As an artistic medium, glass is an anomaly— at once sturdy and then vulnerable to the elements. Eric Franklin‘s handmade borosilicate glass and ionized neon sculptures enliven and illuminate the anatomical model. While sculptures in the Skull and Embodiment series are loaded with a post-mortem theme, they are in fact celebrations of life.
The use of glass reflects the vulnerability of the human body. How does mortality influence your practice and your choice of medium?
The human body is mostly liquid, and glass is really just a liquid that happens to be frozen at room temperature. Glass is an amazing membrane that can be inflated, stretched and compressed. It can be broken and repaired. In some instances, glass has incredible strength and durability, and in others extreme fragility and vulnerability. Imagery of skulls and skeletons carry a certain post-mortem weight along with them, but they come from a much more visceral and optimistic place than that. For me, they are much more about being alive than dead. These pieces describe and define the dynamics and interconnection of everything that makes us human: from our bones to our psyche.
Are you attempting anatomical accuracy or are they more interpretative? Is your practice a scientific endeavor?
I believe I have a unique and visceral understanding of the human body that I want to share. I do have some significant scientific curiosity, but I’m certainly no scientist even if I do have some equipment in my studio that came from NASA Surplus. I use a life-size plastic skeleton and The Atlas of Human Anatomy by Frank H. Netter for reference. I make everything to the scale of an adult. Using a different scale would significantly change the context and content of the work. I approach each piece with the intention of it being easily recognizable as human, but I don’t make any attempt for these works to be anatomically accurate. I think it is the accurate imagery that grabs people’s attention, but it’s the balance between anatomical accuracy and interpretive imagery that really pulls people in and keeps them engaged. We all have the same basic architecture in our bodies, but everyone’s skull and skeleton is unique.
To watch the video of Eric Franklin’s Skull #1, check out Installation Magazine Issue 5.
What properties of borosilicate glass make it different from other types of glass? Does it inspire more creative freedom?
Borosilicate glass has a much lower coefficient of expansion than the glass used to make vases and such. Most people know borosilicate glass as Pyrex, which is a brand name. Essentially it does not expand as much when it gets hot as other types of glass. It requires much more heat to work than other types of glass, and the working time (the amount of time it stays hot enough to manipulate) is much shorter. It can certainly crack if it gets too hot too fast, so it has to be heated and cooled slowly. The glass thickness has to be pretty consistent as well to avoid cracking. Borosilicate is definitely the best choice for the work I do, but a terrible choice for other projects.
What are some of the particular challenges you face in your practice? How much time does it take you to complete one piece?
I spend about 1000 hours on each piece. I would say that the teeth are my biggest challenge. I have to simultaneously heat the jaw and the skull at a slow enough rate to crack the glass teeth. Also, in order to get the pieces to glow they have to be filled with a noble gas or a combination of noble gases. The noble gases will only glow if they are in an extremely pure state so the glass must be perfectly sealed. I must be vigilant about leaks, but it’s always exciting to see the light rush into the piece like a liquid and then slowly stabilize.
The ionized neons is an engaging, unexpected and ephemeral aspect of the work. How do you achieve this effect?
Each glass piece has a metal wire sealed through the glass wall, usually in an inconspicuous location. Once a sculpture is filled with gas, the color will remain constant. There are subtle color changes that happen when you get close, or touch the surface of the glass, but they will return to their original state once you move away. In order to drastically change the color, the glass would have to be cracked open and refilled with another gas.
What does this interplay of materials communicate?
I’ve always thought that the ionized gases give the pieces a certain life. They bring some dynamism to an otherwise relatively static piece. I learn something new about the medium every time I create a piece. I am able to make some guesses as to where the color will be brighter or dimmer, or which areas will come out blue or orange, but it can never be completely predicted. It’s really kind of a relief that it works this way. This type of glassblowing is so premeditated and controlled. The introduction of the noble gasses adds an element of surprise, of mystery. It’s always so exciting when I get to see the light rush into a piece and watch it come to life.
All images © of the artist