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BACK TO THE GRIND | Maker of the Month: Elizabeth Lyons

BACK TO THE GRIND | Maker of the Month: Elizabeth Lyons

Elizabeth Lyons. Photo credit: Tammy Swales

On one side of the room are a series of furnaces and heating chambers called gloryholes. The glass furnace contains a crucible heated to 2400 °F for melting sand to glass. In the middle of the room, there is a table covered in an array of iron instruments. They look like shears, tweezers, callipers, and scissors, but all are far too big for domestic use. Attached to the table are two horizontal and parallel steel bars. This worktop is called “the bench.” Behind the bench is a blowtorch attached to a squat dirty white gas canister beside a tall blue one. Pushed halfway into a heating chamber, or pipe warmer, are several metal rods, glowing a quiet red. This is the “hot shop”: Elizabeth Lyons’ glass blowing studio in Rochester, New York.

Photo credit: More Fire Glass Studio

Elizabeth’s assistant, Jennifer Schinzing, waits by the bench. Elizabeth brings over a hollow, metal rod, a blowpipe, which has at one end a smooth glob the color of glowing honey. She places the blowpipe on the parallel steel bars and starts rolling it side to side. She says “blow,” and Jennifer leans to the pipe and blows into it, moving her head in time with the rolling pipe. Elizabeth says “off,” Jennifer stops instantly. 

 Elizabeth Lyons (right) and Jennifer Schinzing (left). Photo credit: Tammy Swales

Jennifer, who is also a glass blowing artist and will soon be selling her bird-inspired work on New York Makers, takes the dimming glob of glass to yet another furnace with an opening like a porthole but instead of revealing blue sea, behind the aperture burns a bright orange glow. This furnace is called the “gloryhole.” She puts the glass inside to reheat it.

There’s a great contrast in the scene. The glass is extremely hot, 2200 °F, and it’s shaped using big, blunt factory-like tools but the women are casually dressed, both in plain, black t-shirts and jeans, each making small, deft, almost casual movements like a well-practiced shop assistant gift-wrapping a shawl.

Elizabeth was born and raised in Rochester, in an artistic family: her father a photographer, and her mother a multimedia artist. Elizabeth studied fine art at Alfred School of Art and Design in Alfred, NY where she majored in glass and sculpture. While she had a special affinity for glass, she adored the possibilities of all materials, learning how to sculpt metals and ceramics too. Her skill with all materials can be seen in the art she displays in the gallery (her piece “Ritual Vessels” is especially evocative) at her studio More Fire Glass Studio.

Ritual Vessels by Elizabeth Lyons. Photo credit: More Fire Glass Studio

In the studio, one can see dozens of color-coordinated tubes filled with metal powders and metal oxides for coloring the glass in innumerable ways. Elizabeth takes color very seriously and it shows in her work. One set of jars can be colored in vibrant jewel tones, another given pale water color hues, her glass completely translucent or opaque as the white of cream.

Narrow Neck Handblown Glass Bottles by Elizabeth Lyons. Photo credit: More Fire Glass Studio

Jennifer takes a rod with a small ball of glowing glass and rolls it a few times along a table with a flat, steel top. This is the “marver,” used to cool the glass before shaping. She takes something that looks like a large paint scraper (tagliol) and flattens the glass, as if it were dough, into the shape of an ellipse.

At the bench, Elizabeth has a pipe with a pointy, glass bulb on its end. Jennifer comes and holds her piece of glass over the bulb. She takes a pair of tongs and pushes the translucent, glowing dough into the bulb, spins the rod. Using the tongs on the tip of the ellipse, she bends it into a petal shape with a movement that’s almost as light as stroking, and turns the rod a few times. The flower is taking shape.

Elizabeth Lyons. Photo credit: Tammy Swales

Elizabeth describes glassblowing as a “choreographed dance.” Each individual part of the process involves turning in little circles: the iron rod is spun one way, and then the other; the glassblower must keep circling back to reheat the glass at the furnace; the blowtorch is applied with small wrist motions. Each constituent step of the process is its own micro-waltz.

But they’re not moving to music; they’re moving in time with the glass. And glass is less forgiving than music. If the dancers misstep, their feet will be stuck fast to the floor. Everything has to be kept in constant motion, constantly hot. They work mostly in silence. Having worked together for 12 years, both already know their steps. Elizabeth takes the lead. She’s the “gaffer,” the one who is executing her design onto the glass. But the complexity of the piece demands that the process must be collaborative. She can’t tango on her own.

After college, Elizabeth moved to New York City where she developed an interest in filmmaking. She was exposed to a lot of new ideas and art but to survive she had to work three jobs at a time and sculpture had to take a backseat. In time, she became pregnant with her daughter and moved back to Rochester, deciding that it was the best place to raise her child.

She became a high school art teacher. Speaking of her time as a teacher, she says “I love teaching, I mean, I love the kids. . . I’m not crazy about schools.” In 1998, while she was still teaching, she began More Fire Glass Studio, creating it cheaply with second-hand equipment. It was a shared space. She would teach classes and rent it out to other artists. Female-run glass studios are now more common but when she started, there were only a handful of female glassblowers in the country.

Having lived much of her life in Rochester, she describes the city as having, in recent years, become a “more textured kind of place to live.” The quantity and diversity of people doing interesting things has greatly increased. She says of New York State, “the more time you spend here, the more riches you discover.”

As a child, Elizabeth would visit her grandparents’ chandelier and mirror factory in Manhattan. There was a bureau there with many little drawers like a library’s card catalog but instead of cards, within each drawer was a different glass crystal. As a child, she would open each drawer and hold each crystal up to the light, marvelling at it.

Glass is a very special material to work with. In the process of glassblowing, the glass is everything at once: rock, light, water, an alchemical matter. As it changes temperature, its form changes completely. Its viscosity can change from runny acrylic paint to thick caramel, from oozing PVA glue to darkening and setting still like ice. When the glass has been formed completely, it is left in another oven, the “annealer,” to stabilize.

Montauk Rock Vases by Elizabeth Lyons. Photo credit: More Fire Glass Studio

The results are exquisite. Some of her final pieces look like alien spaceships, impossibly smooth and round. Some are dimpled the way water in a stream will ripple in response to the rocks underneath. Lost to the eye of the beholder, however, is the ephemeral vitality it had when hot. The final product is too refined to give away how intricate and alive its birth was.

Photo credit: More Fire Glass Studio

Apart from her proudest creations, her two children Eve and Emmett, Elizabeth says that her favorite work is the one she is about to make. It’s not the having made that keeps her in love with her craft, it’s the making itself.

Her New York State of Mind is always “Seeking.”


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