Editors Note: This article was awarded Third Place, Best Long Feature Story, Alaska Press Club 2010 Journalism Competition, Large Newspapers and Publications.
FAIRBANKS — Outside, the bright sun obscures the fact that it’s actually 14 below zero. Inside, there is no illusion of heat. In fact, Martin Janecky is sweating, wiping his brow with a tattered sleeve.
In the winter, this is one perk of his profession.
Janecky is a glass artist, or glass blower, as he is often called, and spends much of his creative time within 10 feet from a 2,300-degree oven that he uses to keep the glass he’s manipulating pliable. When he’s not sitting at his tool-covered workbench, he’s standing a couple feet from the oven — called a glory hole for the small opening where the glass is inserted — rolling the glass on a special stand, preparing it the next working.
“I drink a lot of water,” he says with a half smile.
And if he’s not at the glory hole in the Warwick Glass Studio, he’s at one of the other ovens, the “garage” for storing pieces-in-progress, or what looks vaguely like a cauldron filled with molten glass heated to approximately 2,000 degrees.
“It can be very hot work,” he says, again with that smile that reveals an inner shyness, but also the extreme confidence in the work he does.
Romancing the glass
A boyish 29 (he’ll be 30 at the end of the month), Janecky moves about the studio with the easygoing manner of someone comfortable around super-heated glass. He should; Janecky has been blowing glass since he was 13. It wasn’t exactly a family profession, but close.
“I grew up in a glass factory,” he explains. “My dad was a technician in the factory. He wasn’t blowing, but I saw it.”
That factory turned out glass, bowls, vases and other “functional dishware and stuff,” he says. Despite the mundane aspect of making dishware, Janecky saw something appealing in the work.
“I should say something romantic about it, but it was more the atmosphere, drinking coffee and beer and working with the old masters.”
But he knew he would not be content making flower vases, and traveled to glass factories and studios taking work where he could find it to gain the skills that have now made him a highly respected glass artist.
“I was doing anything they wanted just to be around,” he said of his early jobs, which included plenty of grunt work, like sweeping up broken glass, hauling boxes of materials, and standing in front of the oven warming someone else’s work. “My goal was not to be artistic, but to learn as much as I could about techniques, the focus they had to make sculptures. I wanted to make sculptures.”
Janecky said the biggest challenge was not to give up trying.
“The first three years you don’t really make anything, you just pour glass all over the floor,” he says with a laugh. “It’s not like painting; not anyone can do it. You have to put a lot of time into it. Some people don’t get it in 30 years.”
A native of the Czech Republic, Janecky calls Fairbanks his second home, and has set up a residency, for lack of a better term, at Judy Warwick’s studio on Horner Court. The pair met a few years ago at a glass studio in Seattle where Janecky was teaching (he’s also taught in Japan). Back then, she invited him to see Alaska and use her studio, which he calls “the best glass studio in North America.” Several weeks ago Janecky returned for an extended engagement.
“He’s just such a talented glass artist, I’m bring him in to work on his pieces,” she says. “I’m making the studio available to him to accomplish whatever he dreams up.”
Right now those dreams run toward clowns and Renaissance-looking figures, what he likens to a “1930s French-style circus team.”
Primarily created from the torso up, these figures look to the sky with heads and arms uplifted. Hands and noses juggle clear glass balls; faces have expressions of joy and fun. Amazingly, the arms are separate pieces, attached inside the figure’s sleeves.
Janecky said he’d been working up the concept for years, but only recently felt he’s developed the skills to make these figures a reality.
“It’s really difficult,” he says. “You have this idea, but it takes lots and lots of years of process to figure out how to do it.”
How it works
Whether making a glass horse, which he demonstrated and completed in less than one minute — “That’s what kids learn on.” — or a more complicated figure, complete with straw hat and scarf, it all begins with a dip into the pool of hot glass.
Janecky, or his apprentice, Andrej Novotny, pulls a blowpipe from the garage (glass won’t stick unless the pipe is also hot) and dips it into the liquid glass. In a quick motion Janecky either whips the pipe toward the ground or blows into the tube with a quick puff. This lengthens the glass. The process is repeated as necessary.
“If you stop spinning it drips. It’s like honey,” Janecky says as he moves to his workbench, fitted with a leather seat.
The bench is filled with tools: calipers, cutters, pliers, knives, spatulas, rods and other odd shaped implements. Janecky chooses one and rapidly begins manipulating the glass.
But the glass cools quickly, in less than two minutes, and either he or Novotny sticks the mass into the glory hole, spinning it constantly to keep it from melting off the pipe. Then it’s back to the bench for more work. A blowtorch sits next to the bench, ready to superheat specific parts of the glass for cutting or detailed working. Colors are added with hot glass rolled in special powder dyes.
Janecky and Novotny work fluidly, often without speaking, moving the glass from workbench to oven and back, adding colors or merging separate pieces of glass to make a hat, scarf or feet.
“It’s important to have someone who understands what you are doing,” Janecky says. “Blowing glass is teamwork and you need to know you can trust who you work with.”
Small pieces of glass litter the floor below the bench, but will be melted down for later use.
Once finished, the figure is cut from the pipe and carried in special mitts by Novotny to the Annealer, a special oven that gradually cools the glass from 928 degrees to room temperature. This eliminates the stress associated with rapid cooling.
“You have to bring the temperature down slowly or the glass will crack,” Janecky explains. “It is super, super fragile, but super strong too.”
See it for yourself
Janecky will be working at Warwick Glass Studio (phone: 374-3302) all month to “fill that bench with figures,” he says, pointing at a wide table with a half dozen figures — and assorted parts and pieces — in various states of completion.
He welcomes visitors, but cautions that once he’s working on a piece he cannot easily stop in mid-process to talk. Visitors, however, are welcome to watch the fascinating process.