Ursula Marcum practices an amazing artform called kilnformed glass, which she can explain better than I. Her pieces are layered and rich, unlike any other glass I’ve ever seen. Like most artists, Ursula does quite of bit of basic math in her work, and she shares the details here.
What do you do for your living?
I’m an artist who works in kilnformed glass. Rather than blowing glass, which people may be familiar with, I cut up and compose individual pieces of glass, then I fire it all in a specialized kiln to get the result I’m after. Each piece may take several firings. I then sell the completed works at art fairs and to shops as well as show at galleries. I also teach kilnformed glass classes at Vitrum Studio, which specializes in this medium.
When do you use basic math in your job?
Because I’m self-employed, and therefore wear many hats, I use math ALL the time, for all kinds of reasons. Most of the time it’s basic computation, but I work with fractions quite often because of all of the measuring I have to do. For example, if I’m making a glass patter, I need to measure all the pieces of glass so that they fit together and, ultimately, fit into a ceramic mold that guides the glass into a particular shape. Or, I need to center a piece of hardware that’s going to go on the back of a hanging panel.
Sometimes, though, I need to refer to specific formulas. Let’s say I’m doing a sculptural piece. When I put the glass in the kiln, at a certain point the heat will turn the glass from a solid into a liquid and, if I’ve made the correct calculations, it will fill a void that is in a plaster mold. I need to figure out the volume of the void so that I know how much glass, by weight, to use. This is one of several formulas that I have in a notebook which I refer to again and again.
Do you use any technology (like calculators or computers) to help with this math?
I use both calculators and computers to help me, because I know that when used correctly they are accurate! In order to do something like the volume formula that I spoke of earlier, I will first use a calculator to convert the numbers to the metric system. It makes it so much easier. I also use the computer to help me keep track of things like inventory and finances. It’s much faster than using a pencil and paper, though I use those tools, too.
How do you think math helps you do your job better?
Accuracy is very important, and a piece of artwork looks professional because of the details. If my corners aren’t square, or my hardware is off center, or I don’t have enough glass to completely fill the mold, that is sloppy work. If I can’t keep the financial books in order, or I don’t know what inventory I have on hand, I will be out of business pretty quickly.
How comfortable with math do you feel?
The work that I do helped me to become comfortable with math. I am the sole proprietor, so if I don’t do it, there isn’t anyone else to take up the slack! Practice, practice, practice made it feel less scary. Eventually, I got to the point where I had enough confidence to feel comfortable with the math I was doing, as well as believe that I could figure out something new that came my way.
What kind of math did you take in high school?
I really, really struggled with math in school once I got past basic arithmetic. The exception was geometry, which I aced. In hindsight I understand that I did well in this class because I was (and still am) a strong visual learner. Because there were shapes that I could draw and relate to, geometry made sense to me in a way that algebra never did. I got through trigonometry with the help of a very, very patient teacher who stayed after school two days a week to tutor me. It was so frustrating for me though – and I’m sure it was for her, too! At the time I thought, “Well, I’ll just get through this and then I’ll NEVER use math again.” Admittedly, it was a bit short-sighted. Not only does my job require math, LIFE requires math.
Did you have to learn new skills in order to do this math?
Mostly, I had to learn to confront my fear of math. I had been taught all of the skills that I needed for my work, I just didn’t believe that I knew how to use them. But I loved working with the glass, and I had the desire to make my work to the best of my ability, and that meant that I had to brush up on those dusty old math skills.
If math makes you nervous, see if you can apply it to something you love. It’s a great motivator!