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Dr. Bach creates a jellyfish in the hot shop.
Courtesy of Bernard R. Bach Jr, MD

AAOS Now

Published 7/1/2011
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Maureen Leahy

A touch of glass

Orthopaedic surgeon turns molten glass into works of art

Like most surgeons, Bernard R. Bach Jr, MD, enjoys working with his hands. When he’s not performing orthopaedic surgery, he’s often at the glassblowing studio near his home, twirling a rod of molten glass into a beautiful work of art.

“I’ve always had an interest in glass,” said Dr. Bach. “I started collecting pre-1880 antique patent medicine bottles when I was in my teens. Two years ago, my wife gave me a certificate for a lesson at the local glassblowing studio as a father’s day gift. As soon as I took the class, I was hooked.”

Since then, he estimates he’s spent about 200 hours in the hot shop. “It’s addicting,” he said. “Glassblowing is very dynamic; it’s not like painting or sculpting where you can leave and come back to it—you have to finish a piece in one sitting. Most of the pieces I make require about an hour of fairly intense work. During that time, I’m not thinking about anything other than glassblowing, which is wonderful. It’s a great outlet.”

Glassblowing is also very technical, which may be another reason Dr. Bach is drawn to the art. “Orthopaedic surgeons take pride in their technical skills,” he explained. “Because we work with our hands, many of us develop hobbies that require dexterity. It is a natural progression.

“I’m accustomed to mastering the steps of a surgical procedure, and I know that if I don’t do the steps in order, it may create a problem. The same is true in glassblowing,” he added.

Turning melted sand into art
In the studio, Dr. Bach begins by gathering molten clear glass from a 2,200-degree furnace onto the end of a blow pipe, a hollow stainless steel rod approximately 5 feet long. He blows into the pipe to create a bubble in the glass, lets it cool, and gathers more glass over the bubble to make the piece larger. He then rolls it in a fine powder of color and places it into another furnace, known as the glory hole, to melt the color into the clear glass.

Once the glass has been blown to its approximate final size, the closed end of the piece is transferred to a solid metal rod “punty,” and a few drops of water are applied to the transition zone between the blowpipe and the original base of the piece. This creates an opening that can be expanded as desired, depending upon the piece that is being created. All handblown vases, bowls, glasses, urns, and platters evolve from these basic steps. The piece can be placed in extruded aluminum molds that create basic designs (eg, ridges) because glass has a “memory.”

“For example, if you’re making a Persian platter, you spin the rod very quickly until the molten glass flares out; if you want to create ridges or ruffles in the platter, you slow the spinning down,” Dr. Bach explained. “To create a flat platter, you hold the punty rod nearly parallel to the floor; holding the punty at a very steep angle—almost upside down—will give the piece depth.”

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Dr. Bach creates a jellyfish in the hot shop.
Courtesy of Bernard R. Bach Jr, MD
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Jellyfish “come alive” when displayed on lighted stands.
Courtesy of Bernard R. Bach Jr, MD
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Dr. Bach has made approximately 50 Persian platters.
Courtesy of Bernard R. Bach Jr, MD

He places the finished pieces in an annealing oven that gradually cools the glass over a period of about 24 hours to prevent cracking or breaking. If necessary, he can then grind down the base or polish the glass.

Dr. Bach has made about 200 pieces in the glass studio and is currently in what he calls his “jellyfish and Persian platter phases.”

“When I was in New Orleans in 2010 for Annual Meeting, I bought a paperweight with a glass-blown jellyfish in it at a shop near the convention center,” he said. “It intrigued me—I analyzed it and deconstructed how it was made and developed my own process for making the little tentacles and creating the bells.”

Another of Dr. Bach’s hobbies is woodworking, which he ties into his glassblowing. “I make long, rectangular stands out of cherry wood and/or mahogany and then I put LED puck lights on the base. When placed on these lighted stands, the jellyfish, which are about 10 inches tall and weigh 8 to 10 pounds each, really come alive.”

In addition to creating more than 100 jellyfish, Dr. Bach has also made approximately 50 platters. “The jellyfish are more difficult to make, but they are also a bit more forgiving,” he said. “The platters can break or come off the blow pipe.”

He doesn’t make a lot of different types of pieces, he says, because he’s still trying to perfect the steps. “I may transition into a vase phase or decide that I want to make different pieces each time I go into the studio, but for now, I am still in the learning process and getting more comfortable with the art,” he said. “I am a perfectionist—both as a surgeon and as an artist. When I’m creating these particular pieces, I’m in the zone because I’m confident I’m creating a technically well-done piece.”

Striking a balance
Dr. Bach strongly believes that orthopaedic surgeons should strive for balance between home and family and their professional careers. “It’s important to develop interests that help balance you as a person and help to reduce stress. When I’m glassblowing, I’m totally relaxed and immersed in what I’m doing, and that keeps me fresh. Orthopaedic surgery is a demanding profession and as much as we all love it, it can wear you down a bit. Being at the glass studio is my time to be a kid,” he said.

Dr. Bach’s outside interests also serve a more practical purpose. “I’m trying to develop a skill set that will allow me to transition into retirement. People who have trouble transitioning to retirement are those who don’t have any outside interests to keep them busy,” he said. “I want to approach my retirement years knowing that if I stopped doing surgery tomorrow, I would have plenty of things to do. I intend to keep glassblowing and woodworking, and I may even try my hand at other arts such as oil painting and sculpting.”

Dr. Bach is the Claude N. Lambert-Helen S. Thomson Professor of Orthopedic Surgery; director of the division of sports medicine, department of orthopaedic surgery at Rush University Medical Center; former president of the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine; and one of the team physicians with the Chicago White Sox and Chicago Bulls.

Maureen Leahy is assistant managing editor of AAOS Now. She can be reached at leahy@aaos.org