Sam Schumacher and the Alchemy of Glass

Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I’m a glassmaker, who falls somewhere in the cloudy realm between artist & craftsperson. I grew up across the bay from San Francisco in the sleepy little town of Albany, and I currently live down the road in Oakland. Immediately after graduating high school, I packed up and moved to Boston, where I studied Politics & Social Advocacy at Emerson College. In my senior year, I found myself needing to fill some elective credits and took glassblowing at Massachusetts College of Art, and a glass kiln-forming class at the Boston MFA School. While I loved my program, and got my degree, I found myself pining after this seductive material, and after a couple years exploring my first career path, I knew I needed to pursue glassmaking full-time.

What inspired you to start working in your medium?

The mystery of glass is what first hooked me. I’d always been perplexed by how it was made, and it seemed to carry an endless amount of mystery, danger and folklore. There’s nothing else that behaves like it, and it’s incredibly dynamic as an artistic medium.

To me, glassblowing is as close as humans have come to alchemy. We throw some refined sand into a furnace with a handful of other minerals and then pull out this bright, crystal clear ooze that turns from the consistency of warm honey to one of the hardest things on the planet in a matter of seconds.

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What are you working on now that is the most inspiring to you?
Right now, I’m working on a series of broken branches in various states of decay. It’s one of those projects
where there are so many directions it could go, that it’s hard to know what to do next. For now, they are clear, sandblasted branch segments that typically lay on their side. They are all hot-assembled and shaped by cracking the ends in cold water. I then re-melt them to stabilize the glass, but leave the edges pretty rough.

It’s a really fun process where I can just let the glass break where it wants to. They often break and crack in unpredictable ways, which almost always gives them a level of authenticity that I couldn’t achieve through a more controlled process. It’s really liberating, because breaking and cracking is pretty unavoidable in the glassmaking process, and it usually ruins a piece. With these, it’s just part of the process.

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Where is your studio and what does it look like?
I help run a cooperative glassblowing studio in West Berkeley called Bohemian Glass. It was started a little over 20 years ago by Lee Miltier. He’s still a part of it, but along with a handful of other glassblowers, we run the studio, and make our work there. It’s an amazing space tucked away down by the railroad tracks, full of lively characters and some seriously talented glassblowers. We all work together, often splitting production days, taking turns assisting each other, and playing music and drinking beers in our attached music studio at the end of the day.

What is the most rewarding thing about your work?
I enjoy making glass because it connects people to a medium that they use everyday without even thinking about it. Glass has been shaping our lives for thousands of years from windows and lenses, to cell phone screens and light bulbs. Making an object that gets people to stop and meaningfully engage with this unique material is a rewarding feeling.

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I grew up going to junk shops with my parents, rummaging around for interesting objects that tell a story. Because of that, I always seem to have my eye out for well-made objects, especially if they’re old. They have been valued and useful countless times to the people that owned them. I suppose that’s part of why I make these objects; to know that they are being cherished, used, and might even turn into someone’s heirlooms.

I find historical glass to be endlessly interesting. There are so many glass artifacts out there that give us glimpses into the past, often showing surprisingly little wear or decay. It’s really neat to think that the work I’m making today could be unchanged for centuries, exactly how it froze when I made the final shape, and the glass cooled. That’s assuming someone hangs on to it for that long, I suppose…

Best piece of advice you’ve ever gotten from someone in or out of your field?
There are two pieces of advice that I find myself calling back on regularly:

“Everyone has the right to make an ass out of themselves, you just can’t let the world judge you too much.”

“You can re-write the words that play in the back of your head, meaning that you and only you have the power to re-shape the way you think about yourself, your work and the world around you.”

See more of Sam’s work here:
rocketglassworks.com
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