SHELBURNE FALLS, MASS. — Time and gravity are important elements in the work of Josh Simpson. They work for him and against him - at times they are his worst enemies.
Mr. Simpson is an artist who works with glass. While some may call him a glass blower, that title seems too narrow, considering all he creates.
With the wonder and mystery of the natural world as inspiration, Simpson approaches his artistry as a kind of wizard: "Glass is this weird combination of chemistry, physics, mathematics, art, and science," he says, noting that glass blowing has been around since 300 BC.
His personal expression in the ancient art has taken on many forms. But perhaps none is more intriguing than his "planets," particularly the very large ones called "megaworlds."
Recently, Simpson invited photographer Robert Harbison and me to watch him create his largest megaworld ever - close to 70 pounds in weight and 11 inches in diameter.
Simpson's studio is housed in a big red barn on a picturesque farm in Shelburne Falls, Mass. One need only go from the cold, damp outdoors into his creative haven, filled with roaring furnaces, to realize that Josh Simpson's world is a hot one.
This day, for several hours, Simpson directs a "twirlwind" of activity: the gathering of hot glass, layer by layer, on the end of a blowpipe. The process is almost like making a huge, heavy, lollipop out of hot honey. The result: a magnificent megaworld the size of a basketball and the weight of many bowling balls.
For Simpson and his assistants, this is a game of back and forth. For example, at one point, Simpson quickly dips the hot glass ball down on some hot bits of "cane," tiny, intricately designed pieces of glass, and various other ingredients such as powdered glass. In the megaworld, a piece of cane might be a space station, the powders a continent. After adding another layer of glass, he might apply gold leaf with tweezers or shape some silver into a layer with a blowtorch and an air hose.
Intermittently, the scorching globe basks in the "glory hole" (2,300 degrees F. ) or is rolled in a cherry-wood forming block. Simpson then carefully takes wet newspaper and helps firm the round shape amid sparks and steam. (Fire-proof mitts and face guards are just a few pieces of required protective gear here.)
"The most exciting time is when it comes right out [of the glory hole]," Simpson says, his own eyes lit in reflection by the glow. "All glass blowers want to capture what it looks like alive."
Once Simpson is satisfied with the results, the megaworld is ceremoniously and carefully knocked off the blowpipe, then transferred to what's called an "annealing oven" to cool. There, it will take several weeks to cool gradually and completely.
Josh Simpson's interest in glass started when he was a child. He recalls marveling at glass objects, like bottles and bookends, and wondering how they got their shapes and colors. As a student at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., he had access to some glass-blowing equipment that wasn't being used at the time. So he and some friends lit up the furnaces and began experimenting.
Simpson's inspiration for "planets" was sparked when a class of eighth graders came to visit his studio several years later.
At the time, he was doing stunning glasswork in goblets and vases, but he didn't think youngsters could relate to them as well as, say, marbles.
Also, he was profoundly moved by photos taken during space flights from the 1960s. He remembers how astronaut Jim Lovell talked about looking out the spaceship window and how he could cover the earth with his thumb. Add to that Simpson's personal interest in flying planes and scuba diving and you get an artist with natural-world perspective. So, he came up with the idea of creating an "earth marble" or a planet. The first ones would fit in a child's palm. You could say, "Our world is only this big in the vastness of the universe," says Simpson.
"One of the most pleasurable results of the megaworlds is talking with people and having them tell me what they see," Simpson says.
If someone says, "That's not a planet, it's underwater!" they could only be correct, for they have made the planet their own.