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.”
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.
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.