Young glass blower opens first career show in Annapolis

At Quiet Waters Park, Tim McFadden, 26, discusses forging a career out of molten glass

April 18, 2010|By Jonathan Pitts, The Baltimore Sun

When he left for college nine years ago, Tim McFadden had little clue as to his future — just a vague plan to study business, work in an office someday and eventually make enough money to raise a family.

Today, he stands below the most striking attraction of his first-ever art show — a multicolored, 200-pound chandelier that looks as elegant as a floral bouquet, as wild as a beast with a thousand arms — and contemplates how, at 26, he has become one of the few people in the United States, let alone greater Baltimore, who make their living blowing glass.

"To be honest with you," he says at a reception for the new exhibit at the Quiet Waters Gallery in Annapolis, "If I'd known how long it would take to get to the stage I'm at now, I might never have tried it at all."

The work above him carries a $10,000 price tag, the highest in a 35-piece show that includes colorful vases, swirling spiral platters and gleaming jellyfish jars, each molded in a 2,000-degree oven and crafted by hand at his shop a few miles north.

The squiggly arms and legs and orblike parts in the center are just some of the 133 parts he has hung, like a giant bunch of grapes, in a way that anchors the room.

Were the gallery space higher or longer, he'd have shaped the work differently — longer, skinnier, flatter. To survive in glass blowing, he says, you have to adapt.

Art or shards?

Born as early as 1500 B.C. among the Egyptians, glass blowing is as labor-intensive as any art form, so much so that it seems out of step with American life, circa 2010.

It takes more than talent to go professional — a good thing for McFadden, since he never thought he had any.

Growing up the son of two educators in Roland Park, and a lacrosse fanatic, he was so clueless about painting and drawing — "the two-dimensional arts," in his parlance — that it never crossed his mind he'd "end up an artsy kind of person."

That third dimension changed everything.

As a first-semester freshman at Salisbury University, McFadden needed an arts elective, and something about the lumpen, colorful pieces his brother Marty, a senior at the time, brought home from a glass-blowing class fired his imagination.

"Shape-wise and form-wise, it was gross," he says. "Nothing against him; it takes time to develop any skill. It just intrigued me that you could make stuff in this medium. I'd never seen it before."

McFadden talked his way into an upper-level course and got addicted to the process. As he spent more time in the campus "hot shop," building his studio time to 25 hours a week, he kept asking himself not "How do I do this for a living?" but, he says, "What do I have to do to keep doing this next week, next month, next semester? It was simple enjoyment of a challenging hobby."

Even now, he has trouble explaining the appeal. Part of it was the proximity of heat, which felt like an engine of creativity. Part was the fine motor skills required. A teacher could explain how to spin the flame-softened glass, lathelike, along the edge of a metal table ("marver"), contouring it with metal pincers ("jacks"), but only he could develop genuine touch and a mental connection to the material.

And part was a sense that the stakes were high. Like a ski-jumper pushing from the gate, a glassblower must continue once he starts a piece, since a misstep can shatter the whole. "It's either art or it's shards," says McFadden, adding that it's not uncommon, early on, to ruin nine pieces out of 10. "It's an adrenaline rush."

The early pieces were "crude, lopsided and lumpy," he says, but he kept waking up obsessed with improving coordination, focus and foresight. He got "less terrible" as the semesters passed and began "not to hate" the results: a jar that stood, a plate whose colors developed just right.

By the time he was ready to finish at Salisbury, McFadden says, a whole new question was thrumming in his head: "How can I keep doing this after I graduate?"


If the subtleties are complex, the rudiments of glass-blowing, as McFadden shows them at his hot shop on Eastern Avenue near Interstate 95, seem brutally simple.

Push a hollow metal rod into the center of a furnace heated to about 2,400 degrees. Rotate the pole to gather a glob of glass. Then, as the "gather" glows nearly white hot, reduce the heat in the furnace by about 400 degrees, letting it "fine out" (allowing bubbles to rise out of the material).

Then, moving the piece into the air, spin the pole, and the centrifugal force created widens the blob and thinning it in the process.

How it's shaped from there — blowing into the material through a pipe to "inflate" it, constricting it with jacks, dangling it in the cooling air — determines what it will end up being, functional piece or objet d'art.

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