Heart Of Glass

On Netflix’s ‘Blown Away’, the Ancient Art of Glassblowing Gets Its Due

Far different and potentially more exciting than your average reality show, the Netflix  competition Blown Away focuses on the ancient art and craft of glassblowing. Dating back to 50 B.C., the ancient Romans perfected the tools and techniques of blown-glass art. Now Netflix is bringing these techniques to millions of people. And it’s very exciting to see.

The Glassblower’s Apprentice

My hometown of Corning, New York, serves as a vital component to Blown Away. The winning artist receives a $60,000 residency at the prestigious Corning Museum Of Glass, the largest and most comprehensive collection of glass in the world. Corning is a very small town nestled in the Finger Lakes Region of Upstate New York. It’s also the third-most-popular tourist destination in the state, behind only New York City and Niagara Falls. Corning was founded solely on the production of the glass industry in the late 19th century, so glass reigns as king in this town.

As a child, I spent practically every Saturday afternoon playing hide and seek at the Corning Museum Of Glass amongst vast, dark rooms and corridors filled with the history of glass. I always stopped to watch the glassblowers educate the tourists about glass, and it sowed a seed in my brain to pursue this later in life.

I’d just turned 28 when I took an apprenticeship at Vitrix Hot Glass Studio, which is still operating to this day in Corning. I quickly learned about the reputation of glass as an art medium and the dedication it takes to manipulate this material at 2000 Fahrenheit. In Blown Away, contestant Deborah Czeresko mentions this dedication: “They’re some heavy hitters in Corning.”

Contestant work that glass in ‘Blown Away’.

She’s right. The glass workers in Corning have a stellar reputation for blown-glass craftsmanship. As an apprentice, I quickly learned the phrase among Corning glassblowers that goes, “When in doubt, spin it out.” This means that if you don’t have the skills to finish a piece once it’s been transferred to the punty iron, you’ll most likely just get it hot and spin it out. You’ve got to put in the time to be considered good.

Glassblowing is very demanding of the student. It’s extremely difficult to master, and it takes years for people to consider you even decent. Here’s where Blown Away drops the ball, pairing relatively amateur glassblowers with artists who’ve been perfecting their craft for 30 years. It’s like comparing a line cook to a head chef; the talent pool is not what you’d call even. But, as you’d expect, the show predictably weeds out the more inexperienced artists. The quick edits between each contestant mixed with the dramatic bickering between competing artists brings about the wince-inducing feeling of “Holy shit, this is a great realty show about an ancient art, and yet I feel like glassblowers in general are assholes.”

Are Glassblowers Assholes?

While I was working in Corning, I came across the occasional arrogant glassblower who’d just graduated from art school and thought they were the shit. This was always the case until they went up against your average blue-collar glassblowers who’d apprenticed and spent endless hours making production work that solidified their skills in manipulating hot glass. The most-humbled glass artists were the ones who’d apprenticed with a respected and renowned glass artist instead of going to a design school. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with going to art school for glass, this is just my perspective that I witnessed firsthand in the industry.

In Blown Away, the majority of the contestants went to art school. Yet in the finale, the team that works with the final two contestants are, for the most part, apprenticed glass makers from The Corning Museum Of Glass. There’s something almost too funny about the semi-pretentious names and descriptions that the contestants use for their work on the show. Ask an apprenticed glass worker what they’re making and you get the straight-up answer. Ask the contestants, and you get something else.

You wouldn’t understand it, it’s glass art.

At one point, the aforementioned Deborah Czeresko says, about a piece: “This is representing the idealism of the young artist while dealing with the horror and struggle of the AIDS crisis.” It’s a nice sentiment, but the panel judges seem a bit confused. The piece looks like it’s melting, thrown together under pressure and slumped to different pieces of coiled glass. It’s enough to make your average glassblower roll their eyes.

That said, the glassblowing scene in which I apprenticed was mostly a boy’s game, so it’s nice to see as many women represented in the field as men. It gives me a lot of hope that glassblowing will continue.

Despite it being entirely about glassblowing, Blown Away surprisingly skimps on the details of the process. But it still features some beautiful work. This art form has had many years of ups and downs in popularity, but Blown Away can do nothing but blow up the appreciation and respect for this ancient art. This a show worth bingeing on for all the right reasons.

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Vince Ambrosone

Vinnie Ambrosone is a professional musician, photographer and Former glassblower in Austin, Texas.

12 thoughts on “Heart Of Glass

  • July 19, 2019 at 7:04 pm

    Just ran across this article while looking at other stuff about ‘Blown Away’, since my daughter was one of the contestants. I’d take issue with some of your observations, partly based on my daughter’s experience; all but two or three of the contestants had been doing this for over a decade. The only real amateurs were the assistants from the local college. The assistants on the final episode were all career employees at Corning, all of who we know personally. They all have more than a decade of experience in the field, and half of them have over 20 years. The edits and ‘dramatic bickering’ as well as the somewhat pretentious names and descriptions of some of the pieces were pretty much manufactured by the producers and, yes, I too found those things annoying. By the way, my daughter said everyone on the show have become great friends. It was also too bad the length of the show didn’t allow for more details about the craft. The show was originally produced as 1/2 hour episodes for Canadian TV and cutting out the commercials left only 20 minutes. We were hoping they would re-edit for Netflix, but oh well.

    We all agreed, however, that it was great to be advancing women in the field. My daughter went to work full time for the museum in 2008 and was the first full-time glassblower they had ever hired, so she knows plenty about the old boys club. It’s also a very physically demanding and financially insecure profession for a lot of people.

    After 12 years of glassblowing, the last 6 managing the Corning Hot Glass shows on Celebrity Cruise lines, those challenges I mentioned caused Annette to take her BS degree from Cornell, an excellent GMAT score, and a decidedly different background to get her MBA from the Fuqua School of Business at Duke. The experience on the show convinced her to get back into the craft in her new home in San Francisco. As you may have been able to tell, she was not really as intense as some of her competitors as she decided early in the 4-6 weeks of taping that they really could use the exposure more than she.

    Anyway, I’m starting to ramble, so thanks for the article.

  • July 20, 2019 at 12:34 am

    ok I know that any show is going to show drama for ratings. But Ms.Czeresko seemed very impainated and over full of herself. Her work was amazing but she came off as a bitch. Plus the whole feminist attiude she had during the show was off putting. I’m all for women’s rights, but it shouldn’t be at down playing men. Equality is equality not putting down one or above the other. All that being said I do not feel (my personal opinion) that she deserved the win. Mr. Pozniak’s piece of work was cleaner looking and didn’t express any disequality.

    Thank you for reading this.

    • July 20, 2019 at 6:30 pm

      I agree wholeheartedly. It was apparent glass blowing was a secondary agenda. She did some great work, but the win seemed more of a political statement.

    • July 21, 2019 at 3:50 am

      Oh gee the picked the gender naturalist as the winner, shocker🙄🙄🙄 so over this shit

    • July 21, 2019 at 11:53 am

      Michael, I agree with you it was disappointing that she one and I just hope it wasn’t because she played up the feminism, but I am afraid it was. Throughout the show she spoke badly about her competition. Feminism to me is not putting down men. I loved the show not the outcome.

  • July 20, 2019 at 11:47 pm

    I agree with Michael… it seemed as it went on was more about feminism than Glassblowing.. good concept but really disappointing ending and so called winner…obviously not the best glassblower by far…!

  • July 23, 2019 at 8:00 am

    Im sorry but this was a amazingly well done… piece of LGBTQ/Liberalism propaganda. debra was talking shit on literally every male in the show, and while she is very good at what she does didnt deserve the win.

    first off the team round was a highway robbery, Debras chalice looked like complete shit being disproportionate and simple while the “concept” of religion and science being a opposite duality was at dodgy at best while the others was a concept of 3 different opposite dualities combined into one (heavy/light, solid/clear, strong/brittle, black/light) and done beautifully and i think the judges knew that and ignored it to push the LGBTQ/Liberalism message they didnt even eliminate the others because they blatantly robbed them.

    Secondly (and more importantly) while debra is incredibly skilled and should be recognized for her skills it is complete bull shit to LITERALLY ADMIT that Janusz Poźniak is the better glass blower, then turn around and give the competition to the LGBT, transgender, sexist, feminist for her “concepts” when she was pushing the same “concept” the entirety of the show, its not original 8 times in a row. not to mention they claimed that their performance would be judged based off of their work throughout the show, which debra clearly lost in overall, dont get me wrong she did have some amazing pieces that should have won and did (the movement one in particular) but the overall average was definitely lower than Janusz (the hand sucked, the wine glass sucked, the chalice was tacky af, etc.). Finally i agree with Janusz final statement, the appeal of glass is that its glass what she made at the end while cool looking could have been made with ceramics it looked like ceramics not like glass. sure it was glass but she didnt show off glass she showed off a transgender concept and won for it. It saddens me to say but again this show is just propaganda.

  • July 23, 2019 at 8:17 am

    i got to about E6 and that woman was really starting to annoy me and now that i know who won i dont need to watch the remaining episodes as i can not stand listing to her political gender bullshit anymore. Yes she did some good work from what ive seen but listening to her is doing my head in so i wont be watching anymore

  • July 29, 2019 at 11:42 pm

    Ridiculous ending.
    The winner was picked to be “politically correct.”
    The decision was not based on product, but on what the producers thought was most PC.

    I will not be watching again…

  • July 31, 2019 at 10:42 pm

    A win for predictable political statements and divisive political correctness. The winner played it safe by setting her sails to the wind of angry gender ideology, leaving the producers no choice but to award her the win or come off as insensitive. No courage, no depth, and no fun.

  • February 5, 2020 at 9:11 am

    I watched a series of glassblowing videos on Netflicks.  I love glass, and we stayed in a town with a glass museum near where Chihuly worked in Washington State.  The videos are Canadian-made about a new international competition.  I was glad about the winner of the competition (spoiler) because she had the most to gain in learning through the residency at Corning, though I felt for the guy who represented the old traditions of fine blowing, Italian and other thin, thin glass that men have blown for centuries for “their” women and to demonstrate their skill.  It was interesting to see the prize go to a woman who makes heavy, political work, and to see the man who does the fine stuff weep at the loss.  He saw it as his own loss, but I saw it as the loss of place for the old, traditional, male-dominated styles.  All of the women in the competition produced heavy, even gaudy pieces.  Hmmmm.


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