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Shiny, Glassy People: Epiphanies of beauty in a Toronto alley

May 26, 2011
Sometimes (actually most times) our work at S+L takes us to unexpected places. Last week, I found myself in a sunny stucco alleyway in the west end of Toronto to scout out a potential film location. After a little aimless wandering on my part, a man in dirty coveralls delivered me safely to my destination. “You’re looking for the glass lady, I suppose?” he asked. “Yes,” I answered with a smile. I couldn’t help but muse on the storybook feel to the whole afternoon.
Just a few weeks ago, I stumbled upon glass artist Minna Koistinen’s website while researching a project for the Dufferin-Peel Catholic School board. The project is to produce 8 web videos on various science and technology themes. This challenge has been an exceptionally welcome one! Being a biologist by training (with a minor in English Lit) this project has served as a little trip down memory lane.
I thought I would struggle a bit more making the “faith connection” in these videos but alas, it is not so!
From the sidelines at the glass studio where we were making the connection to the properties of fluids, I marveled as Minna described the creative process. Once she retrieves the silica-based substrate from the oven, it is heated and blown by mouth (via a long straw apparatus) in a 2000-degree+ Fahrenheit furnace. After the glass begins to expand, Minna periodically shapes the glass into any number of art pieces; be it a vase, paperweight, dishware, lighting fixture or otherwise.
But the process is not as determined as it sounds, Minna said. When we asked her how much control she has over the process, she said that at the end of the day the pieces put their own spin on things (often for the better, Minna remarked with a smile).
We can draw any number of parallels between this process and the spiritual life. Perhaps I will not do any justice to suggest points of comparison, but one point in particular stayed with me: once the art pieces have cooled to their final shape, there is no returning to a fluid. The glass will never again appear as anything other than what it had been shaped to be.
I couldn’t help but think about the refiner’s fire imagery from scripture. The pain of shaping and refining is eclipsed by the glory of the finished product. As if she could sense the direction my thoughts had gone, Minna explained that for her, working with blown glass is often a meditative process and her bandaged hands attested to many years of such meditating.
In his Letter to Artists, John Paul II writes that:
Every genuine art form in its own way is a path to the inmost reality of man and of the world. It is therefore a wholly valid approach to the realm of faith, which gives human experience its ultimate meaning. That is why the Gospel fullness of truth was bound from the beginning to stir the interest of artists, who by their very nature are alert to every “epiphany” of the inner beauty of things. (Letter to Artists, 6)
I certainly wasn’t banking on an epiphany of beauty in a dark alley studio on a cloudy Wednesday afternoon, but the Divine Artist saw the perfect opportunity. And I’m so glad He did.
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