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Nicole Carroll Art Consulting

The Translucent World of Hudson Beach Glassby Ross Rice

Circa 1890: when the Lewis Tompkins Hose Company picked the location for their firehouse, they couldn’t have picked better. Situated in the joint of the dogleg that is Main Street Beacon (then still the villages of Matteawan and Fishkill Landing), it affords a perfect view straight up Main to the east, uphill toward Mount Beacon, and downhill west toward the riverfront. The bird’s-eye view from the third story picture windows—the original location of the fire house’s own bar, just one flight up from the legendary 24 hour poker game—covered the bulk of their territory, which back in the day were mostly hat factories. Hats were a big deal in the late 1800’s America, and Beacon made a whole lot of them.

Unfortunately, the building was built with horse-drawn fire vehicles in mind; eventually the fully motorized Tompkins Hose Company moved on to their present South Street location. But though it sat for decades only sporadically utilized, the old firehouse eventually found a suitable tenant. One that would actually be setting some pretty serious fires of its own onsite. Around, say, 2400°F or so. Every day.

Any first time visitor to Hudson Beach Glass will probably be pretty satisfied with the surface experience, entering the high-ceilinged main room where a wide variety of multi-colored glass works—glowing under natural light from large windows—entice even the most casual shopper. Glass is that rare substance that seems hot and cool at the same time, and humanity has had a love affair with it since the first time somebody put sand, lime, and soda ash together, got it ridiculously hot, and then had the nerve to mess with the luminous results. The multiple series of table top pieces—goblets, plates, bowls, interlocking serving items, etc.—reveal a sophistication of functionality and design.

John Gilvey greets me warmly at the door. Literally—he’s just been standing in front of the furnace in the other room, which was originally the garage back in firehouse days but now serves as the glass blowing demonstration area, conveniently opening out to the open air, thanks to the series of roll-up garage doors. In fact, on this perfect Hudson Valley Spring afternoon, all doors are open.

John shows me the back room where they show pieces from 25-30 different glass artists from around the country, alongside their own personal works. It’s like walking into the coolest secret parlor ever; the glass works are of the highest quality, utilizing impressive color combinations and techniques to create functional decoration. Light travels around a room full of glass in provocative ways. One particularly impressive piece is a glass Earth, with the continents in detail that is extraordinarily difficult to achieve in the medium.

Beyond the sales aspect, Hudson Beach Glass has two elements to their operation: the glass blowing part they do at the firehouse location, and the glass casting they do at their original Maple Street location, which is also where they do their packaging and shipping. As glass work is very time sensitive, we need to get over to Maple St., as the last of a batch is up to heat, and needs to be used up to clear out for the next day’s run.

John grew up in Mahopac, majored in fine arts at the School of Visual Arts in New York City with a focus on sculpture, studying at one point under Sol LeWitt. “After I got out of school, I did what a lot of the guys at our school did: worked construction!” While renovating the home of a glass blower in Connecticut who had recently suffered a back injury, John decided to apprentice with him. As a child, he had seen glasswork at Corning Glass thanks to his scientist parents, who were at Cornell at the time, and the memory stuck with him, blossoming into an active interest. “When the opportunity came to do it, it just seemed like a natural thing. Because I really was a lousy carpenter!”

John set up shop at Hunt’s Furniture in Wingdale in 1977, and found a ready market for glass; items were sold surprisingly quickly at trade shows after production. Things looked so good that John and his wife/business partner/designer Wendy Gilvey—pregnant with their first at the time—opted to spend their saved-up “baby money” to upgrade to a new furnace. Fortunately, that gamble paid off, and fairly soon.

Unknown to John at the time, an old friend had moved into the area, doing similar work. Michael Benzer was a teenage camper at Dutch Rock Camp when he met John, visiting the glass workshop during John’s apprenticeship, starting a lifelong friendship. Michael went on to graduate from RIT, and started a glass tile business in Rochester before co-investing with his father in the Maple St. location in 1983 and moving to Beacon. A chance meeting one day in Fishkill reacquainted him with John, resulting in their joining forces to get a better handle on how to make better glass. Some experimentation might be necessary.

Hudson Beach Glass became official in 1987, with a partnership of John, Wendy, Michael, and his wife Jennifer Smith, they expanded to the firehouse in 2001. John and Wendy’s kids also both work with glass; son Sean and his wife Emily run a Hudson Beach Glass studio/gallery in Philadelphia, where their specialty dishes have been featured on Iron Chef America by recently added Iron Chef Jose Garces. Son Luke has a series of glass pumpkins that have become popular; some of them can be found at the Beacon location. And it was belatedly revealed that John’s parents had also been glass blowers for a time, making pre-WWII vacuum tubes for Western Electric. Apparently glass runs in the family.

Upon arrival at Maple St., John shows me a variety of graphite molds used for glass casting: black cylinders of different sizes that resemble smaller dragster tires, with different shapes carved out of the tops of them. The molds are machined in a special room where the partners—all of whom get involved with this creative process—wear Tyvek suits and respirators and carve, gouge, and grind shapes into the cylinders, which are then stacked in the main furnace room awaiting use.

In the furnace room, an assistant stands by the furnace door, holding a long handled ladle, and dunking it into two adjacent large water barrels. Michael stands by an ancient-looking press, which has positioned on it a small graphite mold for what looks like a soap dish, a pair of snips in his heavily-gloved hand. The assistant opens the furnace door a bit—you can hear the rumble of the heat, and feel it from across the room—and deftly reaches in, scoops out some molten glass, and in one smooth move, pivots and pours it into the mold. Michael snips off the glass flow, and the assistant pivots the ladle back into one of the water barrels, depositing the remaining glass and quick cooling the ladle for the next scoop. Michael pulls the press down causing the top mold to smoosh out the glass, filling in the contours of the shape. He pulls it back up, and plucks the quickly cooling glass off the mold with tongs and after a quick inspection either tosses the piece into a water barrel, or carries over to one of four annealing ovens, where the object will sit for 24 hours, very gradually coming to room temperature. This is necessary because the glass surface cools—and thus shrinks—much faster than its interior; if left out in the room to cool, the glass would shatter.

After a few more pieces, it becomes clear that the bottom of the batch has played out, but there’s just enough left to demonstrate the spinning technique. A graphite form is attached to something akin to a pottery wheel, and brought close to the furnace. A scoop of molten glass is dropped inside, snipped off, and the wheel engaged. Centrifugal force causes the glass to spread evenly and smoothly into the form, and after a minute or so the wheel is stopped, and the piece inspected for color and irregularities.

The process is constantly self-recycling. The scrap glass in the water barrels—also known as cullet—ends up in a pile on the floor, which eventually is shoveled into the furnace in combination with a mixture of “batch”—silicate sand, lime, and soda ash. Glass color is determined by introducing metal oxides; the light blue of the upcoming batch is created using copper. (One glass color you won’t see at HBG is red, which requires either gold—too expensive—or cadmium—too dangerous.)

And now, the glass is ready for blowing back at the firehouse, where they demonstrate the process to the public regularly. As usual, the glass controls the time.

One thing that becomes quite apparent when John starts his first blown glass piece is that there is a definite performance element to the art, a bit of hambone to it. Try walking past a glass blower without stopping–, it’s impossible. Kids are already gathering to watch.

John sets up two work areas: a waist-high bench upon which he has laid out what looks like coarse multi-hued sand, and a lower bench that can be sat upon, with side railings upon which to rest the glass-blowing pipe, and a side bucket with wooden glass shapers, submerged in water. He reaches into the furnace with the pipe, wraps a gob of glass on the end, and pulls it out. With a combination of twisting and swinging the rod, John maintains the integrity of the blob, which otherwise would be happy to slide off and be a glass puddle on the floor.

John returns the end of the rod to the furnace, gathering more glass on the end, pulling it out and spinning, constantly moving and shaping into a cylinder. After it cools slightly, he takes it to the first bench, and rolls the cylinder across the “sand”—which turns out to be the color agent. Crusted with color, John reintroduces the glass to the furnace, gathering more glass in the process.

Next to the furnace, John pulls out a small graphite mold with ridges cut into the hole, and jams the glass blob into the mold, resulting in a ridged pattern on the glass. These molds are called “optics”, and achieve line patterns in the glass color. The glass is again returned to the furnace and reheated.

With the right amount of glass, plus the color and optics now on the rod, it’s time to shape the blob, to prepare for blowing. John brings it over to the low bench, where he sits down and—still constantly turning the rod—uses the soaked blocks of cherry wood to shape the blob. Uniformity of shape is extremely important; the glass has to blow out evenly for the piece to work. And time is always of the essence.

After a quick reheat and reshape, John finally applies lips to the rod and gently inflates the blob to double size, and checks it. Another reheat, and he blows it out further. An assistant comes out, keeps the glass moving while John gets another rod, grabs a small bit of glass, pulls it out, and fashions it into a plug, which he then attaches to the glass ball, and quickly cuts the glass ball off its original rod with snips. A reheat, then what looks now like a large goblet is shaped out a little more with tongs. One more reheat, then suddenly John spins the glass forcefully. Suddenly it’s not a goblet anymore, it’s a plate! John keeps it spinning, brings to the bench, and with assistance deftly cuts the rod and plug off. One glass plate, with a lovely green swirl pattern, spun to order. The kids ooh and ahh.

The folks of Hudson Beach Glass have come a long way since making simple bowls from old lens-grinding molds Michael found at a Kodak junkyard back in Rochester. There’s always room for improvement though; last year they received a grant from NYSERDA (New York State Energy Research and Development Authority) to purchase a new more energy efficient furnace. But problems arose: the HBG glass mixture formula is optimized for 2350-2450°F, about 200°F hotter than industry standard, and the crucibles kept cracking. John and Michael are back to tweaking the mixture and process to bring down that temperature. They’re very good problem solvers.

Meanwhile, they’re keeping it hot at the firehouse, but not to worry…“It’s a stand-alone building, so our neighbors aren’t worried about burning them down. Not that (we’re) very dangerous! That furnace is probably ten times safer than your average household furnace; it’s got so many redundant safety systems.” Not to mention, just blocks away, the legendary Lewis Tompkins Hose Company #2, still going strong. Standing by.

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