold ruby extra to get the right color of pink Overton required. Each step in his process was quick and done with ease, the way only a skilled glassmaker can manage. Once he had his starter bubble, Kennard returned to the furnace one, two, three, four more times to gather additional glass, letting some drip off into a bucket of water beside him. By the time the team was ready to use the giant mold to shape the glass, you could still hear the bucket of water bubbling violently in the background.

Kennard then climbed up three steps to stand atop a steel marver and angled the blowpipe into a two-part mold made of fruit wood. At the Museum, we frequently say that anyone who can blow out a candle can blow glass, and that’s generally true, but in this case, to inflate this glass fully in the mold, Kennard blew into the mold for a whole minute before the team opened it back up to reveal a 20-inch pink sphere. Back at the bench, he took out an ordinary hand drill with a long tungsten bit and drilled into the bottom of the object. Making a hole in a piece this large helps ensure slow, even annealing in the oven. 

The Hot Glass Team uses torches to keep the glass and punty hot while the giant orbs are being shaped.

When the piece was eventually broken off the blowpipe it was another “all-hands-on-deck” moment. A few glassmakers maneuvered the blowpipe downwards into a thick layer of fiberglass insulation and someone else used large tweezers to break the orb off the pipe. The team took a hot torch to the lip where the piece was attached to the blowpipe and polished away the rough edges of the broken glass. One of our gaffers wore a futuristic-looking Kevlar jacket, gloves, and face shield to lift the hot glass orb up and over to a nearby annealer. Once the annealer doors clicked shut, Overton and the team wouldn’t see the piece again until mid-day the following day and only then was the pink truly visible.

Overton is paying homage to the famous pink streetlamps of Venice with the pink she’s using in these floats. When glass streetlamps were installed in Venice, the glass was made colorless by adding manganese to the formula. Manganese and UV radiation work to turn the glass from clear to a light pink or violet over the years. Now as an iconic part of the city, today these streetlamps are intentionally made with light pink glass.

The large 20-inch glass buoys are held inside old, repurposed fishing nets. Photo courtesy of the artist and White Cube, Bortolami Gallery, Galerie Francesca Pia. Photo: Francesco Allegretto.

Early in the afternoon of Overton’s second day with the team, she finally had a chance to see one of the 20-inch diameter buoys in person and in the sunlight. After taking some time to look over the prototype, Overton and Kennard took a moment to discuss changes they’d like to make. This free exchange is one of the reasons why she jumped on the opportunity to work with our team at the Museum.

Photo courtesy of the artist and White Cube, Bortolami Gallery, Galerie Francesca Pia. Photo: Francesco Allegretto.

“Can we go a little lighter with the pink?” asked Overton.

“Yeah, we’ve been using a little less on the other ones,” replied Kennard.

“What about this mark on the top?” Overton inquired as she points to a faint dark line near the opening of the orb. “Is it possible to get rid of this?”

Kennard nodded. “We can get that off since it’s on the surface. It’s from the tungsten bit when we were using the shorter one, we won’t have that problem on the next ones we make.”

Then, they took guesses on the weight of this buoy; Kennard guessed 24 pounds and it ends up being 27.7 pounds.

That give-and-take is so natural to the collaborative process and is something both Overton and our team loved about working on this project. Pairing an artist’s vision for something new with our team’s expertise, both sides go through a learning process and get to think creatively about how to work with glass.

“Collaborations like this are literally what the Amphitheater Hot Shop was built for,” said Eric Meek, senior manager, Hot Glass Programs. “We love working on these out-of-the-box projects that encourage everyone to think about the material in new and exciting ways. And it’s always exciting for us to partner with an artist who will be highlighted in such a prestigious way. For us to be able to say we’ve fabricated work that’s being shown on an international stage is thrilling.”

It seems so appropriate to work on a collaboration like this in 2022: the UN International Year of Glass, and it fits the Biennale theme well. Watching our skilled team make beautiful pieces of glass is enough to spark the imagination and showcase what glass can do. You could watch a thousand glassmaking demonstrations and still be mesmerized by the process. We’re happy to see glass get a platform on the global stage this year through the International Year of Glass and the Venice Biennale.

Seven of Overton’s glass buoys beside the canal in Venice. Photo courtesy of the artist and White Cube, Bortolami Gallery, Galerie Francesca Pia. Photo: Francesco Allegretto.

If you happen to be on an adventure out in Venice before November 27th, don’t miss your chance to see Overton’s fantastic work on display in the Arsenale, one of the exhibition sites for the Biennale. And if your travels happen to bring you to Corning, NY, we hope you’ll pay us a visit and experience glassmaking for yourself.

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