Heart of glass

During a busy morning in mid-January, Chiles was teaching a class of Middlebury College art students how to use a glass furnace while Martell was busy overseeing work on the President Obama plate stands.

"Our equipment is the biggest facet of the business," said Martell. "But John still finds time to create artwork that is sold through his website, Johnchilesart.com."

Chiles was too busy to chat much with this visitor on the morning he was skillfully directing students on how to move a crucible of molten glass from furnace to shop floor. Inside the crucible, the viscous material looked more like translucent lava than glass.

In fact, the glass removed from the Hub furnace was slightly hotter than most molten lava; it was seething at a temperature of over 2,000 degrees fahrenheit! But is the weird translucent stuff liquid or solid when it cools? Well, there's no clear answer from ceramic scientists. Look at ancient glass windows in European churches and you'll notice that the force of gravity has a way of pulling the stuff like it's some kind of slow-motion flowing taffy.

"In terms of molecular dynamics and thermodynamics," writes physicist Philip Gibbs of the University of California. "It is possible to justify various different views that it is a highly viscous liquid, an amorphous solid, or simply that glass is another state of matter which is neither liquid nor solid."

But John Chiles doesn't appear to be too concerned about the scientific need to classify glass. For the artist, it's a medium; and in it, there's a message.

"When I first started making the pieces that have evolved into my current work I was preoccupied primarily with making simple and elegant classical forms," he said. "Over time I began to elaborate on these forms by adding colorful shapes to their exteriors. With the addition of external elements the pieces began to take on more character like attributes. These expressions of character have become more emotional in nature as they have found their way to the insides of the vessels."

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