Heart of Glass: Artist Kiva Ford and His Passion for Glassblowing
It’s easy to make Downtown Jersey City resident Kiva Ford sound like a bit of a geek. He works for a pharmaceutical company, which is already pretty nerdy, and the minute he’s off the clock, he’s dying to work again. In fact, he does — but only because he’s following his passion.
Every day, the 28-year-old heads to Roche Pharmaceuticals in Nutley where he works as a scientific glassblower, making glassware for chemists’ various experiments. His elaborate creations are more Rube Goldberg than Emil Erlenmeyer, with jackets, condensers, Liebig columns, stopcocks, triple stopcocks, valves and a bunch of other structures you won’t find in your typical high school lab. (If you want to know what all these things do, we suggest doing some research — it’s kind of complicated.) After he gets off work, Ford returns to his Jersey City studio, an old garage tucked away in an alley by the Sixth Street Embankment. This is where the real magic happens.
With a rainbow palette of borosilicate (the same sturdy stuff scientific glassware is made of), Ford creates artistic glass pieces like dragon-adorned goblets, otherworldly glass pendants and miniature vases. He is also clearly influenced by his day job, making itsy-bitsy chemistry sets and a small-scale series of body parts in jars that includes an anatomically correct heart.
He’s addicted to his art. “I never get bored,” he says. “Every time I heat up a piece of glass, I’m still fascinated by it.”
Ford has always literally made it his job to enjoy life. At 15, he started juggling professionally and put himself through college by traveling with the Philadelphia-based Give and Take Jugglers. “I really just try to have fun with life, but I also want a job; I’m pragmatic about it,” says Ford. “I always thought that if you love your work, you’ll never work a day in your life.”
In 2001, a 17-year-old Ford started looking for a job he knew he could enjoy. He remembered being intrigued by glassblowing at various fairs and festivals and decided to try it out. That December, he took a weekend workshop with glass master Emilio Santini of Mirano, an Italian city known for its fine glass, who hailed from a family that has been blowing glass for over five centuries. The workshop was held at Salem County Community College, the only school in the country offering the scientific glassblowing degree that Ford would later earn after falling in love with the craft.
“(Santini) asked me if I had done it before and when I said no, he said, ‘You’re good at this. You should keep doing it.’ A little piece of encouragement can influence your life, and he doesn’t remember saying that to me, but I’ll always remember that,” says Ford. “You know how sometimes things in life just find you? I knew from the first day I did glass. I thought, ‘If I could do this every day for the rest of my life, I could be happy.'”
In 2010, Ford became a glassblowing guru himself, teaching small classes at Jersey City Art School in the fall and spring, where he hopes to inspire others the way Santini did him.
“I think that positive encouragement is key when you are teaching. It can be really challenging learning something new, and I like to reinforce with my students that anything is possible with enough practice.”
While Ford’s flawlessly rounded bottles and intricate miniature works speak to his talent, he says at the end of the day, glassblowing is a skill — one that is highly technical and only developed through several hours over the flame.
“You have to spend years getting your hands to work the way you want them to. In the beginning, your hands work against you. It takes years before you can visualize and then make your hands do what you want.” He adds that making the glassware Roche uses to test its cutting-edge treatments for cancer and other diseases helped him develop the precision he needed to emulate the awe-inspiring artistic glass pieces he saw Santini create.
“With scientific glass, you have to make each piece according to specifications and they train you to make it like a machine made it — It has to be flawless,” he says, lowering his tone. “If a scientist sees that a piece of glassware isn’t flawless, they’re not going to use it. They’re not going to risk destroying their reactions because the glassware is bad.
“You need to hone your craft to where you can do what you want, and apply that to artistic glass,” he says.
Now, he’s totally pro. He usually works under a pair of lamps, but turns out the lights (“It looks cooler,” he says) when the cameras come out. He dons didymium safety glasses and a Kevlar sleeve for protection. He fires up a piece of glass, transforming it from a tube of colored borosilicate into a substance that glows like fiery lava (in its hottest, softest state, Ford says glass feels like pulled taffy or molasses) and eventually, into a bright blue bottle. It looks easy, but Ford says achieving the perfect shape means “fighting gravity” by rotating the bottle evenly at regular intervals. Further complicating matters is glass’ tendency to sometimes explode.
“They say being a good glassblower isn’t about what you can make so much as what you can save,” he says. At one point, something snaps loudly. “Oh!” he says. “Did you hear that? That’s a crack.” With the flame still blazing, Ford inspects the bottle, finds the crack and quickly repairs it, proving that he is indeed a pretty good glassblower.
With his pieces flying off the digital shelves through his Etsy account to countries far and wide, Ford is just on the tip of the glass iceberg. Plans are in motion to expand his classes at JCAS (they recently built a hexagonal table to accommodate more pupils) and Ford is continually firing up his creative juices.
“All glass, all the time — that’s pretty much all I think about. I’m inspired by the way glass moves and all the possibilities with glass. I like to challenge myself and see if things are possible or not. If you constantly challenge your abilities, it forces you to come up with new stuff,” he says.
“There are so many things I want to do with glass — I have more ideas than I have time. I have so many ideas, it’s limitless.”
Photos by Summer Dawn Hortillosa; miniature photos courtesy of Kiva Ford