Fire and form collide as glass artist Drew Spangenberg gives a furnace-side tour of the JamFactory Glass Studio.
Behind JamFactory’s manicured west end gallery space lies a hissing and steaming hive of activity. Inside, a young man twirls a thin metal pipe into a glowing furnace as a woman in pink-tinted glasses paces nearby, effortlessly twisting another rod with a radiating blob stuck on its end. He passes the two-metre long pipe to her in a sweeping movement, and she continues her molten lava dance.
The man is Drew Spangenberg, a 28-year-old glass artist based in Adelaide. Barely audible over the din of the workshop, Spangenberg starts to reel off words like “punty”, “gaffer” and “glory hole”. “Glass is its own language,” he tells The Adelaide Review in a less deafening part of the workshop. “You can convey your point without using words, most of the time.”
An individual piece can take anything between a few minutes to five hours to produce, but no matter how long Spangenberg spends blowing glass “it doesn’t really feel like work”. Despite the scorching temperatures and delicate skill required, the work looks like child’s play in the skilled hands of Spangenberg and his colleagues. They twist honey on straws, blow bubbles into it, and mould molten balloons like Play-Doh.
“It’s kind of like playing with lava,” he says. “It’s molten, it’s gooey, it’s constantly moving. Once you start a piece, you can’t put it down and go for a cuppa like you can with ceramics. You’re with that piece until it’s in the oven, until it’s done.”
After completing a Bachelor of Visual Art (Glass) at the University of South Australia in 2013, he undertook a two-year JamFactory Associate Program, which he believes is “second to none in the world.” A four-hour shift can usually cost glassblowers several hundred dollars, but an Associate has only a small annual fee, and far more freedom to hone their craft.
“You can essentially blow glass for twelve hours a day if you want. You wouldn’t because you’d bloody kill yourself, but you know, that’s the most time you can get on the tools in two years, anywhere. For your skills [that] is invaluable.”
JamFactory is a big leap from the university’s “pokey little hot shop” and “handmade mud furnace” where Spangenberg unexpectedly fell in love with glassblowing. There he became one of the few to take to glass. After the cancellation of several interstate glass programs, he worries that it’s only a matter of time before UniSA’s furnaces stop burning.
“Their facilities are old and haggard, and it’s reflective of the amount of funding the arts get. But if that goes, it would kill glass in Adelaide, as far as local glassmakers go … which is really sad.”
But Spangenberg’s in the glassblowing game for good. Among his recent work are three tall cylinder jugs, in muted colours of mint green, pearl and blue. Other than their thumb indents and glazed finish, they look as simple as they sound, but the process couldn’t be any less so.
“Even the masters are always learning. They say it’s ten years until you make work you like – which I think is bullshit – twenty years before you can teach someone else, and forty years before you can call yourself a master.”
Along with the dangers of a material that must be kept at a working temperature well above 600°, Spangenberg explains what else can go wrong. “Everything. If you start with a shit bubble, it’ll be a fight the whole way through to keep it on centre. If it gets cold, it’ll fall off the punty. If it gets hot in the wrong spot or at the wrong time, you’ll lose your shape,” he says.
Glass, he explains affectionately, has “a really good memory”, which will reveal any mistakes in the end product without forgiveness. Despite those challenges the symmetry of Spangenberg’s products is remarkable, the result of many hours of sweaty brows and glowing heat.
“Glassblowers don’t really retire … they just work till they’re dead. It’s too addictive.”
Drew Spangenberg: Equipoise
20 The Parade West, Kent Town
August 9 – September 20