One-of-a-kind glass planets keep trade fresh for glass artist Josh Simpson

  • Josh Simpson with a molten planet being created in his Shelburne studio. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Josh Simpson holds a platter made of corona glass in his Shelburne studio. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Josh Simpson’s platter made of corona glass in his Shelburne studio.

  • Josh Simpson’s planets that incorporate his corona glass.

  • A Josh Simpson platter made of corona glass in his Shelburne studio. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Josh Simpson’s book on glass that gave him the idea to recreate corona glass in his Shelburne studio. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Josh Simpson holds a planet made of corona glass in his Shelburne studio. Recorder Staff/Paul Franzz

  • Josh Simpson adds interesting bits of glass to his planets in his Shelburne studio.

  • Josh Simpson holds a platter made of corona glass in his Shelburne studio.

Recorder Staff
Published: 5/16/2018 1:35:27 PM

In 1981, glass artist Josh Simpson threw a few teaspoons of cobalt, copper, silver and zinc into a crucible of molten glass, and came out with an explosion of swirling reds, blues and greens that closely resembled a NASA photograph of the Crab Nebula, as seen through the Hubble Telescope.

“But the irony was, I was never able to melt it again,” Simpson said of the opalescent glass hue. “I didn’t do anything in a very scientific way, so that, one day, I threw a couple of teaspoons of cobalt and a couple of copper and a couple of zinc and some silver into a crucible, and I got the most spectacular color imaginable.”

For the next 27 years, though, Simpson tried to recapture what he had discovered by chance.

“I had no idea,” he said of the beautiful accident. “I hadn’t weighed anything. I had no idea how hot (the glass) got, I had no idea whether there was an excess of flame or not enough oxygen … It was incredibly frustrating.”

But Simpson was not the only glass artist to be stumped by a recipe for producing a legendary red glass that was first made in ancient Egypt about 2,000 years ago. The recipe for producing that glass color seemed to have died along with ancient Egypt — at least until 1450, when it was rediscovered by an Italian glass-maker — Angelo Barovier, a member of a family that was famous for Venetian glass-making for centuries.

It became known as “chalcedony glass,” which is a glass made with silver and named for the semi-precious mineral, chalcedony, which it mimics. That Italian artist made the glass for about 20 years, but when he died, the recipe died with him.

“That was his retirement package,” Simpson joked. “In the days before patents and trademarks, the only way to be exclusive was to keep your formula a secret.”

In “The Art of Glass Making,” published in 1612 by Italian glassmaker Antonio Neri, the author gives an approximate recipe, then recommends trying it out in small batches first, to avoid waste. Simpson has an English translation of this color recipe, which comes with the admonition: “10 percent is what is known; 90 percent is to be discovered.”

A lifetime of glass

Although Simpson tried to duplicate the fiery glass over many years, the economic downturn of 2008 gave him a backlog of inventory and more time to experiment with formulas for creating color effects with metallic oxides.

After 469 separate formulations to make this fiery glass, Simpson has developed a line of brilliant nebulae-colored glass he calls “corona glass.” The reds can be as fiery as if one stared into the sun for a moment, or a kind of earthy brown. But there are other layers and swirls of jewel-toned colors.

Simpson sports two thick ring-binder notebooks filled with color recipes and photo samples of what was produced.

“I’ve spent 36 years working on this project,” he said of finding a way to reproduce chalcedony glass. “Along the way, it’s been fascinating, because I’ve discovered a lot of colors I would not have found.”

“I call my glass ‘corona’ because when I formulate and use it correctly (which does not happen all the time), the glass looks to me like Hubble Telescope imagery of energetic celestial phenomenon like a nebula, super novae, or the corona around the sun,” he explained. “Much of my work involves the theoretical depiction of black holes, interstellar space, neutron stars, quarks and planets that are not ours.”

“Part of the magic of glass is not just the making of it, but the composing of colors,” Simpson added.

Glass, at its most basic, is sand with added components to help it melt at a lower temperature, he explained. Then the glass worker adds metallic oxides to create color. Simpson said he mostly used silver to create the rich blues of his planets.

Recently, Simpson received a David Whitehouse Fellowship to study the interaction of silver in glass at the Corning Museum of Glass in New York.

“That’s something I’ve already spent my life doing,” he said. “I expect to spend three to four weeks with Corning Glass scientists and library staff in a knowledge exchange.”

Simpson said he is self-taught and that he made glass for the first time in 1971, while spending a winter semester at Goddard College. “My first glass objects were lumps,” he said, “but I progressed to making and selling wine goblets during that first year. At the time, I was a senior at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y. I was so enamored with glassmaking that I took a year’s leave from Hamilton.”

That year, Simpson rented land in northern Vermont, lived in a teepee and built a tiny glassworking studio out of old barn beams — using his “life savings,” he said, of $306.

In 1976, soon after moving to Shelburne Falls, Simpson started making glass globes that were inspired by the 1969 photos of the blue Earth taken from space by the NASA Apollo crew.

“I was also inspired by Neil Armstrong, who looked at the Earth from the moon and realized he could cover up the (view of) Earth with his thumb,” Simpson said.

Armstrong said: “It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.”

Simpson said his first glass planets were blue, like the Earth, but after he took up scuba diving, he also made glass planets that resembled the view of underwater landscapes.

“Planets are the simplest shape imaginable,” he said. “But inside that sphere, you can do anything you can imagine.”

A passion that still burns

Simpson’s glass planets have put him on the map for his art. Some of his planets have literally left this Earth, in outer space travels with Simpson’s wife, astronaut Catherine “Cady” Coleman, who lived on the International Space Station for several months in 2011. Other glass planets have been planted on mountain tops, hidden in forests and buried at sea all over the world, as part of Simpson’s “Infinity Project.”

In 1976, Simpson discovered several handmade glass marbles in an old garden bed outside his kitchen door. He said they were probably put there by children a few generations earlier, “but they were just as bright and vibrant as they’d been on the summer afternoon they went missing.”

He thought about archaeological sites that yielded finds of glass objects. “At the time, no museum had shown my work, and I thought that maybe no museum ever would. … Why not bury my planets myself, and then perhaps someday a random archaeologist might find one and ponder why or what it was made for. Maybe my glass might find its way into a museum after all!”

Simpson said he and his friends started hiding Simpson’s glass planets in random spots when they traveled, by 2000, he named this the “Infinity Project.” He estimates that at least 3,000 globes have been hidden in diverse places around the world. These include Antarctica, a New Zealand glacier, and in Youngstown, Ohio.

“I love the thought of people eventually finding these unsigned little glass worlds and being intrigued about their meaning, purpose and origin,” he said. “These people may or may not be archaeologists. They may know nothing about art or science, and they might not be able to purchase one of my pieces. But I like the idea of my art reaching a new audience of people … potentially living decades or hundreds of years from now.”

Simpson has tired of making “sets,” in which goblets or other glass objects have to look alike. But he’s not tired of making one-of-a-kind planets after 42 years.

“All my glass is about themes of the vastness of space, or the cosmology of space — long before my wife became an astronaut,” he said.

“What keeps me interested in this,” Simpson continued, “is I will have a theme for the day.” For instance, one day’s work was creating orbs with a sprig of spidery white filament, which resembled living coral on a sea rock.

And the Corona glass is now forming the color base for some of the planets. Looking at telescopic views inside Saturn’s rings, “I realized planets are not just blue, but have swirling storms within them,” Simpson said. “These are meant to be fanciful, perhaps in some other galaxy.”

“I’ve been making planets, but also platters and discs that look like neutrons, stars, nebulae and exploding stars,” he said.

Simpson’s work is regularly on view and for sale at the Salmon Falls Gallery, 1 Ashfield St., in Shelburne Falls. Also, Simpson will be having a solo exhibition at the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield starting mid-July.

Examples of Simpson’s work are available on his website:

Staff reporter Diane Broncaccio has worked at the Greenfield Recorder since 1988. Her beat includes West County. She can be reached at: or 413-772-0261, ext. 277.


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