THE 2,500 degree F. ``glory hole'' roars with orange-hot fire. Blue jets of flame hiss from propane torches. Sparks fly and puffs of steam erupt as glass blowers twirl blowpipes tipped with blobs of molten glass. A typical day at UrbanGlass: New York Contemporary Glass Center in Brooklyn? Hardly. From Sept. 23 to 25, UrbanGlass hosted demonstrations featuring a team of Seattle blowers led by preeminent glass artist Dale Chihuly.
Dubbed ``His Glassness'' by his hometown Tacoma, Wash., newspaper, Chihuly is to the world of glass what Frank Lloyd Wright was to architecture. Called the Tiffany of our time, Chihuly, more than anyone else, has transformed glass from a decorative or applied art to the equivalent of sculpture.
His lushly colored biomorphic pieces, in museum collections like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Louvre's Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris, sell for up to six figures. His stature is so lofty that the University of North Carolina named him America's first National Living Treasure.
Chihuly's reputation rests on his contribution to glass blowing, an ancient art with a 2,000-year history. The first American to study at the famed Venini Glass Factory on the island of Murano near Venice, Chihuly merged the Old World master-apprentice system to the New World pioneering spirit. The products of this synthesis fuse traditional high-quality craftsmanship with admit-no-limits bravado.
``He put glass on the map,'' says Deborah Czeresko, a New York glass blower who participated in the Brooklyn workshop. ``Chihuly put glass in a position where it can move forward in the art world.''
The spirit in the Brooklyn ``hot shop'' was high as blowers bopped to the beat of Elvis Presley recordings. Concentration revved to supernova intensity when Chihuly entered and slapped hands with the blowers, whose faces glowed yellow from the searing heat. The workers shaped a glob of glass with wads of wet newspaper and then, with the grace of a relay team, they passed the five-foot blowpipe from hand to hand, constantly twirling it to prevent glass from dripping off the end. As Elvis wailed a summons to ``rock,'' the molten shape expanded with centrifugal force until it was big as a parasol, then drooped like a full-blown blossom.
Chihuly, with his mop of curly brown hair like a Harpo Marx wig and a black eye patch, applied the final shaping. After a sharp rap, the glass form, resembling a 2-foot-wide scallop shell, dropped from the rod, caught by an assistant wearing an insulated suit and welding gloves. The crowd applauded as another ``seaform'' was laid to cool in the annealing oven.
``Chance has a lot to do with this,'' says Brian Brenno, a glass blower with Chihuly for seven years. ``We take a symmetrical form and use the forces of gravity and heat. Any little movement after the final reheat influences how it flops. It's that flow that makes it so beautiful.''
``It's the hardest thing I've ever done,'' says head glass blower Martin Blank. ``Every day I learn something new. The rules are constantly changing as you juggle all the parameters of color and scale.''
He explains the process of making the 16-point clams, or seaforms: ``You gather liquid glass and enable it by rotation, gesture, position, and controlled gravity to create a shape.''
Chihuly, who lost an eye in 1976 in a car accident, lacks depth perception and no longer blows his own glass. Yet, as his assistant, Joanna Sikes, says, ``They're blowing his glass. He's calling the color, the shapes. His eye makes the final decision.''
``I was the first American glass blower who didn't do the work myself,'' Chihuly explains. ``Now it's more common, but originally there was a lot of resentment towards that. I went on the road so people could see the process and understand. I wanted to make sure they know how the work is made.''
The demonstration in Brooklyn was as much performance as pro-cess, a mixture of careful choreography and improvisation.
``We don't try to innovate in a demonstration but to give people the feeling of the normal rhythm and pace,'' Chihuly says. Nonetheless, capitalizing on the unexpected is his trademark.
``We kept a couple of mistakes from yesterday's work to examine - to see if they have potential for further exploration,'' Chihuly says. ``We'll see what we can do with it.''
``He has the most active mind I've ever met,'' Blank says. ``He's constantly redesigning the world around him. He'll give me a drawing with 20 shapes and say, `Make this one.' Then he uses me as a bounce board for his ideas, saying, `Push this, pull that.' He wants to go in all possible directions. I try to stretch, too, so that I'm creating at the same time.''
This concept of glass blowing as a team sport is one of Chihuly's major contributions to contemporary glass. Adapted from the Venetian factory system, Chihuly's collaborative approach relies on glass artists who are talented in their own right. He also uses the team approach at Pilchuck Glass School north of Seattle, which he founded nearly 25 years ago.
Pilchuck now attracts internationally known glass artists from Europe, continuing the cross-fertilization begun by Chihuly, the Pied Blowpiper of glass. His pupils - the core of the expanding Studio Glass Movement begun in 1962 - have made Seattle, with 40 hot shops and 200 glass workers, into a major art hub.
* To learn more about the New York Contemporary Glass Center, write: UrbanGlass, 647 Fulton St., Brooklyn, N.Y., 11217-1112.