Creepy crawlies in my kiln!

A note for animal lovers:  at the end of this post I make a difficult decision (at least one that was difficult for me), and I hope you can understand.  Those of you who find creepy crawlies repulsive probably think I’m just being silly, but I still feel bad about it.

Giving insects another chance

I mentioned previously that I made some progress with my sculpture when working on orchids, but I’ve also been working on learning how to make insects as taught in Wesley Fleming’s class.  I don’t want to copy Wes (and in fact I feel inhibited from trying certain subjects because he already does them so well), but I am drawn to realistic sculptures because of my background in biology.  Making a life-size or larger representation of a 2″ insect is feasible, while a 2″ bison looks silly.  And insects and (some) crustaceans lend themselves to glass sculpture because they frequently have glossy exteriors, while it’s much harder to replicate the look of fur or feathers.  (If you want to see an artist who handles both beautifully, check out Joy Munshower’s amazing beads.)

I’m also a fly fisherman, fishing primarily for trout, and trout eat a lot of aquatic insects, insects that spend part of their life cycle in the water.  Since catching fish depends upon fooling them into biting an imitation of their food, trout anglers (especially those who tie their own flies) tend to become familiar with mayflies, stoneflies, and caddisflies.  My first attempts at mayflies were disappointing, so I turned to stonefly nymphs, and have been happier with the results.


The stonefly above was made with the intention of donating it to the auction at my Trout Unlimited chapter’s annual fundraiser.  I was honored to find that a fisheries professor friend of mine was the winning bidder, and it was really flattering to hear how impressed he was with my work.  Since I was worried about the fragile nature of the sculpture (anglers can be a boisterous bunch), I mounted it in a shallow black shadowbox with white polyfill, like a Riker mount.  (I could have just ordered some real Riker mounts for less, but I didn’t have time to wait for shipping.)  Since that one turned out well, I decided to make another, but I wanted this one to be crawling across a stone (get it?).  And I decided to make the stone out of glass.  Why not?

Rocks are harder than you’d think

I thought I’d written previously about fusing and glass compatibility, but I can’t find any evidence in previous posts.  As a quick primer, glass expands and contracts when it’s heated and cooled, and the degree of movement is known as its “Coefficient Of Expansion” or COE.  I have a lot of “fusing” glass, but it’s all COE 90, and the glass I use for lampwork is COE 104.  If you combine glass of different COE in a hot worked piece it’s likely to crack due to the stresses introduced by heating and cooling.  Since I was making my stonefly nymph out of glass with a COE of 104, I decided I’d make my “stone” out of 104 glass as well.  That way I could do a final tack fuse to adhere the insect’s feet to the “stone” and it would be held in place.

My first attempt was to make a large multicolored gather at the torch, working off mandrel (the gather was just at the end of a glass rod), and then squash it and shape it and pop it in the kiln to anneal.  I left a little nub that I could heat up later to attach some vegetation to, and then etched the surface with etching cream to produce a mat finish.  I like the look, but it’s just too small for the second stonefly I made.lampstone


I put it aside for a while (distracted by other things), but then took up the challenge again when I realized it was time for the annual “Member’s show” at the Oconee Cultural Arts Foundation.  Submissions are due tomorrow (Saturday, May 21), so I had to get moving if I wanted to submit this piece.

For my second attempt I decided to make a bunch of multicolored 104 frit and then fuse those particles together in an irregular fiber mold, and then slump it into a rounded “stone” shape.  It would have a multicolored appearance, like a conglomerate or a piece of granite. frit stone

The first firing left some holes in the piece, so I had to go back and fill them with more frit, and then I slumped the flat piece over a handkerchief mold to give it a rounded “stone” shape.  It looked ok, but the bottom edge (which would sit on a table) so irregular that it wouldn’t sit on a table, so I had to grind off the excess and fire it again with that edge down to flatten it up a bit.  Then I cleaned it up and covered it with etching cream, and after a few hours of etching I had a decent looking “stone”.


Then I put the stonefly on top, and was crushed.  After a week of work and four firings, it just didn’t work: the “stone” was too visually busy, and had so many colors in common with the insect that the sculpture was just lost.  After talking it over with Amy last night I decided to just display the sculpture on an actual stone (much more subdued and harmonious colors), so all I needed to do was one final annealing firing with the insect upright, so that the feet would all touch ground (it had warped a bit during the first annealing).

Distracted by a visitor

So I took the stonefly out to the studio this morning, opened the kiln lid, and froze.


That’s a centipede, curled up happily on the rim of my top loading kiln.  It didn’t move at all, so I put the stonefly down carefully, pulled out my iPhone, and snapped a few photographs.  And then I did something really stupid: I tried to scoop up the centipede with a scrap of paper.

Centipedes are predators, and like a lot of predators, they can move quickly.  I was using a scrap of paper because they’re also venomous.   I’m not scared of them, and their bite is not dangerous, but I’ve heard that it can be quite painful, and I don’t need to experience that first hand.  Being softhearted, I was planning to scoop it up and toss it outside, but it squirmed away, right off the rim . . . and dropped into my kiln!  Frantically I pulled out the kiln shelf and shelf supports, still hoping to scoop it onto the paper, but it scurried into a 1/8 inch gap between the kiln wall and the floor and disappeared.

I harbor no malice towards centipedes, and I would happily have relocated it safely outdoors, but I needed to fire the stonefly.  I pried gently with the paper, but the centipede was not coming out.  There’s no obvious way to separate the walls of the kiln from the bottom, short of taking the kiln apart, and I doubted my 40 year old kiln could survive that.  And I didn’t have the time–I needed to get this piece fired.  I closed the lid and turned the heat on low, just to warm it up to about 90 degrees F, hoping that it might start exploring it’s warm dark home, but no dice.  I thought about baiting it, but since I have no idea what this species might eat, or how long it would take it to get hungry, it seemed pointless.

Feeling incredibly guilty, I called up the program for annealing soft glass (max temperature 935 degrees F) and pressed “run”.  I’ve read since then that centipedes require a moist habitat and dry out quickly, so I hope it passed humanely.

The final product, ready for submission tomorrow:


“Stonefly emerging” by Steve Hilliard, 2016. Lampworked glass and natural stone, 7″ x 4.5″ x 3/4″.