by Kristin Arzt

Photo: Ash Bowie

Oakland native Ralph McCaskey first found himself enchanted with glass when he visited Disneyland as a kid, and the idea of riding a rollercoaster seemed way less exciting than watching the Glass Flameworkers working in the Crystal Shop on Main Street USA.
Ralph began teaching at The Crucible back in 2009, and as his students know, his passion for Glass Flameworking is infectious. He encourages students to experiment, constantly reminding them that innovation and success usually comes as a direct result of failure. We sat down with Ralph to catch some of his flameworking enthusiasm and find out more about his original creations, ranging from bead blunders to finding his inner monster.

When did you first start Glass Flameworking?

In 1999, I started making beads and found it to be really engrossing. It’s kind of like scuba diving . . . you don’t dare think about anything else. The entire rest of the world goes away when you’re doing it. I have learned so much since coming to The Crucible. I learn from watching other teachers’ techniques, and not just Flameworking instructors. Sometimes I will be in another class and see a technique that has nothing to do with Glass Flameworking. But that triggers an idea, that triggers another one, which eventually does apply!

Are you self taught?

I learn by doing, and mostly just by playing. I like working with soft glass because it’s affordable. I can afford to screw up and learn something. Mistakes can be a path to creativity. If you want to produce, you work your strengths. If you want to take an artistic adventure, work on your weaknesses. Your strengths are going to be there when you get back, so go off and screw up! You’ll learn something.

Why do you teach?

When I see a student nervous at the torch, then they realize they can do it – that moment right there is why I teach – that’s my payoff. They are empowered. And that brings me back into the classroom every time.

Tell us about the monsters.

Years ago, I was unable to make a good hollow bead. I kept slugging at it, but at the time I couldn’t get it to work. Then I realized I could put eye on it! So I took that and ran with it. That’s the stuff nightmares are made of.

I am always manipulating the glass, grabbing it, mashing it, pulling and squeezing and experimenting with it. That’s what the monster class is all about – manipulating the glass. I try to get my students to visualize their inner demons, and they usually come out pretty whimsical.  

Is there a single word you would use to describe the Crucible?

Energy– the energy in this place is what draws me here. You can never be 100% sure what you’re going to encounter when you walk in the door. I love that. It recharges me, spiritually and creatively.

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