This is the first in a series featuring those of us with advanced demographics who have found new passions in life. (Romance will not be a theme here).
Playing tennis against Gary Eisenstat was always a chore. Never overpowering, not blazingly fast, Gary was just maddeningly effective. You hit a booming serve and the ball comes back just outside your comfort zone. You scramble, return it with authority, but the ball snaps back again, moving you a little farther outside the alley than you want to be. Another repetition and now you are ten feet wide of the court with the ball floating back to the other side, just b-e-y-o-n-d your reach. His point and you did all the sweating; buying the beer afterwards because you were foolish enough to bet against a guy who knows all the angles.
Eisenstat practices law the same way. A longtime partner at Figari Davenport, Dallas’ first “litigation boutique,” Gary knows cases are rarely won in closing argument. Relentlessly prepared, he moves his opponents around the courtroom until their position becomes untenable. Questions asked months ago in depositions spin them one way; documents send them scurrying the other direction. And pretty soon they find themselves standing 20 feet from where they should be, watching an effortless volley fall unanswered on the far end of that particular court.
I had not seen Gary over the several years in which he moved from the “comfortably under 50” demographic to the “regularly receiving AARP offers” category. When I gave him the standard “what are you up to?” question I was not at all surprised that he was still tormenting foes in the courtroom. I was stunned and fascinated that Gary was spending a good deal of time…glassblowing. Stunned because glassblowing seems like a vaguely hippie thing to do and fascinated because I could not imagine the master of the sharp edge in a world of curves and arcs. Gary invited me to a session to see what it was all about.
Which is how I found myself in Dallas’ Design District early on a recent Saturday morning. Gary frequents Carlyn Ray’s studio at 1820 Irving Blvd. Non-descript on the outside, there is plenty happening on the inside. The front section houses some of Carlyn’s gorgeous work. Delicate and colorful, it is hard to imagine an inatimate object that expresses movement more beautifully. Carlyn’s work more than lives up to her pedigree–she studied under Dale Chihuly for several years.
You likely have seen work from masters like Chihuly and Carlyn displayed in museums, arboretums and high-end office buildings. The grace of the objects says it is art, but that is an incomplete description. Glassmaking is just as much industrial as anything else. Gary had described it for me beforehand, but until you see the process up close, it is hard to understand how that fragile bowl comes into being.
Opening the door to the business end of the studio gives you the first part of the answer–heat. A huge three-door kiln radiates red-hot waves well into a spectator’s gallery 30 feet away. For the next three hours, Gary works close to the kiln, which explains how he keeps the waistline down even with a little less tennis and bike riding. For the first part of the session, instructor Clay Spaulding demonstrates how to put a handle on a mug. The remainder of the lesson Gary attempts to master that tricky technique.
Improbably, a 16-ounce mug starts from sand that is not much more than a spoonful. Heat is applied to the tip of a long rod and then air blown in by Gary (avoiding the trite lawyer joke here with great difficulty) gives the sand its initial shape. Gary rolls the glowing sphere to get it rounded and returns to the kiln to start the process over. It is here that I get the feeling that if glassblowers are hippies, they are pretty dedicated hippies. Clayton and Gary keep up a constant chatter, each movement has a technique to it. And it is not a one-man sport at all; there is teamwork required to accomplish the task.
The constant heating and cooling puts the product in all sorts of states. When Gary removes the piece from the kiln, it is almost rubbery. The object cools and hardens quickly, so it is in the precious seconds before cooling that the glassmaker must make his mark.
As the mug takes shape, Gary moves to the hottest kiln door. He later confirms the obvious: a 2,300 degree flame gives you focus unlike any other stimulus. It is just you, the glass and the flame. Computers control the heat, a fact that juxtaposes with the other tools Gary uses. Ancient cherrywood scoops, tongs and paddles let Gary refine the mug to a shape that pleases him. The tools themselves are old enough and remarkably similar to the instruments craftsmen used a millennium ago to achieve the same ends.
Over time, I start to see how the gift of an initial session from Gary’s wife and daughters hooked him. It may be that the glass comes out rounded, but there is tremendous precision to get to the end result. Hold the rod at a certain angle, keep your feet and body in a specific manner, blow for just the right length of time. You do everything just right for several hours and still you face a moment of truth; in a split second you have to be sure with your hands and mind. Any mistake will be a flaw that shows in the final product. One thing about glass work is that there is no place to hide.
When he is finished, Gary explains the attraction. Glassblowing marries his natural precision with something unpredictable. There is an endless variety of color, texture and shape you attempt to control, but even when you do everything right, the result will surprise you. You never know exactly how things will turn out until the piece cools. After a lifetime of knowing exactly what will happen, it turns out that Gary enjoys the mystery.
Today, despite a game effort, the mug handle does not quite cooperate. But Gary will be back next week, carefully turning the rod, blowing for measured counts and molding that rubbery substance into something round and uniquely beautiful. I am betting that the guy who knows all the angles will nail it next time around.
Big thanks to Carlyn Ray Designs