The glass grapes are all handcrafted, and Tian says the technique is difficult to learn. When she is very focused, Tian can work from 9:00 in the morning until 2:00 after midnight – sometimes eating nothing and drinking only tea. She says this kind of focus will make the work very good. The glassblowing portion is very hot, requiring the glassblowers to wear only their underwear as they heat the glass in an oven. Women cannot do this; therefore, men do this part of the technique. Tian has a male student who does the glassblowing. Because Tian cannot be in the glassblowing studio while her student is in his underwear, she directs him beforehand regarding the size and shape of the grapes. Since the process is so secretive, details of the working relationship between the artist and glassblower are hard to come by. After being blown, the grapes are left to cool naturally for 5-6 hours. The glass is very thin, and breaks easily. Tian tints the grapes and forms them into bunches with leaves. The tinting process is the most secret part of Tian’s family’s tradition, and she does not divulge how or when this is done. The leaves are made of cotton paper, which Tian cuts herself. Wire inside the cotton paper connects the piece together.
Tian has made the grapes so often that the technique comes naturally to her. In making them, she tries to mimic grapes in nature. This makes the size and shape very important. She tries to make the grapes imperfect, even including details such as insect bites. To give her inspiration for her work, she goes to vineyards to learn about grapes. As a result, Tian knows a lot about the fruit; she says there are many kinds of grapes in China, and her goal is to try and make them all. Grapes are a lucky fruit in the Chinese tradition, signifying many offspring and bringing good fortune. Grapes are often displayed in front of Buddha in Chinese households.
Every piece Tian creates is unique, and only her family knows this technique, making the art form rare. In fact, her family won first prize for some grapes they exhibited in the 1950 Expo in Panama. The government gives Tian good money to make the grapes; she has received provincial and national awards, and her grapes are in private collections and museums. She also makes them for private teahouses. She has a lot of autonomy over orders from collectors, as she chooses the shape and size of the grapes.
In Tian’s generation, only she and her sister know how to make the glass grapes. She chooses to pass the technique on to her family members, but some of her relatives do not want to learn the process. Tian’s child does not know the craft, but her daughter-in-law is interested in learning. Tian says it is the cultural history behind the work that makes it so important, possibly because women are often seen to be skilled at detailed work, or perhaps because of the roles women have traditionally played in grape growing. Her work “reveals the old Beijing,” she says, she “keeps it alive.”