I have been melting things since I was five. Any kind of natural change process always had fascinated me, so it was a no-brainer to firmly pinch the head of Cole Sweet`s lit cigarette. As I cried, my father almost threw his friend out of the house. Cole said,” He just grabbed it before I could even blink!” My father said,” Ok, Mundy, you`re five years old. It`s time to learn about fire.” A huge hue and cry erupted among the Monopoly players around the dining room table. “He`ll burn the house down!” “ My God! How inappropriate!” “Keep him away form matches!” I watched in awe as I was shown how to light a candle and understand hot wax and the advantages and profound dangers of Fire. My mother made me promise never to do it alone. I never did, having been entrusted with a sacred power only grownups could get, and even they sometimes lost all control and burned themselves up! So I learned early it`s cool to be hot.
Three years later, at the age of eight, my mom took me to the Guilford, CT handcraft Fair in 1963 where I saw Paul Geyer making glass animals on his crossfire. It looked absolutely fascinating. When we got home, after making sure my parents were safely upstairs, I found an old light bulb and cooked it on the gas stove. It sort of melted and cracked up, so I made tongs and cooked the pieces. The edges got smooth in the flame. I was in heaven- the glass was liquid and gooey. Much to my horror, my mother had snuck in and sighted me at the stove. I tried to escape, but the glass was still hot. I had snagged the cool pieces when she grabbed me and pried open my fingers while yelling, “I thought I told you not to play with the stove! And what`s--- Oh my God! Glass in your hand?! You`ll get cut again! Hey, it`s not sharp! But how…..? Sensing a way out of this mess, I said, rather smugly, “ I fire polished it.” Her eyebrows went up and she smiled proudly as she said, “ Oh, you`re so inventive and smart! But from now on never use the stove alone.” That did it; the die was cast, the course was set. The way out of trouble was Science. I would become an Alchemist, like Mr. Geyer. My brother still has a scar near his thumb from when we were melting plastic flowers and listening to the cool sound as they dripped. We also used to melt crayons and make pretty candles. My dad brought home a small cast iron pot and we melted lead to make sinkers. He liked to experiment, too.
By the time I was fourteen my parents were fairly well trained, so when I begged and pleaded for welding equipment, my father took me down to Abco and got me an arc welder. When I put the handle back on his favorite cast iron pan, he was delighted and I knew I had him right in the palm of my hand…..the same hand I burned the hell out of with my new oxy-acetylene welding torch, which he had kindly gotten me for Christmas. It worked out well, though, because when I showed my burn to the gym teacher, he almost puked, and I got out of gym for the rest of the year.
By then it was 1969 and everything melted. It took quite a long time to quit melting and crystallize. Making things was always a comfort. I was quite honored when a teacher stole one of my metal sculptures. I visited Mr. Geyer, because my homemade glass torch was`nt much good and I wanted to do neon. He said, “ I used to do neon in the 1930`s. I don`t even remember how any more. You go see my friend Joey Buccelli. He got a bum leg in the war. I taught him neon so he could feed his family. He might still be over in North Haven. Gosh, I have`nt seen him for at least 30 years.” So over I went, having found him in the yellow pages. Joey said, “ Pauley Geyer! He`s still alive?! My god, we used to pal around together before the war! Oh, he`s tough! We used to go round to the bars before I got married. Got to the point where they would all step aside when Pauley Geyer came in!” Mr. Buccelli was very kind to me and let me watch as he worked. I would go home and try to do what he did and get mad and throw glass at the wall. Finally, he dug an old catalog out from 1944 and I got some crossfire tips. I made a nice manifold and began to learn to use a real glass torch. The only thing I could make with any kind of skill was mistakes.
At one point, as I was driving around Manhattan, I ended up at Rudi Stern`s gallery “Let There Be Neon”. Being a snotty 22 year old, I decided I could do way better than what was in there. I brought him some of my mistakes and he got a weird look on his face. “ Would you leave some of these here?, he asked. I did and he sold them. I was king of the world for about 15 minutes, til I heard from one of his employees that he got $450 and gave me $50. We had a little talk where he encouraged me to ask more and I encouraged him to give me half. From then on we were friends.
It came to pass that I thought I was Mr. Cool Neon Artist---until one fine day when my brother, the one I scarred for life, sent me the cover of the Sharper Image catalog, upon which was a picture of the first plasma globe. Catastrophe! I had been out-grooved! Joey Buccelli had shown me a picture from a 1930`s magazine of a single-electrode neon garden sculpture. We never could figure out how it was done. It was the Holy Grail; mystery over two generations. I fell into a blue funk-- Blue, green and electric purple, actually. Time passed and my funk only got funkier. One day I wandered over to the dump to try to discard my used emotions and shop for good garbage. There, in the metals section, was a small man dressed impeccably in complete polyester, right down to the inky pen pocket protector. He was filleting a TV set with extreme precision. I went kind of near him and mumbled, “ I sure wish I knew how those plasma balls worked”. He spun around on his heel and said, crisply, “ I know who you are and where you live. You need the high voltage power supply from a color TV set. I`ll leave one in your driveway.” He turned back to his work and ignored me completely as my mouth hung open to the delicately aromatic dump breezes. A mangled TV carcass soon materialized in my driveway. I took it into my shop, got a tremendous shock, swore at it, and shoved it under the bench.
It seemed hopeless. Plasma type effects were totally beyond me. For almost a year I asked my scientist friends, engineer friends, anyone who would listen, how it was done. Nobody had a clue. Bill, my 19 year old, giant-sized neighbor, hung out in my garage shop through it all, his hand dwarfing a perpetual can of Foster`s Lager. One afternoon he was bemoaning the fact that he had the misfortune to have graduated from high school. “ I had it made! Captain of the football team! Girls everywhere! OOOOh! What am I gonna dooooo?!! Now I gotta get a job! OOOOOOh!” I said, “ You think you got troubles?, and then went into my Plasma Whine, which he had heard 16 million times. He stood up and bellowed, “ I`m sick of hearin` that! Just suck the s--- out of it and put more gas in! I said, “ Go home, Bill. And what the hell do you mean, anyway?” He yelled, “ Just DO IT ! So I got out the TV carcass and blew a small bubble and put a single electrode in it. I hooked the wire from the TV to the bubble and welded it onto the neon vacuum manifold, pumped it down and told Bill to touch it. Thought I might blast him. I opened the argon valve all the way and Bill said, “ Woa!”. I said, “ Did you get a shock?” He said, “ No, look!” And there it was, a teeny tiny plasma arc only a half an inch long, wiggling away. I said, “ Thanks, Bill”, and patted his shoulder, which was above my eye level. Always listen to giants.
My evil laboratory soon glowed with strange luminous effects, scaring the local townsfolk. The Alchemist`s life is not easy. More voltage! A better circuit! More xenon! Another tank of krypton! A better burner system! God forbid I should go to school. Do they have an Alchemist school? Over the course of many years I slowly learned to ask for help. Scientists are generally a kindly group. My friend Kurt struggled late into the night designing power supplies. We made a pilgrimage to Sylvania in Towanda, PA in the early `80`s. They were super nice; gave us phosphor samples. My furnace ended up in Kurt`s side yard. He is now a skilled glassblower.
At this point, I feel like I`ve finally begun to just barely scratch the surface of what`s possible in luminous glass sculpture. For every question I find an answer to, twelve more pop up, each more interesting than the last. For instance, I`ve learned to make glass torches, but now I want to learn how to work giant hollow forms lampwork style. And glass composition- I make a long working clear that matches most commercial color bar, but could it be cheaper, stronger, easier to cook up? The gas mixtures seem ok, but are there effects I never even dreamed of? I`m learning how to make colors of glass, but there are so many…And I really need to develop a quicker method of making glass- maybe stirring the glop, better furnace, better burners. The more I know, the more I know I don`t know. The research must continue. I think when you have too much fun, it`s called a job. And the boss never stops bugging me---especially around 4 AM.