San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Glass Shapers: From Light Bulbs to Art

FLUORESCENT tube bulbs are some of the ugliest creations of the modern world, not things that would lend themselves to making swans, you would think.However, each of Claudio Cruz’s beak-nuzzling glass swans is a real-life ugly duckling story. He burns, warps, twists and blows the glass of those glaring scourges of the workplace into pairs of swans whose arched necks and beaks curve together in heart-shaped infatuation.Cruz is a traveling glass artisan, a tradition fortified by others, like Jorge Coto, who melt and bend bits of glass into the shapes as whimsical as their imaginations and the demands of their customers will allow.He hauls his gas canisters, blowtorch, and supply of burned-out fluorescent bulbs from coast to coast and around the Central Valley – he has set up shop in Limón on the Caribbean and Quepos in the southern Pacific zone, and in many of the towns between.LAST week in San José’s Plaza de las Garantías Sociales, his table of glass swans and teardrop keepsakes full of glittery water and tiny cartoon-like figures was one of several tables of crafts among a special three-day fair.He has worked with glass for 15 years, a slight shift in the direction of his previous career as a jewelry maker. He fashioned rings and earrings out of silver wire, and still works with metal as a furniture maker.His glasswork is mostly swans and cute watery scenes for lovers, sometimes he makes little birds, he said, but people do not like them much.The watery keepsakes sell for ¢500 ($1.15) for teardrop shapes and ¢700 ($1.60) for larger Kremlin tower-like shapes. Some contain plastic dogs, for example or mouse heads, chicks, Tweety Bird, and all bear messages on tiny signs such as Siempre tuya (Always yours), Te extraño tanto amor (I miss you so much, my love), and Solo tu (Only you). The plastic figures come from odd places – he cuts them off of hairpins, for example, and scours foofy shops of teenage girl paraphernalia.“AN artisan has to invent and think up the things he needs because there aren’t many things available,” he said.But who buys that kitsch? When hearts twitter cash registers cha-ching, and, as he said, “People are always in love.”The swans are the graceful aspect of his wares – he blows a tiny hole in the back of each one, between the wings, and fills them with colored water. They are red and turquoise and green – all the colors of the artificial dye rainbow – but they are most worthwhile as the end result of an interesting, 10-minute show.FROM behind dark lenses and the nozzle of his blowtorch clamped to the table he melts the tube and manipulates the softening ends with a glass stirring wand. A few strategic puffs into a cool end of the tube round out a body, he twists a tail and elongates an arching neck, then blows once more to swell a space near the end of the tube, between the impossibly long beaks and the fantastically curved necks, into a swan’s head.To form the base, he blows into the body to expand it then sucks the air out slightly to make the bottom suddenly collapse into a flatter foundation. The pin hole through which the colored water will transform the clear swans is made with the precise application of the torch to the spine of the bird in one spot, then he blows into it and opens a hole.Throughout the performance he repeatedly lowers the glass into the flame for crowd-pleasing fiery billows if not just to heat up the glass.“IF you want to learn (to blow glass), you will learn,” he said. “To be an artisan you have to like what you do – you won’t learn it unless you like it.”He sells the swans by the pair for ¢1,000 ($2.30). Overhead may not cost much, so he figures that he profits an average of ¢100,000 to ¢200,000 per month ($230 to $460). He loves the job, though, in spite of the variable income, because it is his own business and he does not answer to a boss.For info, to purchase a swan or to find where he will be next, call Claudio Cruz at 824-6894.JORGE Coto is more of a glass shaper than a blower – his delicate sculptures portray thin-petaled roses on a branch, hummingbirds hovering around open flowers, lines of elephants, butterflies, turtles, a dragonfly, even mythic creatures such as a dragon and a centaur. And he makes the young street vendor’s staple – pipes.He learned from an uncle, he said, who lets the work take him places more often than Coto does, but he plans to get out of the city more often.Coto works with colored and clear glass, crystal that he buys in a laboratory supply shop. The foundation of most of his sculptures is the clear glass – branches and whole elephants, birds and the like – but he touches the edges of flower petals with blue tints or constructs whole wine-colored roses. The butterflies and the scorpion are splashed with blotches of nearly opaque blues, greens and browns.HIS is a wholly different kind of work, it is the precise and measured hauling of creatures from molten sticks. Drawing macaroni cheese style strands of glass from the head of a butterfly by brushing it with the glowing end of a glass stick he makes antennae. Or spindly legs wriggle from the abdomen by the same technique.He wraps strands of glass, twists them and suddenly petals unfold, or a three-legged and faceless elephant grows a fourth, then a trunk and tusks. His work gathers crowds.His advice to people looking for a career in glass sculptures?“HAVE some imagination, and don’t copy anybody,” he said.There is a cost for his precision, though it is comparatively little. A line of three, differently sized elephants, for example, costs ¢2,800 ($6.50), a branch of flowers and hummingbirds costs ¢4,500 ($10.45), the dragon costs ¢5,000 ($11.60), and pipes vary from ¢4,000 to ¢5,000 ($9.30 to 11.60). All can be packed in protective boxes for a trip out of the city or the country, if necessary.For more info, or to browse his display, call Jorge Coto at 261-0812, or 849-5273.

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