The gender boundaries of glassblowing – historically a man’s medium – are shifting with alumna Flo Perkins.
Perkins, who has over 30 years of experience in glassblowing, said she opened her own glass studio in New Mexico because of the state’s cheaper gas prices. She said she was drawn toward glass art because it suits her high-energy personality. The active process of blowing glass and being forced to focus on multiple things at once, such as the temperature of the glass and precision of blowing the bubbles, are her favorite aspects of working with the hot glass, Perkins said. Training in the historical art form and applying the techniques in new ways is what elevated her career as a female glass blower, she said.
“My strength in the glassblowing was being creative with the process and the material,” Perkins said. “I was not as highly skilled as some other people in the field, but they weren’t as necessarily creative as I was.”
The glass-making process is constantly moving, Perkins said. Every attempt is a risk, as the medium’s fragility could always make the piece fall apart. But once the glass is melted into a liquid state, she said the process is a repetition of gathering the glass with hot rods, adding color and blowing a bubble to shape it. She said it can take up to five hours to prepare everything and over an hour to create the actual glass art. Withstanding glass’s weight and the heat of the furnaces that melt it makes glass art especially challenging, she said.
“It is a lot of preparation work, and then you gather it up and you make it, and you either get it or you don’t,” Perkins said. “It might take an hour, but it takes years to get good at it.”
Transforming her glassblowing into fine art, Perkins said she wanted to make viewers stop and question why she would bother to make it. Her piece consisting of a bowling pin draped over a bowling ball, “Bowled Over,” is one that would spark these questions, as Perkins said the irregularity draws viewers in as the forms transform interestingly into glass. Additionally her botanical works – such as her cacti – are appealing on their own. Seen through her pieces such as “Diva,” the stark contrast between the cactus shape, spiked glass needles and flowing flowers combines to create her botanical pieces.
Perkins’ creativity in translating real objects into glass form, such as shown in the piece inspired by bowling pins, sets her apart from the majority of other glass artists, she said. Her loose and flowing style combines large glassblowing with small glassblowing in a singular piece – an approach Perkins said is quite unconventional, as they are two very different ways of working with the material.
Throughout her career as a glass artist, Perkins said being a female in the field was simultaneously a driving force and constant frustration. It was the athleticism of glass blowing, she said, that excited her about the medium, and her desire to be independent from male influence initiated the process of her setting up her own studio.
“It was often frustrating because there was often a dynamic in the shop that was ‘the guys’ and ‘the leftovers,’” Perkins said. “But I made the most of it, and I am one of the best leftovers that ever was in the business.”
While working with Perkins at UCLA, ceramics artist Phyllis Green said she was the only woman in the glass program at the time. For the glass field in particular, Green said women need to be able to withstand both the heat of the fire and the patriarchy.
“The work that she did wasn’t aiming at classical beauty,” Green said. “Her interest wasn’t so much in being a conventional flower person, but rather doing work that would challenge the conventional notion of what working with flowers was.”
Although the glass department on campus was short-lived, second-year business economics student Malia Zoraster established the UCLA Metal and Glass Club for students who have an interest in the art form. She said the heat and fire of the medium sparked her initial attraction to glass art. The semiremoved interactions of actually blowing and shaping glass contribute to its intricate properties that force the artist to constantly think differently about the material, Zoraster said.
With glass, it depends on your mental attitude, the heat and the timing,” Zoraster said. “Not every single piece, even if you follow the same steps, will be the same, as each gather of glass is different.”
Despite the differences in each piece of glasswork, Perkins said she has found the medium to be artistically limiting, and she has recently turned to sculpture and papier-mache to make larger pieces. Perkins donated her studio to the Institute of American Indian Arts in New Mexico and said she will spend the next year raising money to restore it, help educate others and ground her legacy.
“It was a great career, and I would say glass blowing saves lives,” Perkins said. “People who have a hard time focusing, focus on that wall of fire and focus on what’s on the end of the blowpipe – you have to because it is moving.”