How Reality TV Made Me Obsessed with Glassblowing

Vanessa Crofskey thought of glass art as embarrassing kitsch paperweights sold in gift shops. Until she watched the hot new glass-blowing show on Netflix.

I like to think I’m more than an distant acquaintance when it comes to reality TV competitions. I spent my teen years watching Project Runway finales at 4am, lolled around on school sick-days watching repeats of Wipeout and spent most dinners fork-twirling to the intro theme music of Top Chef or MasterChef Australia. While I’ve fantasised about quitting my day jobs to become a celebrity chef/drag king/love interest, none of the shows I’ve watched in my personal history of daytime television have touched my newfound fascination with glass blowing. I love glass now. And I’m not the only one.

The evil and seductive path to consuming series with an episode winner and loser opened up for us during lockdown

Blown Away is the Canadian glassblowing show everyone cool is talking about, released on Netflix in 2019. 2020 has sort of become the year for competitive reality TV shows, considering all of us were stuck inside, with brains unable to concentrate on anything even slightly overwhelming. The evil and seductive path to consuming series with an episode winner and loser opened up for us during lockdown, beginning with Lego Masters USA and Australia (infuriating but gripping), then a brief interlude in the realm of competitive landscape gardening, and then begrudgingly, the entire first season of The Floor is Lava. Blown Away blew them all out of the water.

Blown Away sees ten artists sweating it out in a hot shop to be crowned TV’s finest glassblower. The winning prize is $60k, not all that much in this economy, which comes with an artist residency and exhibition at the Corning Museum of Glass in New York. Given the prize and the calibre of judging (the main judge is a professor at California State University) there’s clearly a level of integrity to art that comes with the series. This trickles down to the choice in competitors, who – although some are painstakingly inane – are clearly acknowledged as having the craft and the talent it may take to beat the odds. Across all facets of competition and opportunity, the show has an air of respect that feels unusual for reality TV.

We watched the entire season in one sitting, first by accident and then by choice, as we resigned ourselves to the trajectory of the evening. While this means my memory is imprecise due to tuning out all the parts of the show that were repeated and therefore boring, the desire to watch an entire season back to back and not just save it for tomorrow is testament to how addictive and investing the episodes were.

"Glass is a cruel mistress". Deborah Czeresko. Screenshot.

The competitors, varied in skill, taste, age and level, bring brightness and flair to the series. Some are concept artists; others are craftspeople. All of them are formidable, with even the newbies having at least three to five years’ experience with glassblowing. Certain people stand out more brightly than others: Deborah Czeresko, a 57-year-old Queer woman with far-fetched ideas who immediately describes herself as ‘polarising’; Alexander Rosenberg, who’s already well respected by others in the room; and Janusz Poźniak, whose humility, grace, vulnerability, respect for women, brilliance, dad energy, haircut and casual dexterity turn him into an incredibly hot competitor that both the judging panel and the women in our flat all desperately want to romance.

We’re not the only household to binge the series, or to praise it as good TV: The Fader has noted the series “rises above other competition shows”. What makes this show rise above the rest is the respect it affords itself, where winning doesn’t feel like a cheap trick or a gimmick (this being the reason our flat almost lost faith in Lego Masters).

Glassblowing as a form is oddly complementary to reality TV ... the stakes are sky high

In some ways, a TV series competition about glassblowing has to respect itself, because it needs to prove itself harder as a worthwhile watching endeavour. There just aren’t that many wannabe glassblowers that naturally exist in the world. It’s a tough niche to get into, and TV viewers for the most part have no idea how anything works in the context of a hot shop (another name for a glassblowing studio). Whereas we’ve all cooked a meal in our lifetime and many of us have sewed, almost none of us have blown glass. Unless you’re in the field as a specialist, blowing glass is guaranteed to be new terrain for viewers. Because of this, the show ends up as an educational doco, which works in its favour. You learn through the series what ‘flash’ ‘punty’ and even ‘glory hole’ mean (not what you think), how something that is shaped hot can come out different once cooled, how colour and form are added to clear glass, about the difference in historical styles of glassmaking, plus special decorative techniques like reticello.

Glassblowing as a form is oddly complementary to reality TV. There’s no need to artificially raise the stakes, as the stakes are sky high to begin with. “A lot of people watching will be like, ‘It looks beautiful!’” says competitor Annette Sheppard. “As long as it is still on a pipe or a punty, it is not done. It could break any time.” Glassblowing looks both difficult and physically demanding. In the first episode alone, more than one unfinished object completely falls apart with minutes to spare. An accidental touch of cold tongs to a hot punty shatters the delicate object that a person has spent the last few hours diligently shaping. There are burning hot fires, sweaty foreheads, risky invisible cracks, ambitious designs, backyard breakdowns, glass shards all over the floor, plus mad dashes to the annealer to cool the completed object in time for presenting – all under the burning pressure of a clock that’s never not counting down to zero. It’s amazing, quite frankly, that any of them can complete anything. It’s amazing that this show got health and safety clearance to ever be produced.

Because of the difficult and dangerous nature of the medium, the show also proves that good art cannot be made alone. Although competing artists had full creative control over their work, the ability to create glass objects (which requires multiple actions done in either synchronicity or quick succession) necessitates assistants who help to forge the work, as well as the sharing of specialist equipment.

Wine For One (2018). Blown glass, Janusz Poźniak.

The Disappointment of the Tropics (2018). Blown glass, Alexander Rosenberg.

“[Working with] people you’ve never worked with before, that’s one of the biggest challenges for everybody here. It’s an individual’s competition but I can’t do it on my own,” says competitor and hot dad Janusz Poźniak. Give or take the occasional strained voice, there’s a level of communication between competitors and their assistants (all training students) that both surprises and impresses me. I imagine it’s because of the high stakes of glassblowing that they’re all such good communicators – another thing that is deeply sexy. If anything goes wrong, it’s not just that someone might be going home at the end of the episode, but that a person could be seriously impaired or injured for life. Carrying trust between yourself and others is crucial in such a fraught workshop environment, hence there’s an enlightening level of patience and articulation I don’t often get to observe.

It’s not just the workshop dynamic that is compelling; most of the resulting artworks are too. Each episode delivers a new consideration that takes artists’ thinking and crafting to new levels. Episode four, for example, asks competitors to create and deliver “a robot that fully embraces the concept of daily life in the future”. Episode six asks them to replicate everyday objects as larger-than-life odes to the Pop Art movement. Even just hearing the prompts is satisfying, especially when the results are so wonderfully different. There are a few pieces that stand out so clearly to me, such as the glass foot stuck in gum that competitor Deborah Czeresko creates as a response to the brief of “motion”. It is both visually sublime and technically astonishing.

I used to think of glassblowing as the kitsch paperweights sold in gift shops: not for me. I’d thought of competitive TV shows as something that was whimsical and fun, but rarely educational or astonishing. This show proves me wrong on both fronts. With our newfound excitement for glass, my flatmate and I went to Pātaka during Wendy Fairclough’s exhibition Common Ground and excitedly clamoured over all the objects, our eyes ablaze. We scrolled through Monmouth Studio on Instagram. We hunted through the gift shop price tags for some glass-made objects we could afford to take home. The show succeeded in showing just how amazing art media can be, alongside the challenges of being a professional maker.

People are in the business not for profit, but for passion. Passion can’t pay the rent.

“I have a wonderful life as an artist and as a person who works in this material,” says competitor Alexander Rosenberg. “I’m not rich. There are real things that money would help.” Later in the series, hot blonde 53-year-old daddy Janusz echoes the sentiment. “I’ve seen people like me really struggle… having my boy, there’s a lot more consequence to everything around me. If I win the competition, it’d be a little easier.” His vulnerability, while deeply attractive, is also compelling: people are in the business not for profit, but for passion. Passion can’t pay the rent.

The show surpasses its genre as a competitive reality show, making an educational resource that showcases and respects the high craft of an artform, while intriguing a public who have literally thousands of things to watch at their disposal. My biggest criticism is the bizarrely abrupt editing of the episodes, which will definitely throw you off, but let’s not dwell on that. I just want to celebrate the excitement and integrity of glassblowing.

Feature image: Eternal Struggle: Step, Lift, Repeat. Blown glass, Deborah Czeresko.

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The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

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