Artist Josh Simpson first made glass in 1971, while spending a winter semester at Goddard College. That year he rented land in northern Vermont, lived in a teepee, and built a tiny glass working studio out of old barn beams.
Today, the 72-year-old Shelburne Falls resident is considered by many to be one of the best glass blowers in the world.
Producer Dave Fraser talked with Simpson recently, who reflected on his more than 50 years of blowing glass.
This story originally aired on December 17, 2021.
Read the full transcript:
Tony Dunne, Connecting Point: Artist Josh Simpson first made glass in 1971, while spending a winter semester at Goddard College. That year, he rented land in northern Vermont, lived in a teepee, and built a tiny glass working studio out of old barn beams.
Now in his seventh decade of life, the Shelburne Falls resident is considered by many to be one of the best glass blowers in the world.
Producer Dave Fraser visited with Simpson as he reflected back on his amazing career.
Josh Simpson, Glass Artist: When I started to blow glass, I never for a moment considered it as a potential career. It was just the most fun, exciting thing that I could possibly do at the time.
Dave Fraser, Connecting Point: For half a century, Josh Simpson has been creating art objects from glass. His studio is this big red barn, just off the Mohawk Trail in Shelburne Falls.
Josh Simpson: I think that all the work that I do is, in some way, related to space — whether planets that I make give you an idea of what it’s like to be an astronaut orbiting around a small, little world.
But I also make — I make pieces that I call tektites, that have used the same formula of glass as meteorites that have fallen to Earth from outer space.
I also make plates that are what I feel are my idea of what it’s like to look up at the sky on a perfect summer night.
Dave Fraser: The process starts with a small, red hot, malleable mass of liquid on the end of a blow pipe.
Fighting gravity with every turn, Simpson stops only to reheat and then rework the piece until he’s satisfied with the outcome.
Josh Simpson: Glass is insanely hot. You can never touch it. It is one material that, as an artist, I can never, ever touch it with my hands. The result would be horrific.
And so, my job is to create something and get that liquid to cooperate. That’s part of the challenge. That’s part of what makes it fun, is the fact that you need to get as close as you possibly can to this dangerous liquid.
Ideally without burning yourself, but — or close enough to feel the heat.
Dave Fraser: In 1976, Simpson started making glass planets, complete with oceans, continents, volcanoes, and clouds.
Some of them have literally left this Earth into Outer Space, traveling with his wife, astronaut Catherine “Cady” Coleman, who lived on the International Space Station for several months in 2011.
Catherine “Cady” Coleman, Retired NASA Astronaut: The way he looks at this, at the piece, the way he just is so sure that if he wants it to be a certain way, he can just do that.
It’s, in a way, it’s like the Space Program, where people say, “Well, when are we going to get to Mars?” Well, we’re going to go when we’re ready. And it’s — and it’s a long journey and it’s a lot of, actually, small steps.
I see that in his work as well. Where something that he’s been thinking about, you know, 40 years ago — you know, a kind of combination of glass — and then with what he’s then been learning, I’ll see him kind of go back to that and go, “Wow, that thing that I couldn’t do back then, now I’ve got a way to do that.”
Dave Fraser: Josh and Cady married in 1997. And one would think that marrying an astronaut was the reason for the creation of the planets.
But according to Josh, that’s not the case.
Josh Simpson: I was making planets long before I met my wife. It is amazing to me that Cady joined NASA in 1992, and she has gotten to explore the world the way I imagine exploring the world.
I make these glass spheres and I think about flying around those, whether it’s an underwater scene or whether I feel like I’m an astronaut flying in orbit around one.
Dave Fraser: Many of the planets Simpson’s made have been planted on mountaintops, hidden in forests, and buried at sea all over the world as part of his Infinity Project.
He estimates that at least 3,000 globes have been hidden in diverse places around the world.
Josh Simpson: When I moved here 40 years ago, no one was collecting my glass. And I thought, “You know, I should…I should make little spheres and hide them around the world. Not with my name on them, but I should just hide them.”
And maybe someday they’ll be found by a random stranger or by a kid. And it’s kind of a present to give to somebody in the future.
Dave Fraser: Since learning glassblowing in the early 1970s, Simpson has made thousands of planets, as well as tremendous glass platters, goblets, and bowls.
The largest planets are a foot in diameter and weigh 50 pounds or more.
Josh Simpson: I feel so fortunate that the pieces that I like to make, and the work and the concepts that I like to explore in glass, seem to be things that people like to collect.
And I’ve just been incredibly lucky that people understand what I’m doing and want to share that.