Blowing the witch’s ball

The region’s largest ‘hot shop’

By Bill Franz

Photographers love to visit glass blowing studios. We like the fire and smoke, and we like the contrast between the industrial equipment and the fragile, graceful art being made.

I contacted James Michael Kahle about visiting the area’s largest glass blowing studio, Glass by James Michael & Company. Kahle said I had called at a good time. “We shut down all three furnaces over the summer. Our season starts this Saturday when we make the witch’s ball. You’re welcome to visit and take photos.”

I arrived just as Kahle started to blow the ball. Then each of his fellow artists and the studio’s students—15 in all—added to the ball. Many used canes—rods of colored glass—to make their contribution.

The result of fifteen additions to the “witch’s ball” was not especially artistic, but it was colorful.

Glass making is difficult. Even with experienced artists, many things can go wrong. That is why the “witch’s ball” remains sealed, imprisoning the evil spirits until late spring when the furnaces are shut down for the season. Then the ball is broken and the spirits roam free. Abiona Pleasant, one of the more experienced glass blowers using the studio, gave me a tour. I asked about the newspapers I saw piled up.

“That was my first job as an apprentice here,” Pleasant responds, “Learning to fold The Wall Street Journal to make steam pads that provide insulation so the glass blower can use his hands to shape the glass.”

They don’t use The Wall Street Journal for any political reason, I learned. They use it because the paper quality is high and because the ink is soy based and doesn’t produce harmful vapors when heated.

Pleasant showed me the seven heat sources in the glass blowing studio—also called a “hot shop.” First there is a heater for the blowpipes, then a large batch furnace where molten glass is gathered. Then there are two “glory holes” to reheat the glass as it is being worked into a particular shape. Finally there are three annealing furnaces where the finished glass art slowly cools to room temperature.

All seven of the shop’s heat sources have been made by Kahle and his apprentices. Pleasant explained that this was part of Kahle’s philosophy. At the temperatures they work, equipment can deteriorate quickly. Because they built the equipment they know how to fix it.

I recently called the studio and asked Kahle what was new at the hot shop. “We are doing work for two library branches. For the New Lebanon branch we will be doing a 5’ x 15’ window for the children’s area with a number of roundels made by myself and some of the blowers here in the studio. We will also be creating a number of ritual bottle forms to be suspended in the market place area of the Brookville Library.”

Bill Franz retired from a business career and became a volunteer photographer doing projects for many local nonprofits.  His photos of people at work have been shown in art exhibitions across Ohio and neighboring states.  Find out more at billfranz17.com/about. 

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Bill Franz retired from a business career and became a volunteer photographer doing projects for many local nonprofits.  His photos of people at work have been shown in art exhibitions across Ohio and neighboring states.  Find out more at billfranz17.com/about. 

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