In the stainless steel and concrete confines of Urban Glass in Brooklyn on a sunny March afternoon, two glassmakers- a teacher and a student- plotted their session. Isaac Tecosky, a freelance glassblower who teaches private lessons, sketched in chalk on the floor. He drew an outline of a rod holding the base of a pot and strands of fiery hot glass.
“Bit by bit, we’re going to build something,” said Tecosky, while he reassured college student Sara Hingley. “We’re more interested in the process than the product.”
Each Sunday for the last six months, Hingley, 21, has worked alongside second and third generation glassblowers who teach the craft as the pioneers in the Studio Glass Movement taught them. Only within the past 60 years has studio glassblowing established a presence in the United States.
On this particular afternoon, three teams in the studio alternated between gathering molten glass at the furnaces, shaping the glass at workbenches, and reheating at mini-furnaces when the glass began to harden. Other professional glassblowers and their assistants scattered to the adjacent workrooms, discussing their glass works in progress. These artisans are among a handful of fewer than 100 glassmakers in New York City who utilize four glassblowing studios in the area to create their glassworks.
Tecosky’s instruction of Hingley, a New York University junior enrolled in a private glassblowing class, ensures the craft survives another generation. Hingley is optimistically starting a journey in a field in which a relative few have flourished.
“The allure is that it’s different and not too many people do it,” said Tecosky, speaking of what initially draws newcomers. “And then once you get past that, there’s a deep love and passion.”
Tecosky, 26, started blowing glass three years ago. He had graduated from Hampshire College in Massachusetts when his brother suggested he take a technician position at Urban Glass where he also worked. Equipped with a degree in sculpting, Tecosky moved to New York City where he took both the spot at Urban Glass and a similar position fixing studio equipment at the now closed 160 Glass. Shortly after he began, 160 Glass offered him a chance to work on a large-scale project, a glass piece that would be too large for one glassblower to maneuver on his own, and he was hooked. Tecosky’s glassblowing career has steadily progressed ever since.
Now, he multitasks as a glassblower in an effort to heighten his skills and ultimately make a living. He works as a gaffer, or lead glassblower, for Niche Modern Design making light fixtures, he assists artists at Urban Glass, he teaches both private and group lessons, and he travels the East Coast assisting at glassblowing workshops.
“I want to make beautiful objects,” Tecosky said. “And I don’t mind making glass for other people.”
The quick progression is atypical of professional glassblowers. New York City artisans especially are tight knit and rely largely on loyalty and trust in an artisan’s work when they hire.
“It’s really difficult to break in because there are people who have been here a long time,” said Tecosky. “The longer you’ve been here and also the kind of skill you acquire is what determines how often you get hired.”
Tecosky often wonders if the difference for him was the immediate connection to the local glassblowing community through his brother Leo Tecosky, who continues to work as a glass artist. Granted, an open door couldn’t hurt, but a skilled hand, an understanding of the glass, and drive are absolutely necessary to be successful.
“I was really hungry for it, and I didn’t want to do anything else,” he said. “That wasn’t an option, so I just made it happen.”
Hingley showed the same determination last fall when she showed up at Kanik Chung’s showroom seeking professional guidance in the art of glassblowing. Chung, a professional glassblower in the area, gave Hingley a first taste in the art in and NYU survey in glass course the previous semester. She emailed Chung about an apprenticeship, but after six weeks of no reply, she decided to pursue her newfound passion and meet Chung face-to-face. It took nerve.
“You’re already in Brooklyn. You know where [the showroom] is and that he’s there on Fridays. Just show up,” Hingley said to herself as she listened to “Where You Wanna Go” by David Rush on the subway to pump herself up. “That’s not something I ever do.”
Upon her arrival at 70 John and within several minutes of chatting, Chung invited Hingley to help pack four light fixtures at Urban Glass. She jumped at the opportunity. At the studio, Chung procured four boxes that were hardly fit to pack the long, cylindrical pieces he would take back to the showroom.
“They looked like they had been taped up, torn apart, and left out in the rain. They were so soggy and misshapen,” said Hingley. When they finished, Hingley asked with a chuckle at the odd job, “Kanik, you’re a professional, right?”
Luckily for Hingley, who solidified an internship with her willingness to spring into action, his answer was ‘yes.’ Chung is among a handful of glassblowing professionals in New York City. Having worked with him for seven months, Hingley witnesses the struggle. Chung works 18-hour days creating glass, managing 70 John, his showroom in Brooklyn, and promoting his artwork.
“I see how hard he works, but he doesn’t let onto it,” said Hingley. “He says everyone he knows works just as hard.”
It took Chung 17 years to get where he is today. And only within the past five has he taken on teaching, which for him does not come naturally. “It’s hard for me to teach because I’m not very traditional,” he said. “I have my own style now because I’ve been doing it for so many years.”
Chung’s work is simple with minimal use of color. Signature pieces include dewdrop vases, U-shaped candelabras, and chunky glass with floating bubbles as the bases for bookends, lamps, and candleholders. These modern design pieces stand in contrast to his latest line of chick-shaped vases, which Chung created simply to make money.
“The chicks sell,” Chung said at the Architectural Digest Show in March. “Women think they’re adorable and have to have one.”
Ultimately, Chung needs to pay the bills like all glass artists in the city. He’s gotten to the point where jobs outside the glassblowing field aren’t necessary, but he utilizes other outlets within the field. One such outlet? Creating marketable, mainstream productions like the chicks, which lack an artistic vision.
The other avenue to create some cash flow led Chung to his hiring Hingley: teaching at NYU. He’s qualified with an M.F.A. but prefers to stick to the craft. Only during the last two days of the Spring 2009 course did Hingley get the chance to work with Chung in the studio, where his passion shone through. The class of a dozen students created simple fish, but Hingley was immediately drawn to his style.
“He gave me all the information I needed plus tons of information that I would probably never need to know,” said Hingley. “He’s so precise, and he gave so much detail.”
For now, Hingley observes Chung as he works and assists in selling finished pieces. She sticks with Isaac for training. And even at a beginner level, Hingley needs to show both dedication to her work and a willingness to fund her own time at the studio to be able to progress.
The tuition Hingley pays to NYU solely gives her course credit. Paying for studio time and instruction is up to her. Hingley works at a tutor through the America Reads program and uses her mother’s disabled veteran’s college stipend to pay $100 per week for a three-hour session with Isaac as well as up to $50 per hour for time at Urban Glass.
“I’m good with budgeting,” Hingley said with a sigh. “And I usually don’t go out.”
Such sacrifice puts Hingley a step above other glassblowing students in the area, but Hingley envies arts student s that have plentiful access to a glassblowing studio.
On a trip to the Massachusetts College of Art and Design with Chung in April, she met with students who have ten hours per week on top of class time in the studio free of charge available to them. Hingley pays bucket loads in comparison for a mere three hours per week. Nonetheless, she makes the most of the time she has with some of the best craftsmen in the business.
Looking back to the typical Sunday afternoon, Hingley soaked in every moment of hands-on experience. She set up her station without direction from Tecosky, a sign of her knowledge of the craft. She filled buckets of cold water to shock the hot glass and wet the newspaper she’d use as a barrier between her hand and the vase. She warmed the rods for an easy transition for the glass from the ceramic tub in the furnace kept at 2,140 degrees Fahrenheit. And she gathered the tools she’d need at her workbench: tweezers, sheers, jacks, blocks, and wood paddles.
When Hingley was ready, she inserted a blowpipe into the furnace and swirled to pick up the raw glass material. She quickly carried the pipe to a metal table to roll out the glass until it began to harden. After a quick reheat, Hingley and Tecosky took to the bench, he rolling the rod and she shaping with the tweezers. Such ease would suggest their hard work has paid off, but Hingley insists she needs more work to be considered exceptional.
“I’ve never had to try so hard to be mediocre,” she said. “I’m amazed when Isaac is impressed because I know he doesn’t give reactions undue.”
From Tecosky’s point of view, Hingley is on the path to success. “She’s very similar to a lot of us,” he said. “She’s driven, passionate, and she knows how to make connections. It wouldn’t take her long to get where I am.”
But for Hingley, it’s comes down to making a living after graduating next year. “If I knew that I could support myself through glassblowing, I would blow glass and that’s it,” she said.
“It’s going to be a part of my life for the rest of my life,” she continued. “Whether it’s going to be my career, I’m not sure.”