In a large cinder block workshop in the basement of LSU’s chemistry building, a Paris-trained glassblower lights a torch.
Adrien Connangle, a 31-year-old Frenchman brought to Baton Rouge 11 years ago to create glassware for scientific research, begins rolling a tube of glass into the flame and starts his conversation with it.
“The glass has a mind of its own,” Connangle says. “You are speaking to it, ‘please, do what I ask.’”
In this workshop, which Connangle calls a “cave,” the glassblower creates new tools for chemists and modifies those bought commercially.
The tube he rolls through the fire will eventually become a jacketed column, a small cylinder inside a cylinder. He has created these before, but never one to the specifications requested by a chemist at Albemarle, a chemical company based in Baton Rouge.
“That’s an adventure right there,” Connangle says.
Wearing a dark blue lab coat and blue-tinted glasses that allow his eyes to separate the flame from the tube, Connangle listens to quiet electronic music as he rolls the cylinder over the flame.
Before him, the tools of his craft are spread across the table — tubes of blank glass, a tube he blows through to inflate the molten glass with air, multiple torches.
His right hand has become noticeably thicker after working so close to the flame for more than a decade, while his left remains more delicate. Both hands show evidence of old burns and cuts.
“Glassblowing is hard,” he says, speaking at a quiet volume befitting a man who often works in solitude. “You can work a few hours or a whole week on a piece and then it decides to break. Well, you get to do it again.”
While commercial glassblowers mass produce an array of glassware for scientific research, ordering custom glass for precise scientific research would be incredibly expensive and difficult, leading the university to hire a glassblower, says Dr. George Stanley, professor of chemistry. Plus, students break glassware regularly.
“You either have to trash it, which is $500 down the drain, or you can take it down to the glassblower and he can fix it very easily,” Stanley says.
Technology and the ease of ordering supplies online have not decreased the need for university glassblowers, says Bob Ponton, a retired glassblower and spokesman for the American Scientific Glassblowers Society.
“It’s truly a mixture of art and science,” Ponton says. “Your prime talent needs to be problem solving. The scientist walks in the door, and they truly don’t care what the item you make looks like.”
Raised in a suburb of Paris, Connangle discovered glassblowing as a teenager. Unsure of what he wanted to study at school, while on a trip with his parents he saw a glass artist in his studio.
He watched the man work for hours.
“I didn’t want to leave,” he recalls. “He was going to close the shop, so I had to get out.”
At 16 he finished his regular studies and enrolled in a professional education program, focusing on glassblowing at Lycee Dorian, a school in Paris.
Just before he completed his four years of study, LSU’s previous glassblower, Christian Boussert, visited to recruit him to Baton Rouge. Connangle, only 20, immediately accepted the offer.
“Take the weekend to think about it,” he says his instructors told him. But the idea of working abroad excited Connangle.
Then he could barely speak English. He had learned to read and write the language growing up, but all the different accents he encountered at LSU threw him.
While working alongside Boussert he could speak French, but by watching television with subtitles and having conversations with neighbors, he learned quickly.
Now he thinks in English.
“I have been here too long,” he says. “But when I get upset, then it is in French.”
Every few minutes, while working on the jacketed column, Connangle puts the tube to his lips and blows a bubble from the heated end to remove impurities, he says. The bubble turns to glass, and he taps it into a trash can filled with shards.
He pauses on the glass tube and begins on another project, changing the glass valves on a factory-made piece.
Everyday in the glass shop he does something new, he says, a new conversation.
“There is not a day where I’m like, ‘what am I doing here?’” Connangle says. “I like what I do. I even love what I do.”