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A Passion for Glass that Burns Hotter than a 2000-Degree Furnace...

by Massimo Pulcini

April 2, 2012

Creativity -- the essence of imagination, the clay that sculpts dreams. Logic -- the principle of validity, the foundation of reason. When juxtaposed, it's hard to find some common ground between the two concepts.
In biology, the divide is more apparent. Cognitive theory suggests logic is handled primarily by the left brain, the hemisphere that acts as a neatly organized filing cabinet of numbers, arithmetic, and reason. Like a computer, it's orderly, concise, and mapped out in black-and-white, ones-and-zeroes. It is the scientist, the mathematician, and the strategist. Meanwhile, the right brain is a Jackson Pollock-esque easel of expression. Controlling elements of abstraction, intuition, and emotion, the right brain is taste, color, and passion. It is the painter, the poet, and the free spirit.
Occasionally, you have those who can harness both hemispheres of grey matter to their maximum potential. Tony Patti is one of them. To those who do not know him, Tony comes across as your typical left-brained IT guy. On paper, his resume speaks for itself: with two degrees from the University of Pennsylvania, five published books on computerized mathematic cryptography, and an installation of 10 Dell servers in his home, Tony defines computer geek. But the CIO of S. Walter Packaging Co. in Northeast Philadelphia is more than your average computer whiz. Behind the glasses and under his head of dark-gray hair lies a unique artistic passion - a passion that burns hotter than a 2000-degree furnace, and a passion that redefined him. But to understand that fire, you first have to look back at Tony's life.
Tony initially discovered his love for computers at a young age.
"I remember my dad subscribing to Business Week Magazine, and reading it at the kitchen table," Tony recalled.
One day, he opened up an issue for himself - what he found there sparked the first ember in what would become an obsession for the young man.
"After reading (the magazine), it was clear that there was a lot of potential in the use of computers within business," he explained. "It became fascinating to me how computers could 'think'".
In high school, Tony couldn't wait for chemistry class to be over, only so he could get back to the computer, write more programs, and figure out how they worked. The first program he ever wrote was a simple game of Tic-Tac-Toe. But success didn't come easy for the young programmer, who wrote the game a lot of wrong ways before finally figuring out how to get it to play. But as his interest and talent both progressed, Tony found himself in a unique situation because at the time, computers were not something most 17 or 18-year olds were thinking about, in part because his high school offered no Computer classes.
Keeping in line with the Business Week Magazine article he had read at the kitchen table, Tony wrote a program that handled airplane reservation systems, and used that for his application to the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, where he eventually earned an undergraduate degree in business as well as a Masters in Computer Science.
At college, Tony's aptitude and enthusiasm for computers shined. During his freshman year, he took a job at the school's computer center. By the time he had graduated, Tony was running the center and its million-dollar mainframe. But the long hours behind computer monitors and code did have an effect on Tony's personality.
"In college I was extremely introverted, and part of that was because I was so fixed on finding how computers worked," he explained. It wasn't until years later that Tony found a new calling - one that would help break that introversion in the least expected way possible.
Many liken the Jersey Shore to boardwalk pizza, smelly beaches, and Snooki. To Tony Patti, it represents the start of something new.
"My wife and I were coming back home from a vacation down the Jersey Shore about 12 years ago," he began to recall, "when my wife saw a sign for Wheaton Village. She said, 'I read an article about that place, I want to stop and see what they have!" he said shrilly, as if to mimic the high pitch timbre of a woman's voice.
At first, Tony wanted no part of Wheaton - his inner introvert reminded him that he had just been on vacation, and that now was time to get back home and do all the work he felt he had to do. But the will of a woman is strong, and the couple stopped anyway.
"Wives can be persuasive," Tony laughed.
Located in Millville, New Jersey, Wheaton Village is now called Wheaton Arts, and is a glass blowing studio and museum. The studio had bleachers to allow for spectators to sit in and watch expert blowers turn molten sand into tangible objects. All it took was one pitcher to instantly captivate Tony.
"It was just a know, handle and spout, but I said, you know what, this is pretty cool!" Tony said. "Next, (the glassblower) wants to make a paper weight, and then something else, and like what? It's just molten glass in there, and he decides what he wants to make without any limits -- just his imagination and skill". Suddenly, Tony was transfixed.
"Now it was my wife saying that we've got to go, and I'm saying, "I'm not leaving, I'm staying. You can go if you want!".
Tony still has the receipt from the first paperweight he made at Wheaton that day, something that he sees as symbol of his new beginning.
Ever since, Tony has continued to blow glass at Buck County Community College, one of only two community colleges in Pennsylvania with a hot glass program. Starting out in Bucks. beginner class, Tony has completed 22 semesters of glassblowing to date and is now in the advanced class. Not bad for a two-year school, right?
Unlike Tony's other passion, computers, glassblowing is an ancient art form. Developed by Romans around 50 B.C., it was during this time that modern day glassblowing techniques were formed. Through use of a blowpipe, blowing glass became a more efficient means of glass creation then the core-forming technique used before. But despite its archaic roots, the process of glassblowing has remained mostly unchanged over the past millennium.
"With exception to the computerized controllers that they didn't have in the 1500's, the basic tools are the same. If someone from back then came into the studio today, he could probably make a better piece of glass then I could," Tony explained.
The process of blowing glass begins when the long, steel blowpipe is dipped into a radiating glob of molten glass. The glassblower evenly blows air through the hollowed tube, inflating the igneous sand into a red-hot balloon that burns like the sun itself, dramatically increasing its diameter. Starting meagerly with only a few ounces of glass, more and more is added after each additional gather, with the blower building onto the piece as he works with it. Each gather draws the glassblower to the furnace.a scorching oven so blistering that it could even make the Balrog break a sweat. Within its glistening array of dancing orange and yellow, flames rise up like daggers - though it's the razor sharp glass that may end up cutting the weary glassblower in the end. Once the piece is considered done, the newly sculpted glass is constricted at the blowpipe end with massive, steel pincers called jacks, while a solid steel rod is used on the opposite end to break the piece off and open up the top, leaving the glassblower with a completed vessel.
The process is no cakewalk.
"Glassblowing is not a pleasant activity. You're looking at a 2000-degree furnace -- you're only a couple of feet from it. But you learn to protect yourself from the heat that can fry you," Tony explained.
What is it about the searing heat and roaring flames that keeps Tony so dedicated?
"When I get (to the studio) and pick up the blowpipe, nothing else matters," said Tony. "All you care about is the glass that's four feet ahead of you and making sure that it doesn't fall on your feet so you can make it into something. It really melts away all the other stuff. That what it's all about".
Additionally, Tony loves glass for its unlimited potential, its uniqueness, and how it resonates with people. He sees it as a major reason why he is no longer an introvert.
"People have been supportive of my hobby - everyone knows I do it. If people didn't know it was my interest, if I kept that to myself, you would never reach this additional synergy. And to me, that is really part of the fun," he explained.
Through his glassblowing, Tony has connected to countless individuals. He has built a relationship with the Corning Museum of Glass in New York, even contributing an interview to their series on glass history, as well as building his own glassblower network through his website, the world's largest glassblowing website.
Being the IT guy he is, Tony explains it as a concept of networking.
"One of the great things about networking, and not in a hardware or a computer sense but as in the networking between people, is that when people know what you're interested in, (the interest) becomes self fulfilling and it reaches a critical mass," he said.
Tony proves that you are not limited to one-half of your mind, but stresses, "I'm not in any way unique in having this left brain-right brain balance. The evolution of introvert to extrovert can happen over time. I don't think you ever lose that computer geek core, but it morphs until you can become that computer geek that can talk to people".
Master Venetian glass Maestros say that the glass speaks to them, and at this point in his life, Tony believes that he can hear it too.
"All a glass blower needs is skill and imagination. I think the harder part is the skill -- at least I know I've got the imagination," he smiled.

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