An Ancient Art

There are few art forms that hold as much mystique as glassblowing. This ancient technique conjures images of old men plying their wares on the misty canals of Venice. Fusing beauty and danger, glassblowing is a rare and delicate art, one that often seems forgotten in this modern age.

Stephen Zawistowski understands this perception all too well. As the owner of Island Glassblowing Studio, Stephen has spent more than three decades crafting glass masterpieces. The British-born glassblower makes every item in his studio by hand, using the intricate and hazardous tools of his trade.

“Not many people train in glassblowing now,” says Stephen, as he sits among the vibrant glassware in his George Town studio.

“It is a dying art.”

Indeed, Stephen never intended to become a glassblower. At the age of 15, he applied for a job as a glass-making apprentice that was advertised in the local paper. Looking back, Stephen laughs as he remembers that he thought the apprenticeship was making coke bottles.

“I was there with 60 other young lads, and it was great fun,” Stephen recalls of his early days at the furnace.

Stephen’s mentor was Giancarlo Toffolo, a master of Murano glass, which originates from the Venetian island of Murano. Toffolo is a legend among glassmakers, and his skills and training proved invaluable to the budding glassblower.

“I was very fortunate to train with Giancarlo,” Stephen says. “He was one of the first Venetians to leave Venice and ply his wares outside Venice. Apprenticeships usually take about five to seven years until you ready to sit at the bench, but it took me only three years. Giancarlo saw something in me.”

The art of glassblowing involves inflating molten glass in a furnace, heated to a temperature of approximately 2400°F, using a long iron tube, known as a blowpipe. The molten glass takes on a viscous consistency, which enables the glass to be manipulated into objects such as vases, bowls, and figurines.

This ancient technique is believed to have been invented by the Phoenicians during the birth of the Roman Empire around 1BC. Glassblowing spread to all corners of the territory, and quickly became a dominant art form of the period. More than a thousand years later, the Venetian glass industry was born.

Venetian artisans were known for their intricate designs, use of vivid colour, and mastery of the craft. By the end of the thirteenth century, glassmaking in Venice was centred on the island of Murano, after the Venetian Republic promoted expansion outside the floating city.

Glassmakers were held in such prominence that they were prohibited from leaving Venice. Murano glass had no rival, as artisans used techniques that could not be found anywhere else in the world.

Centuries later, glassblowing has lost none of its magic and allure. It is one of the only professions left in the world that has not been conquered by modern technology.

At Island Glassblowing Studio, Stephen employs similar tools and techniques to the early artisans.

“We gather the glass and put it into the furnace. Hot glass is like honey in a jar, you have to keep turning it,” Stephen says, as he twirls the thick, molten glass on the end of the five-foot iron rod.

“Then you use the tools, like tweezers and tongs, to manipulate the glass into shapes.”

Stephen’s dexterity is a feat to behold. He pulls at the cooling crystal glass with tiny tweezers, constantly turning the blowpipe. Within minutes, the head of a horse takes shape, its equine features discernible against the coloured glass. Stephen makes a few final pinches with the tweezers to form the legs, and there, on the bench, is a multi-coloured horse figurine.

Glassblowing is an expensive trade, he says, as all materials are imported and mistakes can be costly.

“The colour is ground glass, and comes in blue, red, purple, pink, yellow, green and many others,” Stephen explains.

“But it’s not like paint so you can’t mix the colours. Red is the most expensive colour because it contains a percentage of gold.”

Stephen’s life as a glassblower has taken him to all corners of the world, including Bermuda, Spain, and now Cayman. His unique pieces have been displayed in galleries in New York, London, Paris and Madrid, and his work has been commissioned for many famous purposes.

“In 2009, I made a piece for Queen Elizabeth II for the 400th anniversary of Bermuda. I also made something for her years ago, so she has two of my pieces,” Stephen says.

“I’ve done pieces for George Bush, Elton John, Tina Turner. Charles Bronson asked me to make him a two-humped camel because he had just been to Morocco and he rode a camel there.”

Stephen may be the maestro but the studio is a family business in every sense. Stephen’s son, Oliver, works with him at the bench while his wife of more than 30 years, Carol Ann, takes care of the retail side. Glassblowing is at the heart of the family, and Stephen is immensely proud that his son followed in his footsteps.

“Oliver has been working with me for around 15 years,” Stephen says.

“He used to stand on a box in front of the furnace when he was eight years old. I taught him everything but now he comes up with his own designs. It’s very pleasing to see. You can teach someone to read but you can’t teach them to understand the book.”

Not everyone is suited to a career in front of the furnace. Of the 60 boys Stephen began to learn the trade with, more than 30 years ago, only three are still working as glassblowers.

“You know if someone is right for the job if you put them in front of the furnace,” he says with a laugh. “You learn very quickly if someone is good for the job.”

For Stephen, the joy and creativity of glassblowing are what keeps him coming back, and what motivates him to work in front of a scorching furnace in the stifling Caribbean heat.

“Every day is like Christmas,” he says, gesturing to the shelves of coloured glass objects. “Every day we get to make something beautiful.”

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Stephen Clarke