Exploring the intricate craft of ‘marble making’

Students enjoyed an array of arts classes at RDC over the past four weeks

Ever wonder – when you were stretched out on the playground with your buddies playing marbles back in the day – how they were created in the first place?

A group of students had a first-hand look into that process recently during Red Deer College’s annual Series Summer Arts School. ‘Marvellous Marbles’ – led by Paul van den Bijgaart – was one of many fascinating classes offered on campus during the popular summer event.

van den Bijgaart, who is originally from Edmonton and now lives in China and teaches glass-making with his wife, actually attended Summer Series several years ago.

“Here in Red Deer is where it all started for me!”

van den Bijgaart, who is a cabinet maker by trade as well, took a glass-making class and it was during that event that something really clicked on an entirely different level.

Essentially, it blossomed into an endlessly fascinating means of creative expression. “Every summer after that, I was kind of looking to come back.

“All my cabinet making money went to go to supporting my glass addiction on the weekend,” he added with a laugh. At that time, there was a studio in Edmonton he was working out of. In 2009, he headed to Ontario to further his studies.

“I did a few residencies, and I actually met my wife in school at Sheridan. She’s from China, so after we graduated, we did a few residencies and flew over to China to get married where we’ve been living for the past three years.”

During his time in Ontario, he would return back to Alberta during the summers to work as a glass technician at RDC.

This year marks his first opportunity to teach during Series Summer Arts School as well.

But back to beginnings.

He eventually traveled the country to study glass, including a stint at Sheridan College in Ontario for formal study. That’s where he became all the more interested in just what can be achieved via glass work – the colours, the mesmerizing patterns and shapes – not to mention the fun of making marbles, too of course.

But just because they are small doesn’t mean they have to be simple.

“The patterns that we can achieve are really intricate,” he explained during a class break. “I’ve been guiding the students through a process of simple creation and then through the week, they gain the skills to make more intricate pieces through combining different techniques and what-not.”

It all starts with an oxygen propane torch and using glass that has a tremendously high resistance to thermal shock. In other words, it’s extremely tough and won’t crack when heated.

“It can go from room temperature to 2,000 degrees in 10 seconds without exploding,” he said.

“We’ll use the heat of the torch and gravity to hold the rod down a little bit, and as it heats up, (the glass) will fall back into itself and gather mass. And that becomes a workable section of glass.

“With that mass, we can apply different colours and techniques from twisting it, pulling it and pushing it, bending it and folding it.

“All of these techniques, combined with colour, can give you different effects.”

For van den Bijgaart, working with glass offers a level of creative fulfillment that’s tough to beat.

“It’s a process that really requires all of your attention and all of your focus,” he explained. “Once you start a piece, you can’t put it down and take a break. You really need to figure out your process of creation before you get going. So there is a lot of planning involved, and that creation process is really intense.”

The glass cools and stiffens quite quickly as well, so there isn’t time to mull over a bunch of ideas mid-stream either.

“It’s one-on-one with the torch and the glass.”

He recalls something an early instructor told him years back at RDC.

“He said the glass always knows what it’s doing. It’s a matter of if you are listening correctly, and are able to adapt and understand what it’s trying to ‘communicate’. You need to be sensitive to the material and what it’s capable of doing.”

Find him on facebook at Bubble Baker Glass Works.

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