Tagged: craft

The art of scientific glassblowing

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This article was first published by Wellcome Collection, with photography by Thomas SG Farnetti.

Meet Gayle Price, a glassblower whose work for chemists, physicists and medics shows that craft skills and creative thinking are essential to science.

Wearing a knee-length white lab coat and wraparound shades, her long hair clipped back, Gayle Price adjusts the amount of gas and oxygen flowing into her burner. It has the look of a blowtorch, but one fixed in place and with six different outlets. The wavering orange flame that’s shooting out of it becomes fierce blue and sharp as a pin, its dull roar now a hiss.

Holding a 1.5-metre-long glass rod in one hand – hollow, with a 7 mm diameter – and a much shorter, thicker solid metal rod in the other, she starts heating the glass in the flame. As it glows and softens, she begins coiling it evenly around the metal. Her movements are quick but rhythmic. She works by eye alone.

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Gayle hasn’t always worked with glass for a living, but she now can’t see herself doing anything else. She studied photography at school, then trained as a painter and decorator. After that she worked as a bouncer in Glasgow for a couple of years, but found night shifts increasingly tough.

Wondering what to do with her life one day, she saw an advert in the paper for an apprentice scientific glassblower, a scheme run jointly by the universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow. She was intrigued, so applied and got the job, which was based in East Kilbride.

Under the direction of William McCormack – a glassblower who appreciated the importance of passing on his knowledge, nurturing five apprentices before he retired – Gayle cut her teeth making spiral taps for filtering gases, while also studying applied science on day release at college. The instruments she was making reminded her of the ones that often featured in the old horror films she loved watching with her dad.

During her training, Gayle realised that she’d always wanted to work with her hands like this, and that the promise of having her own workshop one day was compelling.

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Step into Gayle’s current workshop at the University of Leicester and the joy of having a room of one’s own in which to work is easy to see. Packed with glassware of all sorts, and the tools required to manipulate it into a multitude of shapes, she’s made this practical basement space immensely personal.

There are posters and postcards all over the walls, and stickers decorating the burners and lathes. Teardrops of glass have peacock feathers trapped inside, glitter-encrusted glass flasks have wings. It’s Gayle’s space, but she’s not in the least bit territorial. She’s more than happy for me to poke around.

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As Gayle works at the burner, a spiral forms in the heat, each twist and turn symmetrical. In her hands, something I think of as rigid and fixed becomes elastic, amorphous. The coil complete, she removes the entwined metal and glass from the flame and places them on a rack to cool. In a few minutes the metal will contract, allowing the glass to slip off easily.

Gayle takes another 1.5-metre length of hollow glass rod. Using a stubby knife with a tungsten carbide blade, she slices into it, leaving a deep scratch in the surface. She snaps the glass along this groove. Slowly spinning a now shorter length of glass between forefinger and thumb, she inserts one end into the burner’s 1,220°C heat.

Surrounded by flame, the end brightens, becomes liquid-looking, and eventually seals off. Despite being far from the flame, the other, still-open end of the rod glows. Instinct tells Gayle when to pull the glass out of the flame and press that orange, open tip to her lips.

I gasp, anticipating seared flesh. She blows, gently at first, then harder. A beautiful bubble grows at the rod’s opposite, softened tip. A perfect sphere, swelling out evenly under her steady breath. The end she blew into was in fact cool; glass is a good insulator and that orange glow just a fibre-optic trick of the light. She places the finished bubble alongside the spiral on the rack.

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Working mainly for the university’s chemistry department, but also for physics and medicine, Gayle makes a mixture of standard and bespoke glass instruments to order, as well as fixing broken glassware from the teaching labs. Glass is an excellent material for scientific equipment: it’s durable, transparent, non-reactive, and easy to sterilise in the oven.

Gayle also collaborates with artists, recently working with a ceramicist and a jewellery designer on two projects for British Science Week. One resulted in delicate fungi-like structures made from white porcelain and clear glass, the other a large sculpture of reindeer lichen, rendered in green and clear glass.

Gayle savoured the chance to work differently, although admits it did feel odd to deliberately introduce flaws. “I usually work to very exacting parameters,” she explains. “It was different to be asked to just explore, to not create something regular. And good to be reminded how beautiful and versatile glass can be.”

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Watching Gayle work, it’s clear that to be a scientific glassblower you need to be a problem-solver, and a logical but creative thinker. You need to be patient, dexterous and able to control your breath. Gayle’s scientific job involves much artistry.

Her enthusiasm is infectious, so when she invites me to have a go, I can’t resist. Putting on her spare set of wraparound shades – these have a special coating that allows you to see the glass more clearly in the flame – I ready myself in front of the burner.

Gayle sets me five tasks: cutting a glass rod, softening a sharp edge, creating a test-tube end, blowing a sphere, and making a bend. All of it is far, far harder than she makes it look, especially the blowing. Getting the glass to bubble out seems impossible at first. Gayle eggs me on – “Blow harder! Harder!” – and eventually I squeeze out a tiny, lopsided sphere. It’s pathetic, but I’m proud.

Watching – but most of all feeling – the glass transform in the flame is fascinating. I now understand more clearly what Gayle means about this everyday material’s elasticity, versatility and beauty.

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I ask Gayle about the places where art and science meet, and whether she would ever consider herself to be an artist or craftsperson. “The intersections between art and science are undeniable,” she says. “Both are about discovery, exploring the unknown, making something new. As a scientific glassblower, I like the freedom to be both a craftsperson and an engineer.”

 

 

 

Intimate and invasive: the art of ethical taxidermy

The Ethical Taxidermist

This feature was first published by Wellcome Collection, with photography by Thomas Farnetti.

Jazmine Miles-Long kneels down to open up the small freezer that sits on her studio floor. Each drawer is filled with clear zip-locked bags, each bag is numbered, and each one has a body in it.

She selects a bag containing a juvenile greenfinch, takes out the skin, and begins washing it in a basin of warm soapy water. A few basins of fresh water later, she places the bird on a clean towel. It’s now sodden, and rather sad with it. Jazmine bends low over her work bench, her blue-gloved hands delicately working through wet feathers with a small brush and some long tweezers. She explains that, although the greenfinch looks like it has feathers sprouting all over its body, they actually grow from specific feather tracts. Large areas of the skin are in fact feather free. It’s this kind of detail that doing taxidermy brings to light.

Jazmine handles the greenfinch skin with the methodical patience of a craftsperson, the cool eye of a surgeon, the enquiring mind of a zoologist, and the reverence of an animal lover. As she works, I ask why contemporary taxidermists take such exception to the word ‘stuffed’? “Because it suggests there’s no process,” she replies.

Process is everything. It’s invasive – if you end up dead on Jazmine’s desk she will quite literally turn you inside out. And it’s intimate – she’ll spend hours poring over your every intricate detail, determined to make you look your best. “People don’t realise how delicate and slow you have to be,” she explains.

Every skin Jazmine works on teaches her more about how strong or light her hands can be. She describes her touch as “knowing”. The finch’s skin is strong when wet, but still delicate, “almost like wet cigarette paper, it’s so thin”. When it dries it will become very fragile. Jazmine admits she’s become desensitised to the blood and guts that are an inevitable part of her work, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t fascinated by what goes on under the skin. “Wild animals are really lean, with fat in all the right places”, she says, clearly impressed by their efficiency.

The cleaning complete, Jazmine pulls out a hairdryer and begins blow drying the bird. It’s an odd moment: the jets of hot air temporarily animate the skin, bringing it to a strange kind of life. The feathers fluff up and ripple. As well as volume, they start to regain their olive brown-greens, their banana-bright yellows, their soft-soft greys. She lays the dry finch on a towel so I can take a closer look, tummy down, wings spread. It’s the closest I’ve ever been, or probably ever will be, to a greenfinch. The bird’s beak, legs and claws are a delicate shell pink, and its characteristic boxy profile somehow seems more distinct now it’s dry, despite being without flesh. It’s tiny, and very beautiful.

Her demonstration done, Jazmine places the finch in a fresh zip-lock bag, numbers it, then files it away in the freezer. She’s carved a balsa wood body for the bird, and explains how if she was working on a mammal the process of preparing the skin would be different. Rather than washing and cleaning, she would pickle and tan. The insides would be moulded from wood wool, rather than carved from balsa.

But, one of the very first steps, whether working on bird or beast, is always to make a detailed plan. Jazmine does this by drawing around and measuring the animal, positioning it on a sheet of paper how she wants it to look when it’s mounted. The plans she has pinned to her studio walls are stained with blood. She says that making a piece of taxidermy is, for her, about copying the individual in front of her. Every creature is different, and each teaches her new things.

Jazmine studied sculpture, and volunteered at the Booth Museum of Natural History in Brighton after university. She fell into taxidermy there, loving it for its variety, and its craft. “It requires so many different skills, and types of making”, she explains. “You have to love animals. It’s a privilege to know more about them. I’ve learned so much from my making, seeing first-hand how a woodpecker’s tongue curls around the back of its head, between the skull and the skin, and how a rabbit’s whiskers grow right into its brain.”

It’s an unusual job, and people are generally fascinated when Jazmine tells them what she does for a living. The questions she’s most often asked are: What’s the biggest thing you’ve ever worked on? (A cheetah, which died in captivity of cancer, in case you’re wondering. It was the most challenging thing she’s ever worked on, too); Are the eyes real? (No, never); Does the animal have to die in the pose it’s mounted in? (No, of course not). I ask about the smelliest thing she’s worked on, and she says a gannet. Seabirds stink because their stomachs are full of rotting fish.

Jazmine describes herself as an ‘ethical taxidermist’, which is also a conversation starter, because what does that mean? “Ethical is an annoying word”, she says, “but it’s the only way I can communicate about what I’m doing, because it makes people ask questions.” She only works with creatures that have died of natural causes, or by accident, never anything that has been purposely killed. How the finished work is presented, and where it ends up, is important, too. “I say no to a lot of things”, she says, “I’ll only do things that feel respectful. I don’t do trophy heads of any kind.”

Jazmine does do commissions, and her work for the artist Abbas Akhavan features in Making Nature: How we see animals at Wellcome Collection. The final fox, badger and owl that are on display represent Akhavan’s vision, rather than Jazmine’s, and he was keen to provoke. There are no cases, and no interpretation telling you what you’re looking at, or what you should think. The animals are intended to look what they are: dead. The fact they’ve been placed on the gallery floor has been controversial for some, and proved that taxidermy has the potential to produce an emotional response.

Does Jazmine like the word ‘taxidermy’, which is derived from two Greek words, ‘taxis’ meaning ‘order’, and ‘derma’ meaning skin? Together they mean ‘the arrangement of skin’. “I love that word”, she says, while also admitting it’s complicated. “It’s broad, and can include so many things. Through my work I try to make the word have a better meaning.”

Although she accepts that dead animals make some people feel weird, and some will always insist on calling what she does ‘macabre’, Jazmine argues that, in most instances, it must surely be better to interact with a mounted animal that has died naturally, or by accident, than to see a wild animal alive but shut in a cage. Getting up close to an animal helps create a bond, and can open us up to new ideas and experiences.

Jazmine recently mounted a swift for the Booth Museum. In life the swift will likely have arrived in the UK in spring, staying until late July or early August. It will then have migrated through France and Spain to spend its winter in Africa, following the rains, and the insects they bring. In its afterlife the swift and its story are being used to teach kids about refugees and dual identity, as well as bird migration. In his essay ‘Why Look at Animals’, John Berger talks about the “universal use of animal-signs for charting the experience of the world.” Jazmine’s swift seems an excellent example of that.

Taxidermy transforms once living things into something very different. The “biological death of the living beast is the birth of the specimen”, as Samuel Alberti says in The Afterlives of Animals. There is of course a difference between how we relate to an animal in its new form, and how we would have done when it was alive. Does arranging nature in this way bring us closer to it, in more than just a physical sense? And could ignoring the person in every piece of taxidermy actually be driving us further apart?

Jazmine points out that when we look at a piece of taxidermy we often just see the animal, rather than acknowledging what it is now, and the relationship between it and its maker. We might wonder what the animal’s life was like, and how it died, but we often ignore the fact so much work and care has gone into creating what it has become after death.

“The craft has developed over such a long time, but it doesn’t have the prestige that others have because we are working with dead animals, and also because of where the work ends up, often presented anonymously with no detail about the maker”, says Jazmine. “A piece of taxidermy is a craft object that’s been made by a person, it’s not just an animal. It’s a partnership with a maker. It’s an animal and an object.”

Making Nature: How we see animals was on at Wellcome Collection until 21 May. A museum of modern nature will open on 21 June. Find out more about Jazmine’s work at jazminemileslong.com.