Glass may be one of the most untouchable of artforms–its strong relationship with light and color makes it extremely visual anyway, and its fragility and razor-edged fractures most likely reinforce the “eyes only” notion.

But what if “eyes-only” isn’t an option? Why can’t artists create glass for the visually impaired?

This is something ELSE I’m learning from this little informal teaching stuff I’ve been doing. (I gotta wonder if the whole reason you teach is to be able to learn more.)

I planned another class for Shelby and Carla, colleagues from work who’ve asked me to teach them kilnforming. This time we’d meet up at the Bullseye Resource Center.

Now that they’d had some hands-on time in a glass studio, they could encounter Bullseye’s glasschoice overload without massive fibrillation. I hoped.

Post-overload, we’d adjourn to my studio and make glass.

Last month we simply got comfortable with the whole glass thing: Handling it, cutting it, knocking off sharp corners with a diamond pad, assembling an easy design, and having something tangible (a plate) to show for it.

This time I wanted to get them thinking about what heat and thickness does to glass. Jewelry-making’s good for that; you can experiment with lots of high-risk designs without risking much glass. I would hand them each a small kilnshelf, tell them to fill it with as many pendants and earrings as fit, then we’d fire them together. We’d be able to compare how the same schedule affected each design and learn what worked and what didn’t. Besides, with Mothers’ Day coming up, they’d walk away with a bunch of potential presents.

That was the plan, anyway.

Shelby’s grandmother can’t wear jewelry, so Shelby asked if instead she could make something that could be framed in a shadowbox and handled. “Her eyesight isn’t as good as it used to be and she has trouble reading,” she explained, “so I’d like her to be able to see it on the wall but also to be able to take it down, look at it up close and feel it, too.”

Feel it? Hmmmm. “I do this thing I call a glass quilt,” I said slowly, “It’s all tack-fused glass, and it’s really colorful and REALLY tactile. It would be tailor-made for someone who wanted to feel AND see what you made.” I showed her a picture:

…and Shelby went over the moon. “YES!!! That’s what I want to make!!!!” Carla seemed equally enthusiastic, so I jettisoned jewelry and showed them how to make a quilt out of glass. NOT what I consider beginner stuff–I think tack-fuses are the most difficult of all–but it sure teaches a lot about heat and annealing.

The Bullseye trip was a hit (and Bullseye probably liked it, too–if they buy this much glass when they don’t own so much as a glasscutter, what’s going to happen when they do?). They loaded up on streaky glass, investigated torchwork, and got wide-eyed over the molds. Then we headed home and started on our quilts. I figured the best way to teach them was to work alongside…so I made one, too.

Glass quilts are simple but their frames are tedious to construct (read the tutorial if you need a refresher). You basically superglue quarter-inch 3mm strips onto a flat sheet of glass, making cells that you then fill with… anything. They practiced precision cutting, watched me use a bench grinder to smooth and bevel glass edges (next time they get to do this), and were introduced to the double-whammy of making art with glass: You not only design, you must also engineer.

How do you prevent upright glass strips from falling over in the kiln? Will stacking glass THIS way make more bubbles than THAT way? What happens if the glass won’t lie flat? How do you get superglue OFF the glass (and unstick your fingers)? How do you make a strip of glass fall the right way? Which glasses melt more than others (and therefore might need to be shielded)?

And they were confronted with the biggest dilemma of the glass quilt: What the heck do you put in all those cells? For me, it’s best to stop thinking and start dumping–my individual cells might look hokey but the patchwork composition looks best when it’s nearly random.

Yet all those empty cells are a scary proposition when it’s only your second piece of glass. And as before, we all three headed in different directions; same techniques but very different looks.

Shelby loaded one cell with a bunch of Spring Green circles left over from an old project–why didn’t I think of that? Carla framed some of my experimental cabochons like settings in a jewel box–what a neat idea!

Glass quilts take awhile so we didn’t finish until after midnight. And maybe for the first time I considered not just the visual aspects of what we were making, but also the tactile. The pieces we made were almost like a child’s touch-and-feel book.

And I’d ranged farther afield looking for touchable stuff to fill my cells; chunks of pate de verre and castings that didn’t quite work out, for example. There’s a special joy to ruthlessly running a sculpture through the tile saw!

I’m now thinking about non-visual ways to help people can experience my glasswork–touch, or maybe sound. You would think, given my lousy eyesight, that I’d have thought of this already and maybe, unconsciously, I have: I love the textures of tack-fuses, one reason I’ve done so many, and I do a lot of hand-sanding and polishing on my castings, which gives them a nice, pettable feel.

But now I’m aware that I need to do that on purpose. And so another thanks to my “students–” the best teachers I know.