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Artist Josh Simpson Makes Giant, Fiery Glass Planets, Coronas and Meteorites [Slide Show]

Science and a furnace turn glass and metallic oxides into fantastic worlds



Mark Fischetti

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Planet Earth looks beautiful from space. So beautiful that a photo of our world taken by Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell inspired then 21-year-old Josh Simpson to begin a lifelong project: creating his own universe of brilliantly colored glass planets, complete with oceans, continents, volcanoes and clouds.

Since learning glassblowing at Goddard College, Simpson has made thousands of planets large and small, as well as tremendous glass platters that resemble the sun’s corona, or Saturn and its rings. He has also crafted artificial meteorites that are physically and chemically similar to the real ones, embedded with glass inlays. The largest planets, a foot in diameter and weighing 50 pounds or more, are in the permanent collections of the Boston Museum of Fine Art, the Corning Museum of Glass, the Yale University Art Gallery and other institutions; many others have been in exhibitions such as the White House Collection of American Crafts USA Tour.

Simpson says his motivation “comes directly from the material itself. Glass is an alchemic blend of sand and metallic oxides combined with extraordinary, blinding heat.” The result, he says, “is a material that flows and drips like honey. When it's hot, glass is alive. It moves gracefully and inexorably in response to gravity and centrifugal force. It possesses an inner light and transcendent radiant heat that makes it simultaneously one of the most frustrating—and one of the most rewarding—materials to work with. I attempt to coax it; all it wants to do is drip on the floor.”

[View a slide show of Simpson’s glass worlds]

Simpson does not use terms such as gravity and centrifugal force casually. He has mastered the science of glass in incredible detail. The features of his planets—the structures that are embedded in the larger glass orbs—are themselves composed of many bits of glass he has colored in his own furnaces under exacting conditions. “Different blue colors come from melting silver in the glass, under different oxidation rates that I can control,” he explains. As he mixes more colored objects into the larger globes, the science becomes even more important. “Adding cobalt, say, to clear glass changes the glass’s coefficient of expansion.” Other additives will create bits that have other coefficients. “So if I’m using 50 or more colors of glass in one planet, I need a very careful recipe, or things could go wrong, sometimes explosively.” At this point in his career, the 63-year-old also designs his own blast furnaces and tools.

The details in one of Simpson’s planets can be stunning, as I saw firsthand last weekend when I visited an exhibit of his work at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts Gallery 51 in North Adams, Mass., about a half-hour from Simpson’s home in northwestern Massachusetts.

Glass chemistry so fascinates Simpson that he has also found a way to create artificial meteorites. His friend and former editor of Sky & Telescope magazine, Walter Houston, gave him a meteorite years ago. It was a tektite, a glass form of meteor fused from silica and metallic oxides. Another friend did a spectral analysis of the meteorite for Simpson, who then proceeded to create conditions in his furnaces that allowed him to make a similar kind of rock. “I realized the meteorite’s composition was not that complicated,” he says, so he melted materials according to the spectral formula. Simpson has made many artificial meteors since, turning them into objects d’art by inlaying colored glass.

The same mix of science and whimsy caught the attention of astronaut Catherine “Cady” Coleman during a chance meeting with Simpson. She would eventually become his second wife. Coleman spent six months on the international space station in 2011.

Coleman has also become a partner in crime in a global pastime pursued with Simpson’s globes. In 1976 Simpson found some marbles on his property, which appeared to have been left there decades ago and yet were still as brilliant as ever, thanks to the long-lasting properties of glass. He began to make small glass planets, only a couple of inches across, and leave them in different places as artifacts. After he got his pilot’s license, he would occasionally drop one out of the cockpit window over a random spot, to become part of the earth’s buried treasure. He then got the notion to start the Infinity Project. Today, more than 1,700 people have hidden planets in locations around the globe. Some are meant to be discovered quickly, others are likely to remain hidden for centuries. “I hope future archaeologists will be confused about the meaning and purpose of the little spheres, wondering what they are and how they got there,” Simpson says with a smile. His wife apparently has left one inside a shuttle, or shuttle launch bunker, or space station…

Always experimenting, Simpson’s current focus is to make colloidal silver glass. When handled just right, silver can leave striations in glass “that look like those Hubble Telescope images of the birth of stars,” Simpson says, excitedly. “I want to create that look. It is very complicated, mixing and melting silver, tin, copper, zinc and other metallic oxides in different combinations. But I am enjoying the challenge.”

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