I was raised to believe that if you work hard, get good grades, and go to university you were successful. Going to trade school and becoming a mechanic, plumber, or cosmetologist wasn’t valued because those skills… well I never got a good reason why they weren’t acceptable options. After this last weekend’s trip to the Real Fábrica de Vidrio de San Ildefonso, one of the few hand blown glass workshops left in Europe, I have the utmost respect for artisans and tradesman.
My morning started out rough after I got lost and missed the train to Segovia with the rest of the group. But by noon after two metros, two cabs, and one train I was at the factory where I was greeted by master artisan Diego who was quick to teach me the basics of glassblowing. “Spin the rod so the glass doesn’t get uneven and ugly” and “Point the rod at the floor so if you burn someone, it’s only their leg” are just two of the little tidbits of advice he passed onto me in Spanish. You know, it’s hard to turn the rod and cool it with water and keep an eye out for a billion details when you’re dealing with 2800˚F molten glass. After learning how to form a semi-symmetrical ball of glass he taught how to fracture it separate our pieces… then we learned to add colored glass in the kiln… then we learned how to pull glass with pinchers… then we told us to relax and blow glass. My only response to all of this was “Is this black magic?!”
Each of us in the group of four got one on one time with him to work on a special piece and I chose to do a crumpled tree-root based vase with swirled glass around the neck. To be quite honest, I was just trying to blow a bubble and accidentally inhaled and by the grace of God it ended up looking cool. But while I was sweating bullets and frantically breathing, what surprised me most was Diego’s finesse— his soggy newspaper covered hands gently yet masterfully cupped the molten glass and shaped it to a perfect cylinder. The glass listens and responds to his hands’ suggestions and at some point, the four of us kind of wanted to just watch him work.
Diego has been a craftsman for over twenty years, training as a teenager to become a master at glassblowing. He is fearless around the kiln and vat of molten glass, but he is not reckless. He approaches the art with the utmost respect and realizes how dangerous the glass could be but somewhere between skill and passion for the art form, he is able to shape the glass to any form. By mid-afternoon I was comfortable enough with him to request that he make a glass horse and he obliged. As he dipped his rod into the vat of glass, like he had done countless times before, I was breath taken by the choreography he went through.
Dip and twirl, toss water on the rod six times, grab pliers and pull out one leg. Now bend the glass to finish the leg and pinch to form a hoof. Pull out another leg but form the hoof first because this leg isn’t bend. Pull a bigger glob for the head and pinch pinch pinch pinch there’s the mane, etcetera. I’m telling you, watching a master artisan work is enchanting and in that moment it was like hew as breathing life into his glass menagerie. Within a few minutes, the likely horse was complete, balanced on its hind legs and tail with a flowing mane and all. Out of nothing but glass, Diego had seemingly crafted life and in that moment I unequivocally saw the parallelism of medicine as an art form.
I hope to one day become an gynecologist and I have so much respect for mothers while they are giving birth because in tandem the mothers and doctors are breathing life into the world. Many midwives and doctors are nothing more than gurus who help deliveries along who use their experienced hands to help the baby out.
What separates a master glassblower and an attending OB/GYN doctor? Not too much actually. Diego has trained for 20 years to hone his skill just like a doctor has gone through 16-20 years of education to become a physician. Somewhere in the countryside of Spain I realized that glass blowing and gynecology aren’t so different after all. With a decade or two of training and a little passion, your hands can bring life to the world.