Al Gross, who at age 75 has been retired from Verizon for a dozen years, sees things differently from you and me.
Where we see only imperfection, he sees only perfection. Where we see only a random, pointless and purposeless pile of unrelated things, he sees the distinct design and imprint of the Creator.
To peer into his world is to peer into a world of mood-altering images that allow the eye to marvel, the mind to explore, the heart to leap and the soul to endlessly reflect on the mystery of life.
Al hadn’t always gone about in such an altered state until he and Barbara, shortly after they married in 1976, visited Knott’s Berry Farm where Al bought a $30 cardboard and leather-covered kaleidoscope. The purchase started a kaleidoscope-collecting odyssey that has become infinite.
He had the same reaction to these mirrored tubes of magic as the first fortunate few who laid their eyes on Sir David Brewster’s invention in 1816, a description that was captured in the June 1818 volume of “Blackwood’s” magazine:
“In the memory of man, no invention, and no work, whether addressed to the imagination or to the understanding, ever produced such an effect. A universal mania for the instrument seized all classes, from the lowest to the highest, from the most ignorant, to the most learned, and every person not only felt, but expressed the feeling, that a new pleasure had been added to their existence.”
Far from that first cardboard vessel of dazzling light, Al has purchased kaleidoscopes fashioned out of wood, glass and brass and other countless materials. Their shapes, sizes and styles rival the limitless patterns found inside the scope. Among his menagerie of mechanical devices, he owns a cube-sized music box kaleidoscope and another with the polymer clay likeness of the family dog Scruffy attached to the exterior chamber.
Almost wherever you look inside Al’s home, you’ll find kaleidoscopes atop desks, coffee carts, flower stands, end tables and a player piano and inside curio cabinets, book cases and display cases, most of which Al made himself.
That’s because Al, in addition to his kaleidoscopic-collecting skills, is an accomplished woodworker, an incurable hobby made worse after he retired in 2005. But instead of just turning out more chairs and roll-top desks, he turned his mechanical-oriented mind and sights on solving the mystery and magic of kaleidoscopes. Instead of just buying them, he started making them, each one a little better than the next.
“They have become like hangars in a closet, they just keep multiplying,” said Barbara, a University of La Verne graduate.
Al’s passion has also taken over their full three-car garage and an upstairs room where Al does his glass-cutting. Barbara doesn’t seem to mind. “She’s pleased with the output,” Al said.
The Mechanical Arts
Perhaps the strange spell that kaleidoscopes hold over Al has to do with the breathtaking and beguiling images, called mandalas, that they create, and the simple, but elegant science involved in creating them.
At their core, they consist of a compartment through which a two- or three-sided angled mirror is inserted. At the back-end is an eye-piece or peep hole and on the front-end is an object case holding the contents or objects to be viewed. Simple, no?
“Maddening” might be a more apt description because every phase of the kaleidoscope-making process requires a watchmaker’s precision, especially if the artisan like Al is aiming to create museum-quality pieces, not just toys for kids or parlor entertainment for adults.
“The details that go into these things are simply amazing,” Al said.
Creating the tube or compartment into which the mirrors fit is a relatively straight-forward process. Al turns out his wooden vessels, made of maple, Hawaiian Koa or another of Al’s favorite woods, on a Jet lathe.
In a sense, the mirrors can be even more exotic than the woods that Al uses. That’s because they are front-surface mirrors, the same used by camera or telescope makers to keep the entering light from bouncing off the back surface, which distorts the image. With a front-surface mirror, the mirror is on the surface of the glass rather than behind as in a conventional mirror. The difference in price between a front-surface mirror and a standard one that you look into to shave or comb your hair could easily be 10 times or more.
“Hence you need a very fine glass cutter,” Al explained. “Not something you would find at La Verne Glass.”
Once cut, the real craftsmanship begins. The three mirrors have to be perfectly aligned and angled to perfection. Ultimately, the narrower the angles are, the more facets the image will display. If the maker’s calculation and placement are off by literally the width of a human air, the resulting distortion can consign the kaleidoscope to the junk heap.
“When you put them together, you can’t allow in any light,” said Al, adding that a smudge or fingerprint left on the mirror can leave a spider-like flaw ruining the image.
To completely block the light, Al sands the mirror edges with 600-grit sandpaper before soldering them together.
The object case on the front-end of the viewing scope allows kaleidoscope makers like Al to let their imaginations run wild. They can fill the acrylic capsules with hand-blown glass ampules, seashells, semi-precious stones, dried flowers, glass chips, aluminum foil stars, watch springs and baubles of all kind.
A Glass Act
Lately, Al has been using an acetylene torch to heat translucent glass rods before snapping them off to form squiggly pieces of glass which when infused with light throw off a brilliant image. Rather than leave the object chamber dry as many artists do, Al likes to fill his with silicon oil, so the material seems to float and create a slow-motion video effect before settling. Oil-filled kaleidoscopes involve another layer of precision because the chambers have to be airtight so they won’t leak.
The object chamber sits on a magnetic bearing, which acts to lock in the front end, but the magnetic bearing has nothing to do with the actual creation of the mirror.
As for the image in a three-mirrored kaleidoscope, every turn or twist of the image area creates a completely new show – no two images will ever be alike. The image also reflects infinitely.
With a two-mirrored kaleidoscope, the results are no less miraculous. The difference is, with one of the mirrored sides blacked out with telescopic felt, the image or mandala appears with a distinct border or frame around it.
To work their magic, kaleidoscopes rely on light, but when the light isn’t present, makers like Al install LCD lights behind the object case to simulate sunlight bouncing off the colorful collection.
Like his kaleidoscopes, Al is a leading a life of perfect symmetry. He tries to play golf three times a week, he meddles in his magic shop in the afternoon and the rest of his time is reserved for family, including a daughter who lives nearby on Bonita Avenue and a son who is a car fabricator in Hollywood – and then there are the grandkids. He has figured out the pieces to life’s puzzle, living comfortably in a world regulated beautifully and harmoniously by art and science.
Rather than letting life become a prison with advancing years, Al has turned it into a prism, full of amazing and mystic possibilities.
If you don’t want to fall under the spell of kaleidoscopes as Al did, please try to avoid the following kaleidoscopic hubs:
136 Main St.
4070 Burton Dr.
Phone: (805) 927-3447