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Vol. LVII, No. 12
June 17, 2005

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NIGMS Program Director Creates Fused Glass Art

NIGMS’s Dr. Laurie Tompkins crafts art in glass.  
Dr. Laurie Tompkins used to marvel at works of art, wondering how the artist made each piece. Now, friends and colleagues of Tompkins, a program director in the NIGMS Division of Genetics and Developmental Biology, have the same thoughts when they see her own sparkling artistic creations.

For the last 4 years, Tompkins has been honing her skills at creating fused glass artwork. Self-effacing about her natural talent, she admits she didn't always know she had a knack for art.

"I failed art class in seventh grade, and I can't draw, so until a few years ago, I thought that I had no artistic talent whatsoever," she said.

Tompkins had always admired the beauty of fused glass jewelry but didn't think she had the skills to make it herself. She decided to find out and signed up for a beginner's fused glass jewelry class at Glen Echo Park.

"I enjoyed the class so much that I signed up to take it again, and then I took it a third time," she said. "Eventually, I bought some glass, tools, and a small kiln and grinder, which I use to make fused glass jewelry at home."

Jewelry isn't Tompkins' only specialty. She also crafts plates, bowls and sculptures. To make these larger pieces, she first takes a piece of clear glass and uses a glass cutter to etch an indentation in the desired shape. Using a special set of pliers, she then breaks the glass along the indentation mark. Next, she covers the base glass with several layers of colored glass.

She likes experimenting with a variety of colors and effects. Often, Tompkins adds layers of irid glass, which has a satiny sheen, and dichroic glass, which has a shiny metallic appearance.

After Tompkins assembles the layers of a piece, she fills in the remaining spaces with frit, a granulated glass substance that has a sand-like texture. She then heats the piece in a kiln, where the temperature reaches 1,200-1,500 degrees Fahrenheit. She says she's always surprised at how a piece changes shape and color in the kiln.

Tompkins started out making fused glass jewelry before moving on to larger pieces. The NIGMS artist likes using bright colors for larger pieces. She keeps this sculpture in her china cabinet at home.

When the piece has cooled, Tompkins smoothes the edges out with a grinder. Occasionally, she mounts extra pieces of glass or puts the glass into or on top of a mold and reheats it in the kiln a few times to get the look she wants. The entire procedure takes hours to days due to the repeated heating and cooling cycles.

According to Tompkins, the process of making jewelry is about the same, but on a smaller scale. Jewelry pieces require an additional step: deciding where to attach the necessary metal fixtures to the glass. To fasten hooks and chains to earrings and bracelets, Tompkins uses a strong glue used by people who repair boats. For pendants, she makes a hole for the chain to slide through by placing a piece of fiber paper between the layers of glass.

Tompkins' enthusiasm for glass art even motivated her husband, Dr. Larry Yager, to take up the hobby. A program director at NCRR, Yager started out taking a glassblowing class, but decided to try his hand at fused glass art because he needed a partner's assistance to make large blown glass pieces. Like Tompkins, he became hooked on glass art after taking his first class. Over the past few years, the two have amassed a large home collection of fused glass artwork.

"Since we have an abundance of glass pieces, and I have jewelry in nearly every color imaginable, we've started exhibiting and selling our work," said Tompkins. She also gives some of her pieces away as gifts.

"I'm amazed at the number of people who are interested in my artwork," she said. "If you had told me 5 years ago that I'd be making something besides brownies that would make other people happy, I wouldn't have believed you."

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