By Riley Steiner, For The Miami Student
Outside, snow falls past the frost-tinted windows. Inside, though, scorching flames that could melt the snow in an instant create something beautiful.
The high ceiling of room 140 in Phillips Hall stretches above a dozen students seated in front of oxygen-fueled torches. They wear goggles that reflect the steady orange light of the flame, focusing intently on their work.
One student holds a thumbnail-sized piece of glass on the end of a metal rod, moving it in and out of the flame. It pulses and glows molten orange. He takes it out of the flame, studies it for a moment, then puts it back in again.
The gray, boxlike oxygen machines at the end of each table emit a constant low buzz and frequent puffing noises. The room smells like fire. There’s a lot going on, but each student is fixated on his or her own creation.
Professor Leah Tuscany has been teaching this class, “Beginning Glass and Lampworking,” for four years at Miami University. She learned how to make beads here, too, 16 years ago. Every week, she introduces the students to a new technique of bead-making.
“I will teach a demo and a technique, but I stress that they have complete creative license to take that skill and change it whichever way they want and create beads using the technique but it’s totally their own design,” she says. “So I give them the basics and then their creativity takes over.”
Tonight, Tuscany calls her students over about 15 minutes into class. She sits in front of a torch and prepares to demonstrate how to make a round, smooth bead. Igniting a match with a “skriitch,” she holds the flame up to the torch until the fire licks at the oxygen and the torch lights.
She takes a thin, deep blue rod of glass and holds it like a pencil, melting the tip until it becomes orange and malleable. When she has enough melted glass, she begins to lay it onto a metal rod, called a mandril. She rotates the mandril away from her —
slowly, carefully, steadily.
As the mandril turns in her hand, the glass forms a beadlike shape, piling on top of itself until it has thick, smooth sides. She keeps holding it in the flame, and it glows hot, the midnight glass melting into a red sun. Soon, her steady hand has created a round, even bead.
“You make that look so easy,” says an observing student.
“You make 100 of those and it will be easy, too,” Tuscany replies good-naturedly.
The demo finished, her students scatter, grabbing glass rods in different colors — pale greens and blues, yellows, oranges. When they successfully make their first beads, those pieces of glass will go into the 930-degree kiln to gradually cool, their temperature falling like the snow outside.
“At the end of seven weeks, you will be amazed at what you can do,” Tuscany tells her students.
Sophomore Katie Ash took the class last semester, and she now has a personal collection of completely original beads.
“I have some [beads] that are dime-sized and some that are huge,” she says. “I have one in the shape of a snowman. I have one that I made a mushroom bead. No two are the same. I just like looking at them; I don’t need to show them off to anybody but myself. It’s a cool skill that I now have.”
As a biology-pre-vet major with a neuroscience minor, Ash signed up for the class for a reprieve from her science classes.
“I’m all science, all day,” Ash says. “But that’s why it made the class so fun, because I don’t do art in biology. I don’t consider myself artsy, so it was fun to use a different part of my brain, a different skill set.”
The class is open to all majors, and Tuscany says it attracts a lot of students from engineering and the sciences.
“I find that the students really appreciate this class because it’s one class out of their schedule where they don’t have to be focused on studying,” she says. “They’re focused on creating instead of studying, and they really love that. I get so many comments after this class is over that all of the art classes allow students to have a break from that rigid academic schedule.”
The transformation of students’ abilities and outlook throughout the class is her favorite part of teaching. In all her years of teaching Beginning Glass, she’s never had a student who had any previous experience.
“The students come in and they’re a little afraid, just a little apprehensive because it’s new,” Tuscany says. “So I like to take people that don’t know a thing, have never had any experience, they come in totally, totally fresh, and in seven weeks they leave and they know how to make beads, and they are confident. And especially beginners, I love teaching people that. They’re clean slates.”
Junior Garth Herbert has been creating films with his classmates since his freshman year, but there’s something different about the one they’re working on this semester.
In a class called Capstone Pictures, they are spending the entire semester working on one film. The capstone is run just like a Hollywood film would be produced.
“It’s pretty different from any film you’d make in a normal class at Miami,” says Herbert, a Media & Culture and Interactive Media Studies double-major. “We have a bunch of professional equipment. Everyone has their own job. It’s done like a legit Hollywood production where everyone has one or two jobs and they stick with that job for the entire production.”
As the art director, the gaffer (which is the person in charge of lighting), and one of the editors, Herbert has more jobs than usual. But he’s excited about all the potential he’s seeing as the class prepares to create their film.
“There are a bunch of really cool people working on the project,” Herbert says. “They’re all really talented.”
In Capstone Pictures, he says, the students are the ones who are in charge of the project — doing everything from set design to supplying food. Right now, one of their big questions is whether they can secure the rights to use Trix cereal in the movie.
The capstone’s two instructors, David Sholle and Sam Ribbler, guide the production but allow the students to largely develop it on their own.
“They see themselves as general guides,” Herbert says. “They’re more to push us in the right direction, but it’s mainly students doing everything.”
The students are currently working on finalizing the script — about a man who dies, goes to limbo and has to decide where to go next — as well as figuring out budgets and designing the sets.
After all the preparation work is done, they will begin shooting in early April.
“It’s great experience, preparing me to go out into the real world and make movies,” says Herbert.
* * *
Elizabeth Smith is not a fashion major. But in her first semester at Miami, she got to bring in her neighbor’s aunt’s 1970s dress to class.
“It was a wrap dress with big flowers all over it,” Smith says, laughing. “It was pretty ugly — yellow and green.”
For the final project of “History of Western Dress,” students analyzed a clothing “artifact” from a past time period — ’50s wedding dresses that their grandmothers wore, their parents’ prom dresses from the ’80s and, yes, ugly floral print gowns from the ’70s.
During the semester, they learned about clothing from ancient Egypt to the 1990s. They studied what the styles were and what was popular in each time period.
Smith says her favorite decade to look at was the ’90s.
“Going through all the 90s was really interesting to me because it’s stuff that we kind of already know,” she says. “So it was fun to find out what things were actually called and what was in fashion [while we were growing up].”
She says that, while the class was a lot of work, it was very interesting to see all the different clothing styles that spanned the centuries.
“Now I have this knowledge about old fashion,” Smith says. “I’ll see something Roman and be like, ‘I know what that is!’”
* * *
Catherine Grimm opens her Wednesday class by asking, “How many of you have seen the Disney version of ‘Beauty and the Beast’?”
Hands shoot into the air.
“This one is a little different,” Grimm says with a smile.
“Folk and Literary Fairy Tales” is listed as a German class, but encompasses far more than the tales’ German roots — its students talk about all sorts of stories. “Beastly bridegrooms,” like in “Beauty and the Beast;” sirens, nymphs, and water creatures; dysfunctional families, like with Hansel and Gretel. The last grouping of the stories is even called “Who’s for Dinner?” and focuses on tales like Little Red Riding Hood and Bluebeard’s murder of his numerous wives.
“Perhaps, from my perspective, students have a somewhat narrow view of fairy tales, and I have to say, it’s usually connected to Disney and what they know from the Disney movies,” Grimm says. “My sense is that they’re always a little bit surprised. They may have heard that fairy tales are not all about happy endings, but usually they’re a little shocked and surprised by the violence and the gruesome aspect of the tales.”
Today, however, does have a happier ending — in the literary version of “Beauty and the Beast,” the Beast ends up living happily with Beauty, and he is a nicer, gentler beast than in the Disney movie.
Sophomore Alanna Wahl loved learning new things about these familiar stories.
“We read ‘Cinderella’ and all the princesses,” she says. “You got to read fairy tales you read when you were younger. It was cool looking at the fairy tales in completely different ways and at new ideas that you obviously didn’t know when you were five or six years old, so it was cool to get a different perspective.”
But some of the fairy tales surprised her, too.
“Hansel and Gretel really stuck out to me,” she says. “As a kid you think, ‘Oh, they live in a house made of candy.’ But their parents actually left them in the woods.”
Much of the class is spent comparing the literary versions of the fairy tales to the more kid-friendly Disney versions.
“Discussion is the main part of the class and can go wherever it takes us, and the more we get into the class the more we can make connections between other tales,” Grimm says.
She has been teaching the class at Miami for several years, but finds new things each time she opens them.
“I love all the tales,” she says. “I just love how they take me to different places. I’m quite familiar with all the texts, but I love how in conjunction with what the students bring to the tales, it’s never-ending. We’re never done, but in a good way. How they analyze the texts, it always opens up new things to see. That’s the good thing about fairy tales. There’s always more to find out.”