Glass work

Emilie Bourque talks to Corner Brook craftsperson Jay Riopelle about the less glamourous side of glassblowing.

Photo by Jacob Fergus.

The beautiful, hand-blown vases and delicate Christmas balls that Jay Riopelle sells may look pretty, but the process it takes to make them isn’t so pretty.

Jay has been blowing glass for almost a decade now, including the three years he spent learning the craft in his home province of Ontario, at Sheridan College. He started out concentrating on furniture design at the college, with a Minor in Glass, but quickly realized what his passion was, and switched to glassblowing full-tilt. Instead of being leaned over drafting tables sketching, he can be found sweating and putting his blow pipe into something called “the glory hole.” (I’m not joking.)

You really have to get used to heat if you want to get into glassblowing. Jay has worked in studios where the room temperature was 56 degrees Celsius not even standing in front of the furnace.

“When you open the furnace doors, it’s like opening the gates of hell,” he says.

And if you’re not ready for it, the heat can literally knock you out. He knows a girl working as a glassblower who actually did pass out. She fell forward, burned her face on a hot piece of metal attached to the furnace, then fell to the side—and very luckily not in.

Another risk to glassblowers is the high lead content in most glass dyes, the fumes of which they frequently, accidentally inhale.

Most painful thing Jay’s ever done when working with glass? Reached too far down the blow pipe—which gets hotter and hotter by the inch—and had his skin stuck to the pipe.

“When you burn yourself once on a pipe that way—when you grab it too low—you won’t do it again,” he says.

“It’s dirty and it’s dangerous, we may as well get that right out there,” he says, but, of course, he’s attracted to the craft.

The way hot glass moves is his favourite thing about the medium. It’s fast, and each step has to be performed in a certain order or it can be a failure.

“When you’re working with glass you have to always be thinking three steps ahead,” he says.

These days, Jay lives in Corner Brook, but drives all the way to his hometown of Kingston, Ontario every time he wants to produce any glass work, due to the lack of a public glass studio on the island. This makes things pricey obviously, especially when on top of the drive it costs $250 per day to rent 6 hours of studio time.

Throw in the materials, dyes, tools, and labour, and it’s not exactly what you’d call an easy way to make a buck.

Jay is on the lookout to meet other glassblowers in this province, or even anywhere in Atlantic Canada, in the future, because he hasn’t so far. Only with an interested group of glassblowers could a shared studio ever be a possibility, since heat bills can range around $5000 a month.

You can catch Jay for the first time this year at the Craft Council’s Fine Craft and Design Fair, happening at The St. John’s Convention Centre Nov. 8th-11th.