The heat is on

Jessica Schimpf’s job is part weightlifting, part meditation, part sunburn. And that’s only half of what it takes to be a successful glass artist.

Jessica Schimpf stood near a furnace in flame-resistant sleeves and safety glasses, her hair pulled into a tight ponytail. A pair of industrial fans on the floor blew across her body to keep her cool. With a long, metal blowpipe in one hand, she slid open the thick door of a furnace the size of a large refrigerator. A hair-curling blast of heat and a beam of flame-colored light crossed the room in a flash. 

Ceramic refractory and thick electric coils glowed dusky orange inside the furnace. A crucible —kept at 2200 degrees and able to hold 60 pounds of molten glass—shimmered with energy.

To me, the extraordinary heat of the furnace came with a primitive sense of fear, but Jessica dipped the blowpipe into the crucible and loaded it up as if she were spooling some honey. Deliberate and practiced, with muscular hands and broad shoulders, she spun the molten glass on the end of the pipe and kept it spinning, constantly maintaining its own center of gravity.

Glass artist Jessica Schimpf dips a blowpipe into a crucible of molten glass – photo: Brian Bahouth/the Ally

Jessica is the owner of Mantra Glass Art, a studio in a reconditioned gas station on the corner of Reno’s East Fourth Street and Eureka Avenue. She started out studying welding in Maryland Institute College of Art or MICA. 

Listen to a sound-rich visit to Mantra Glass Art.

“My senior thesis, actually, I saw a glassblower, and I thought, ‘I wonder if I can make a body of work for my thesis in glass only,’” she said. 

She did, and glassmaking became Jessica’s mainstay. She first set up her studio in Denver but moved to Reno in 2017.

After rolling the glass blob on a stainless steel table, she puffed a highly compressed breath into the end of the blowpipe with a gassy snap. Thus began the tricky process of making a glass pumpkin.

“You have to keep turning,” she said. “It’s like a metronome in your brain. Now that side of glass takes five years to learn, to even feel comfortable with it. … You’re always horrified when you touch it the first couple years.”

Glassmaking, she explained, is demanding, both physically and mentally.  

“It’s hardcore sculpting,” she said. “You’re constantly dehydrated. It’s really intense. It’s like being sunburned every single day of your life, if you can imagine.”

She added that the glass artist has to be thinking the whole time. The best glass artists she knows seem almost zoned out when they’re at work. 

“They’re more meditative, if that makes sense—kind of like yoga. The first time you do hot yoga, you are about to throw up. You feel sick as a dog. You’re like, ‘What am I doing to my body? My mind is freaking out right now.’ But by the 20th time, you’re in the flow of it. It’s natural. It doesn’t hurt as much. You’re not even thinking, and then, it’s already the end of your class.”

Jessica’s tools – photo: Brian Bahouth/the Ally

Sometimes if she feels negative while she’s working, the glass will break. But if she’s having a great day? 

“I’m going to put full intention into that, just like meditation,” she said. “If I connect on that level, everything goes perfect. I can’t explain it.”

Jessica slowly rolled the hot, clear glass at the end of the blowpipe into lentil-sized, orange-colored glass bits scattered on the stainless steel table. She twirled and inspected the piece to make sure the bits were melting into the hot glass. Once the whole conglomeration was sufficiently cooled, she opened the furnace door and dipped the now-orange blob back into the crucible to add another coat of clear glass.  

A dynamic process of constant reheating and shaping will ultimately result in a glass pumpkin. A snappy puff of air blew the bubble in the middle of this piece of glass that will grow to become a plump, glass pumpkin – photo: Brian Bahouth/the Ally

About 10 seconds later, she clanked the glass lightly against the metal table to show that it had already solidified. 

“It goes from liquid to solid super-fast, and that was probably a matter of what, 10 seconds, and it already became solid which is really crazy, and then it won’t explode for another 30 seconds to a minute, so you’ve got some time. 

“And that’s what I was telling you before, there’s kind of an alarm going off in my body right now saying, ‘Hey, it’s getting cold. Either add more heat or go heat it up in the other chamber, so you can’t let things cool down too much or they start cracking and exploding … so that’s a good color, so we’re nowhere near the explosion point” she said inspecting the glass on the pipe. “But that’s what glass blowers think about in terms of ‘is it hot enough or is it too cold.”

Glass, as a material, is an all but unique substance. One that has an elemental appeal for Jessica. 

“Glass is the only material that’s kind of a liquid solid,” Jessica said. “It’s much like lava. … Scientists actually say it’s never solid. It’s actually a liquid.” 

Jessica specializes in making memorials, suspending the ashes of loved ones in glass – photo: Brian Bahouth/the Ally

She picked up a glass paperweight.

“So this piece, at the molecular level, is still vibrating. It’s still alive, which is really bizarre because only life reacts that way.”

The business of art

Being a good artist requires one set of skills. Being good at business requires another. Jessica has them both.

“When I went to school at MICA, Maryland Institute College of Art, they really drilled it in our heads, ‘You are not an artist. Do not think like an artist,’” she said. “And at first, I was really startled. And I thought ‘But the art!’ … But if you put your artwork out to the world, what are the chances that somebody really likes it? Pretty slim. I mean, we all have personal preferences and color ideas and designs that the world isn’t going to be immediately interested in.”

In her senior year of college, which was also her first year running Mantra, she offered a variety of shapes, sizes and colors, at a range of prices, to figure out what people would be likely to purchase.

“There’s a really big joke in glassblowing that if you can’t sell it, make it big and blue,” Jessica said. “And it’s really true. The color blue, for some reason, sells 10 times more than the color red. If it’s larger, it seems more impressive, more interesting, so we make everything in blue. If you notice on my site, it’s pretty much all blue.”

Every professional artist needs to decide how much effort to put into expressing their vision and how much to put into marketing. For Jessica, it’s 50/50. She said she’d like to constantly follow her artistic curiosity with more self-indulgent sculptures and such, but she needs to make pieces that people buy.

“Do what makes you happy,” she said. “I still make those pieces, but they don’t really sell. 

“You need money to do what you’re doing. And especially in glassblowing, it costs so much money to run this building, the expenses are out of control, between the rent, the machinery is very expensive, the expenses of the gas that I have to pay, it’s crazy. If I showed people my bills, they would be like, ‘what are you doing,’ but we make it profitable.”

She keeps Mantra profitable by being in tune with what her customers want—and that doesn’t always just mean sizes, shapes, and hues of blue. 

A dozen or so neatly arranged plastic bags on a cart contained human ashes. A name was written on each bag, and some of them had a piece of glass art next to the ashes. 

Years ago, as a gift for her family, she entrained a family dog’s ashes in a paperweight and discovered a broader demand for suspending the ashes of deceased loved ones in glass. And she offers this service at variable prices.

“We noticed that companies were charging 200 bucks a memorial,” she said. She wondered, “What if a little kid loses a parent, and they want a memorial with ash inside? Why can’t we offer a $50 item? Why not just make it smaller?

“The other thing is we sell ornaments for 20 bucks or less,” Jessica said. 

She remembers clearly what it was like to struggle to afford tools as she was starting out—and how, when she was a child, small luxuries were unattainable.

“We want everybody to be able to afford it,” she said. “And that really came from other studios. I would see little kids looking at people’s artwork and keep saying to the parents, ‘I can’t afford that. That’s 100 bucks, Mom, I can’t get that,’ and they would say ‘No, you can’t.’ So, for Mantra, every single piece, we have affordable stuff; we have very expensive stuff.” 

Taking shape

In the hot shop, the pumpkin was taking shape. Jessica pulled a piece of cherry wood from a bucket of water. At one end was a handle, at the other was a round cup shape. She sat at a bench with a pair of rails, kind of like metal arm rests. She placed the blowpipe on the rails and spun the piece of glass, shaping it in the wood cup. The wood sizzled.

Jessica uses a cherry wood instrument that is stored in water to begin shaping the pumpkin – photo: Brian Bahouth/the Ally

Every 30 seconds or so, she stood up from the bench and headed to a small, barrel-shaped furnace with an opening at one end. It’s known in glassblowing circles as a glory hole—though Jessica dislikes the term and just calls it “the glory.” 

Inside the glory, the glass glowed orange. The blowpipe rested on a stand with a pair of metal balls at the top, which allowed her to more easily spin the glass as it heated. When the glass developed a certain wiggle, she knew it was ready. Back at the bench, she affixed a rubber hose to the end of the blowpipe.

“The next step to our pumpkin is we’re going to get lots of heat, and we’re going to inflate the glass using my breath,” Jessica explained. “I’m going to puff into the pipe and make the form a little fatter or more blown. You can see there’s a little bubble in there right now. We’re going to expand that bubble to actually become the pumpkin.”

After she expanded the pumpkin’s inside cavity, she went back to the glory to reheat it. When it was sufficiently hot, she stood on an 18-inch-tall pedestal and lowered the round, glass ball into a six-inch wide stainless steel mold on the floor with ridges in it, pumpkin ridges. When the glass was seated in the mold, she puffed into the pipe to press the glass fully into the angular recesses.

Jessica lowers the glass into a mold to form the pumpkin ridges – photo: Brian Bahouth/the Ally

Jessica moved constantly from the bench to the glory and back. She said her back and legs pay a price for this relentless movement, but the need to maintain the glass at a workable temperature is paramount.

At the bench, she picked up a pair of giant steel shears. The pumpkin’s newly born ridges clicked against the scissors as she spun the pipe and cut a ridge at the top of the pumpkin in preparation to remove it from the blowpipe.

“I’m going to cut into the glass a little bit,” she said. “This takes a skilled hand to firmly hold the shape … it’s going to fight me … but I’m trying my best to cut a line into the glass.” 

She heated the pumpkin in the glory again and, at the bench, demonstrated a multitasking routine that took her nearly three years to learn. She turned off the fans. The pumpkin, at this point, was too thin and delicate to withstand their rapid cooling. 

“I’m gonna do multiple things at once. I’m gonna blow into it. I’m gonna cut the neck of it where you saw me cut before, and then I’m going to start flattening the bottom. And by doing all three simultaneously together in the same kind of step, it creates the form.

“That’s why pumpkins are so tricky,” she said. “It takes kind of a certain touch … and now I’ve got the perfect heat. You can see it’s nicely hot … I’m gonna blow and I’m gonna cut that neck.”

It took Jessica nearly three years to learn how to make a pumpkin. Once the process is started, she is in constant motion. She expands the pumpkin’s size with her breath and fashions the bottom at the same time – photo: Brian Bahouth/the Ally

Jessica detached the piece from the blowpipe, leaving a blemish. She darted back to the furnace, gathered up a small ball of molten glass, and dropped it onto the pumpkin to cover the blemish. Then, she artfully stretched a thin strand of malleable glass around a carbon rod to form the cork screw of a stem.

“Crazy, right … that alone took me two and a half years of constant focus, breaking things left and right to make the perfect pumpkin.”

Breaking barriers, not glass

Glassmaking, in its 6000-year history, has always had—ahem—a glass ceiling.

“Females weren’t even allowed to be glassblowers until the ’70s,” Jessica said. “You start seeing these renegade women who are like, ‘Wait a minute, there’s all these dudes in the shop. I’m going to jump in there.’” 

“Maybe you have 2,000 men doing it,” she said. “One percent of that are going to be women, just because of the nature of the business. There’s hardly any minorities. That’s something that glassblowers are finally talking about is there’s no representation for any minorities in glassblowing. There’s no one.

“There might be, maybe three major glassblowers that are a minority. But then 99 percent are white men that are all 40 years or older. … I’ve been told my whole life by studio owners, by male glassblowers, ‘You can’t own a shop. Are you kidding? You can’t even lift the glass.’ And I would try over and over to lift these 50 pound bags. I’m like, ‘Crap, they’re really heavy.’ Now I can.” 

Jessica gracefully winds the pumpkin stem around a carbon rod – photo: Brian Bahouth/the Ally

Glassblowers typically work in pairs or as a team. Solo artists are rare, and people in the glassblowing industry told Jessica that she could not operate a shop by herself. But she proved them wrong. She attributed her success partly to “going to the right school and learning the business side,” partly to perseverance.

“The other thing is being fearless and just going after what you want,” she said. “A lot of women in the industry just tell themselves ‘I can’t. It’s too physically demanding.’ In Europe, they tell women that every day. ‘You can’t blow with us. It’s too physical. You can’t keep up.’ But some of the best glassblowers I’ve ever seen are women.”

Jessica mentioned that the pandemic has been hard on glassmakers. Studios have closed, and classes have been canceled. For her part, she’s trying to keep up the profile of her business—and her industry. Lifetime TV recently featured her making and teaching others to make Christmas ornaments.

“My biggest thing is, making sure that people are aware that glassblowing still exists and that they could become glass artists. As an artist, I want everybody to know, you can do this. There is a way to do it. It takes a lot of hard work. I mean, I’m in here 65 hours a week, but it is possible.”

Brian Bahouth is the editor of the Sierra Nevada Ally and a career public media journalist. Support his work in the Ally.

This article was funded by a City of Reno CARES Act grant and produced by Double Scoop and the Sierra Nevada Ally. Together, these news outlets are working to increase the amount of quality local arts and culture journalism.

Music credits in order of appearance as reported through the Public Radio Exchange:

Song: Plastic Heart
Artist: Jens Buchert
Album: Electronic Space Lounge
Label: Lovely Mood Music
Year: 2010
Duration: 2:44 

Song: Trip To Ensenada
Artist: Fussible
Album: Nortec Collective: The Tijuana Sessions Vol. 1
Label: Palm Pictures
Year: 2001
Duration: 1:14 

Song: Kometenschweif
Artist: Jens Buchert
Album: Orbital Resort
Label: dimension music production
Year: 2015
Duration: 3:32 

Song: Cantamar 72
Artist: Clorofila
Album: Nortec Collective: The Tijuana Sessions Vol. 1
Label: Palm Pictures
Year: 2001
Duration: 4:04 

Song: Southern Light Rollerama
Artist: Mujaji
Album: Free Rain
Label: Shadow Records
Year: 2001
Duration: 1:24 

Song: El Vergel
Artist: Bostich
Album: Nortec Collective: The Tijuana Sessions Vol. 1
Label: Palm Pictures
Year: 2001
Duration: 3:01


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