Getting the hang of “soft” glass sculpture

If you’ve read the last few posts you know that I was fascinated by the possibilities of sculpture after taking Wes Fleming‘s class at Penland, but had a lot of trouble making anything after I got back home. I realized that it would take a lot of practice, and I think the time I’ve spent on it has helped.

Switching from insects to plants.

As I wrote previously, I had tons of trouble making even simple “practice spiders”.  Everything I did would eventually crack.  After getting frustrated doing flat spiders over and over, I decided to try something different, and started working on a sculpture of an orchid, specifically Brassavola nodosa.  When Amy and I were still collecting orchids (before a hard freeze and failed heater took most of them out) B. nodosa was one of our favorites.  Here’s a photo of a live plant for reference.


I started by making leaves, the narrow pointed leaves of the species.  Actually that’s not true, I started by blending several greens together with other colors to pull a few rods that would match the color of the plant.  The Brassavola leaf is a good subject for soft glass sculpture, because it’s narrow, with a furrow running down the length, and no noticeable pseudobulb, so it was fairly easy to figure out how to replicate the shape.  I made a bunch of leaves, until I had 4 or 5 that I was happy with.

Then I had to tie them all together on a root.  Like most epiphitic orchids, Brassavola have prominent roots, and spread by putting up new leaves from the basal root, so after a couple of seasons the plant takes a linear form.  This is best seen in this old botanical illustration.


I mixed up a new color for the root (I’m still not really satisfied, it should be more silvery) and made a linear base with little nodes that could be easily heated (and cool without cracking) so that I could go back and attach leaves and side roots.  Then I worked out how to attach the leaves to the base, and I eventually had a decent looking replica of the plant.

The bloom can be the hardest part.

After that progress I had to tackle the real test: the flower.  It’s basically a combination of three forms: a whitish green incomplete (partially open) tube, a broad thin curving lip, and thin curving petals.  Those familiar with orchid flower anatomy know that they aren’t all petals, there is actually a whorl of three petals, surrounded by a whorl of three sepals, radially arranged around the center.  For the purposes of sculpture they all look quite similar, and they’re thin flattened forms, which aren’t too hard to do in glass.  The hardest part was the bottom petal, which is the tube with the broad thin lip on its distal (far) end.  That part gave me fits for a while–my first attempts all cracked.  A skinny thin form is easy: squash a gather and then pull while it’s still hot.  A wide thin form is a lot harder. After a day or so of experiments I was able to build a decent looking tube, attach and shape a lip, and keep everything from cracking.  Then I had to figure out how to put the sepals and petals together, again without everything cracking.  And once all that worked, I had to add the flower on its stem to the assembled plant.


This is the second of three, and I’m happy with how they’re turning out.  If you look closely you can see tool marks that I’m not satisfied with, but at the time I was just happy it wasn’t disintegrating.  I was really flattered when I took the third attempt out to the garden shop at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia, and they were eager to add it to one of their sales cases.  I’d like to do more with orchids, particularly those with narrow pointed components like the Brassias, but I’ve gotten back into insects lately, as you’ll see in the next post.

A few additional shots.