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Dali Bottles

Something very odd happened to this bottle...

Many years ago, while visiting some friends in Port Townsend, Washington, I came across a very unusual disassemblable sculpture, made from about 9 or 10 pieces of bronze. Each piece looked like a molten metal droplet, conforming to the shapes of the pieces underneath it. It looked like the maker had dropped a bit of molten bronze into a small cylinder, let that cool, then dropped another molten bit partially on top of that one, let it cool again, and then repeated this process, droplet by droplet, until he'd built up a little tower of droplets inside the cylinder. By some alchemical magic, none of the droplets had stuck to the cylinder or to each other, so you could lift off each droplet again in turn, effectively reversing the process of its creation.

Hmm. The issue seems to be more widespread...

As a sculpture, it was fascinating, and as a puzzle, it was wonderful. Each time you added a piece to the growing tower, it locked itself into place with an incredibly satisfying 'click'. It was an addicting combination: heavy, organic, natural shapes that felt great in your hands, then interlocking and conforming to one another so tightly as you assembled them together. Obviously, I bought the one they had there in the shop. (I can't seem to lay my hands on that puzzle just now to take a photo of it, but you can see a few other examples here and here.)

Wow. An even dozen bottles have been affected.

Several years later, I spent some time tracking down the maker, calling every gift shop in Port Townsend until one recognized my description of the sculpture and put me in touch with Steve Johnson, the owner of a metal foundry there who'd created and sold the sculptures under the brand name Paracelsus Puzzles. You may have noticed that I used the past tense there. I discovered in my conversation with Steve that he'd long since stopped making the puzzles and gone back to normal metal-foundry work; puzzle people had apparently proven too demanding, always asking for new designs, and he'd eventually just gotten tired of it. Worse, he'd never revealed or licensed his magical don't-stick technique to anyone, so nobody else could make them either!

Wait. They seem to be getting together...

I was disappointed, of course, but it occurred to me that I was living in the Puget Sound area, the land of Dale Chihuly and the Glass Museum. There are tons of great glass artisans around the greater Seattle region; surely I could convince one of them to work with me to replicate something of the feel of those metal puzzles in heavy art glass! Sadly, though, every time I brought up the idea with glassblowers, here and elsewhere, they looked at me like I was crazy, or at least naïve. They would always patiently explain that, if you get glass hot enough to melt and run like that, there isn't anything you can do to keep it from sticking to any other glass it touches. After a while, I gave up on my little dream and stopped asking.

This is definitely stacking up to something very odd...

Several years ago, though, my wife and I were driving down the Oregon coast, and we stopped in to visit an old college friend of mine, Sarah Gage-Hunt, whom I hadn't seen for some 25 years. I discovered that, in addition to teaching high-school math, she had become a fused-glass artist, heating carefully arranged bits of glass in a kiln to melt them together into beautiful dishes, platters, and sculptures. I couldn't resist bringing up the puzzle-sculpture idea, just one more time, and to my delighted surprise she said, "Oh, sure. We can do that. No problem." After I got over my shock, we spent pretty much the rest of our visit talking about techniques and sculpture ideas, until our respective spouses got thoroughly tired of it and made us stop.

Well, that explains why the bottles looked like that...

It took us a while to refine our ideas and techniques, but we finally got something worth offering to you, the puzzle-buying public: we call it Dali Bottles. Each sculpture is made from about a dozen real beer bottles, plucked from certain doom in the recycling bin. We first melt each bottle separately in the kiln overnight, flattening it like all of the air has gone out of it. Then we stack all of the bottles up in a random, circular or square arrangement and run that though the kiln one final time. The bottles in the stack slump over and hang on one another like the watches in that famous Salvador Dali painting, each conforming so tightly to the ones beneath it that there's literally no space left at all. When you're putting the stack back together, you will have no doubt whatsoever when you get one into the correct position: it 'clicks' into place so strongly, so surprisingly, and just so satisfyingly that you'll find it impossible not to smile. Really, folks: I cannot convey to you clearly enough how truly wonderful that feels.

There is no airspace between those bottles!

As I said above, it's been several years since Sarah and I started this project and, in the meantime, Sarah has retired from teaching and moved onto a sailboat in the Caribbean. No, really! There's no room on the boat for her kiln, so she kindly sold it to me, and now it lives in my garage. However, I haven't yet put in the dedicated electrical circuit necessary to run it, nor gotten up to speed on making Dali Bottles myself.

The upshot is that, for now, we only have available those sculptures / puzzles that Sarah made before she retired. Take a look at photos of all of the sets we have on hand and then select the one you'd like from the menu below.

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