Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Three mischievous squirrels and cutting glass by candlelight

How does one create a glass book?

Like my other chapbook projects, I came to this one with a vague idea of what the finished book should look like but had no clue how to get it from concept to reality. Lots of trial and error was going to be involved. I have taken a stained glass course before and know the basics: cut, grind, foil and solder. However, this project involved backing the glass with paper sheets and making sure the “pages” were not too thick. It is a book after all, and as such, it is meant to be read, handled, and stored on a shelf. If the pages were to be two-sided, the light would not shine through the glass. I had to think of the glass in terms of texture instead of light. And there were other issues as well. What kind of framing material should I use? How should the pages open? What type of hinging options do I have?

It all started with the idea of a themed windowpane called a “triptych,” in which three windows relate to each other in style and content. How could I make the typically religious themed composition work metaphorically in a modern poem? I told Christian about this idea for a book and he said, “you know I have a poem called triptych.” What luck! The poem was suited perfectly for this project. It is organized in three parts, as all good triptychs should, and its theme of love works well with a medium typically reserved for religious imagery. After all, what requires more faith and fervor than love? And there is an ironic resonance of this in the poem. Since the panes must relate to each other, they should be visible simultaneously. The book had to open out on both sides making the complete triptych visible, and then fold shut and store like a book. This decision determined the type of hinges I would use.

The poem uses the metaphor of the window and how it frames a moment, which is particularly suitable for this project. I decided the frame around the pages should be wood, to mimic the look of a bedroom windowpane (the persona’s perspective), thereby stressing the importance of framing in the text. The images in the poem centre on ice/ snow/ crystals. There is also mention of smoke and foliage, things that can blur vision. This dictated my glass selection. I chose glue chip, water glass, artique, baroque and spectrum, all in varying degrees of transparency. In them I see crackling ice, raindrops, frost, swirling snow, ferns and cobwebs. One glass has a thin curved line that reminds me of the etchings on ice formed by a skate blade.

I played with the idea of using red in one of the panes, since there was mention of a flame in the poem. I thought it would enliven the work and create a sense of contrast. Christian, however, saw the work as monochromatic in tone and thought the use of red too bold in relation to the unchanging tone of the speaker. I agreed and nixed the red. As a result, the panes are quite subdued in colour, with ranges and mixtures of grey, blue, black and white. When my husband saw the finished panes he declared them “dull.” This was wholly predictable since most people think of stained glass as those brightly coloured jewels hanging in windows with light streaming through. Next to them, these were rather anemic looking, but how perfectly they fitted the crystalline text. I pressed his fingers on the glass, asking, “have you ever touched such a richly textured page?”

Chaos Ensues

Now that my decisions were made I bought the materials and got to work. In this sort of production, what usually happens is a therapeutic calmness. The concentration needed to build and shape with one’s hands creates self-possession. My usual frenetic thinking is forced to quiet itself while my mind and hands work in unison.

But this tranquility would not last. Not one, but two, mischievous squirrels fell down my chimney and into my studio space (a.k.a. the laundry room). I heard some squeaking noises at the bottom of the flue and knocked lightly against the vent to see if something was inside. It hissed back. Knowing there was a frightened animal inside, I wasted no time closing off the rest of the basement, wedging the outside door open with a shoe, despite the considerable cold, and then opening the vent cover. Out flew two squirrels into the laundry room. They ran manically from wall to wall, jumping over shelves, knocking down the suspended light fixture, while I stupidly tried to direct them to the open door. “No, not over there you dumb… NO! NO! not on the table, MY GLASS… you’re going to knock down my glass!”

Now this in not the first time I’ve had a run-in with these bushy-tailed rodents. Cute as they are in parks and dangling from trees with their high wire trapeze act, I have grown to detest their swishing tails and clicking noises. When my husband and I first bought this house, I planted a perennial garden full of specialty bulbs. A rather indulgent purchase, I had the bulbs imported from Holland — Rembrandt tulips with their colourful and dramatic petals, delicate fountain tulips and double flowering varieties that resemble roses. But I never got to see them. The squirrels made quick work of my specialty imported Dutch bulbs, digging them easily from the newly packed dirt. I chased them away from my garden on a regular basis, trying various “tips” from other gardeners on how to dissuade them, but nothing worked and I could frequently be seen running through my yard yelling obscenities at squirrels, which I should point out is not a good introduction to one’s neighbours.

After that fiasco, I have never trusted another squirrel. We have an on-going feud concerning the garden, and they seem to taunt me from high up in the trees when I walk underneath, hissing and throwing the occasional acorn at my head. But lately, we have come to an understanding, each respecting the other’s space. Or so I thought. I wonder how it happened, can imagine them up on the roof, “you go, I dare you...” says one. “Well I double nut dare you,” goads the other.

Our past encounters have taught me that yelling at a squirrel and calling it names never helps the situation, and yet this situation warranted extreme behaviour. I thought if I could scare them away from the chimney side of the room they would be forced to go in the other direction, towards the open door. This worked for one of them. The other squirrel, to my dismay, did not follow. He remained hiding on top of a ceiling beam. I hit the beam with a broom in the attempt to bully him down. He pushed as far back as he could go and began growling, very low at first, until his growl sounded more like something that would come from a large canine and not a cute and fuzzy character from Bambi. I decided to leave him alone. I opened the window, shut the door and, very annoyed that my work was halted for the evening, I went upstairs.

I figured he would leave first thing in the morning, driven by thirst and hunger, but when I went into the laundry room the next day he was still hiding. He had found his way across the beams and into the ceiling over our basement hallway. I rapped on the ceiling and sure enough the ceiling began hissing back. The squirrel stayed there for two and a half days before I heard some crashing noises and saw the half empty bottle of detergent being knocked down as he made a mad dash for the window.

Finally, I could clean the mess and get back to work, or so I assumed. Later that same day as I was grinding glass I heard a loud thump and then some scratching noises. I tapped against the vent and sure enough it hissed back. What is going on? Did the first one come back looking for his friend? This time I knew better than to let him out. Yes, he was afraid, but I figured he was safer there than running over my glass covered work surfaces. When my husband came home, he tried disconnecting the vent to trap the rodent, but the wily squirrel was quick and nothing worked. So once again, an inanimate object in my basement was hissing at me. First a ceiling vent and now duct tubing.

It seemed a weird parlour trick. I’d rap on the vent and it’d hiss back. If I rapped three times maybe it would tell me a message, like a spirit from another dimension. The vent talked to me. Perhaps I could invite friends over and we’d crowd around it, light some candles, hold hands and ask it questions. “Should I make spaghetti with pomodoro sauce for dinner tonight? Hiss back three times for yes.”

A day and a half later the squirrel finally found its way out. An open window and a peanut butter treat did the trick. I guess I’ll have to cancel my talking vent party. A whole week had passed. The squirrels had hijacked my workspace and now I lost a week of valuable time. Christmas was fast approaching and I had promised Christian I would have the books to him beforehand.

What some people will do for art

The following Friday I arranged for my mother to watch my daughter so I could have the entire day to work, but once again bad luck intervened. It was storming outside, a sleety snow that soon turned to ice and began covering everything in a thick heavy layer.

There was a power outage. This meant no soldering gun, no grinder and no light. I found a kiwi-melon scented candle and some matches. As a side note, I have no idea where these candles come from. Melon scented or not, I had no choice if the books were to be finished on time. Cutting glass by candlelight is not the recommended way. For starters the low light makes it more likely to cut oneself, or impale oneself depending on the situation. I was lucky really. I managed to slice only one finger, which matched both in position and angle the first one I sliced in full light. It probably had more to do with the fact that I was cutting the glass on the top of my washing machine than anything else. The lid of the washer, of course, is convex, and although not ideal, all my other work surfaces were cluttered beyond usability. As I pushed the blade across the surface it gently rocked from side to side, making a straight cut impossible.

Two sliced fingers, a burn on my wrist from the soldering gun, and a shard of glass embedded in my forehead which I dislodged with a pin… to name just a few bodily injuries from my glass book experience. When I tell people this list, I usually get something like “what people will go through for art.” Truth is I’m kind of clumsy and me with anything even remotely dangerous is sure to cause injury. Rushed as I was the frame did not look quite right, and in an attempt to dissemble it one of the glass pages was broken. A new page and frame had to be constructed last minute, very last minute. I finished both books and shipped them UPS to Christian, scheduled to arrive just four days before Christmas. Creating a glass book was a daunting undertaking. Add to that the hijacking of my studio space by ill-tempered squirrels and an electrical blackout due to an ice storm and you have all the misfortune needed to stage a farce. Hopefully those who ordered one think it worth the wait.