Friday, December 21, 2012

The Oddjob Journeyman Chronicles 01: Vitreous

Oddjob: Journeyman Chronicles is all about work-- my work. I decided to write about the gigs I get myself into. If anyone gets anything useful out of what he finds here, great. If my gentle reader gets nothing more than a good laugh, though, I'd consider that a win.

I'll be rating the experience according to "Oddness" and whether I got "Shafted." Oddness answers how far the gig's taken me from my comfort zone and how different the experience is from a desk job; "Shafted" is a measure of how cheated I feel at the end of the gig. 

Dateline: 21 December 2012

Prior to Christmas of 2012, I answered a friend's call for help. Her family was in the stained glass business and one of their artists just ...quit. Flaked. The result was that my friend's mother was left in the lurch in the middle of an important  project.

I have been on both sides of this often enough, so I'm not going to pass too harsh a judgment on the guy or his employer (my friend's mom). Artists, by their very nature, tend to be flaky: part of what makes them artists is a wild, self-indulgent streak that keeps them from being satisfied with one type of activity for long. Too, artists are often treated as artisans only and paid a pittance for the blood and sweat and sleepless nights they put into their work.  Said work, because of its decorative nature, is not perceived by the public-at-large to put copious amounts of food on the table, a roof over one's head, and a mate in one's bed.

All that said, there is something --often something in the category of "really not good"-- to skipping out on a project. It tells the world you're callous, or careless, or incompetent, or pathologically preoccupied, and that you can't be depended on to get anything done even if someone paid you. If you let this happen enough times to enough people, you will develop a new appreciation for the phrase, "the Mark of Cain."

The long and short of what happened: Dex said "yes" to the universe and was suddenly tapped to work practically non-stop from ten in the morning to around five in the morning the next day, painting what approximated wheat on an endless conveyor line of glass plates.

What was involved?

The word of the day: vitreous. 

I don't know how it is for most people, but I like a word not only for its meaning or how it falls on the ear, but also for how it looks. "Vitreous" is one of those words that appeal to me on all of these levels ("Gangrene" is another, as is "sepsis." I know, I'm strange.)

The word is balanced from a typography-and-design standpoint, but not boringly so. It looks Latin and sounds like it could be used in some form of incantation or Roman Catholic intercessory prayer. The real meaning isn't so imposing: vitreous means glass-like.

The dyes used for painting on glass were vitreous, meant to have a glassy translucent effect after the whole process was over and done with. Contrary to my old ideas of stained glass work, you didn't just stain the glass, cut the sucker into parts that fit the jigsaw wrought-iron frame that you'd had someone else make to match your original design. (Strangely, I don't know where I got that idea. An old art class maybe? A review of techniques used by Renaissance artisans that I half-slept through?). The current staining process was tedious, but only because of the number of panes I had to paint.  

I'm writing this a considerable amount of time after my day at the sweatshop, and the hasty notes I could take understandably didn't involve the nitty-gritty of the process. I was more focused on just getting the panels done and done right. My later research wasn't sufficient to give me answers I could be sure of, and I didn't want to have to go back to my erstwhile employer and subject her to the discomfort of being asked about her business secrets. All I can reasonably remember was there were vitreous pigments, there was (possibly) a binding agent that looked like ash. In the best of circumstances, the painting would be done on one glass pane and get painstakingly reproduced on another. Then the whole thing was fired in some kind of kiln. There's an unsurprising similarity to glazing ceramics here.

Of course, this is Dex you're reading, so the narrative doesn't describe "the best of circumstances."  I get the most interesting jobs.

Achy Flaky Art

The artist had flaked, leaving the employer in the lurch. There had already been some kind of back-and-forth between them that could only have worsened the delay. By the time I was brought on board, the panes were due for delivery to a church under construction, and situated out of town... on the very next day.

No time for any kiln firing and no way this journeyman would get to see it. There was only time for a briefing and a light snack before I could sit down and get to it.

Wait, no, that didn't quite happen either.

There simply wasn't much room. I couldn't really sit, not without having to paint on a surface that was almost as high as my chest. I'd had to stand and stoop to paint. The workshop only looked like the pic on the right before the desks started to take on stacks of glass panels.

When I wasn't painting simulated wheat, we were constantly moving panes around, almost tiptoeing, because we didn't want to break anything.

We finished the last of the panes-- there were so many, even the boss had a brush in her hand-- at almost five in the morning. Once the last of the plates dried, they'd be loaded onto a truck for shipping to the church site.

We were all hopped up on coffee and little sleep, but the atmosphere was relaxed, mostly because we were exhausted. My boss was also resigned to the idea that this project was one of the ones that fell horribly short of the goal. My heart went out to her: she'd still have to deal with an irate customer. Sensing the end of my time with her, my employer decided to talk to me about Jesus while her daughter prepared my check.

I think the sun was rising when I left the workshop. I was upbeat, because I could stave off some expenses.

Oddjob Ronin Rating    

Odd? Yes: Harold Sakata throws five hats at James Bond, and three of them hit.

I wouldn't have gotten this job if the circumstances weren't so desperate for that particular company. While sweatshops-in-all-but-name are common, this setup with my friend's mom doesn't count. In an ad-man's world, this situation could be compared to crunch time for a presentation.

Similarities to other jobs: think old-time sign painters for movies (given scope and volume of work), illustrators and painters on a leash.

Shafted? No.

I was asked what my daily rate was, and I gave it. Granted, I couldn't have known what kind of situation I'd be facing, but I was paid for my work in the end, with exactly the amount I'd specified.
The work was a positive learning experience. I learned a little about contemporary methods for staining glass. I tested my endurance and my artistic ability. I wound up thinking about my own failings as an artist and an artisan, and the situations of employers and artists in general.

Would I do it again? Probably not for the same pay. I would like to see the panes get fired, though, very much.

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