Amid the aging industrial estates and leftover warehouses in the east end of Hamilton, one old brick building is burning with activity. In the largest glass-blowing studio in North America, artists anxiously pick out coloured rods of their raw material and head toward the giant furnaces that will melt it down before they can shape it into vessels or sculptures. Every minute matters because this is no ordinary craft studio but a TV set assembled for a glass-blowing competition: The winners will be going home with a prestigious museum contract worth about $80,000.
“I would normally avoid this situation like the plague,” says one contestant, a British-American glassblower named Janusz Pozniak, during a break in the proceedings. “The pressure and stress isn’t ideal for creativity.”
No, working competitively to deadline with a molten material heated in a furnace at more than 1,000 C doesn’t sound like a good recipe for art. But it might be a good recipe for TV.
That’s what the producers of Blown Away are counting on as they launch the 10-episode reality series on the craft channel Makeful next week before it moves to Netflix in the spring. Having seen the success of television contests featuring baking and even metalwork, the producers were looking for something the same, but different.
“How could we make something that felt extremely visual with very clear high stakes?” asks Matthew Hornburg of marblemedia, the Canadian production company behind the show. “And something that felt a little niche but at the same time was broadly accessible. It was a tall order.” A brainstorming session at the company batted around various arts, crafts and trades and came up with glass. It’s a material that is omnipresent in everyday life, and yet one that most of us, including the producers, knew little about.
“We are hoping to find engaging and entertaining characters, and these incredible art forms in every episode,” Hornburg says, adding that the show wants to attract an audience far beyond connoisseurs and crafts people.
When the company approached that specialized community, it encountered both excitement at the prospect of recognition for the art form – and a lot of skepticism.
“They met with a lot of people laughing at the idea, it was so far-fetched,” says the show’s main judge, Katherine Gray, a Canadian glass artist who teaches at California State University in San Bernardino. “I’m glad they were naive enough not to give up.” Gray says the calibre of the 10 contestants, many of them professional glass artists with their own studios, is extremely high.
“Skill is a given; it’s not a matter of if they can do something, it’s what they choose to do,” she said, pointing out that while some make their living creating functional objects, others get commissions from contemporary visual artists who want to include glass in their work but don’t make it themselves. “We are at a moment of fluidity where glass is not confined to the craft realm the way it once was.”
The series gives the contestants 10 assignments, some artistic, some practical, such as a lamp, a vessel, a piece on a pop-art theme or a sculpture that has to be created with another contestant. During filming, roving camera operators follow the contestants into the “hot shop” – a studio with two large furnaces for melting glass and 10 “glory holes,” the reheating ovens at each work station. (That makes the temporary studio the largest of its kind on the continent.) There, the contestants have their pick from $70,000 worth of coloured glass rods that can be melted in the furnace at about 1,300 C, before being taken to a workstation where the glory hole – at about 1,100 C – can be used to reheat as necessary. A fire-department vehicle stands outside the building at all times.
With a lump of brightly coloured molten glass on the end of a long metal rod, contestants might blow it like bubble gum, pull it like taffy or roll it like dough, before snipping it with scissors or cutting it on the work table, as the surprisingly malleable yet resilient material gives way to art. No, they never burn themselves nor light the place on fire. They are too experienced, but the deadline pressure is something new. Contestants only have a few hours to consider each assignment and then another few hours to execute it.
“If a designer comes into my shop [with a commission] I usually have a few days to think about it,” said contestant Patrick Primeau, a glass artist from Quebec. “Normally, glass blowing is a fairly quick process, but when you develop something new, you do it over several days and you make prototypes. Here, you’ve got a few hours.” His work for Blown Away has included a lamp shaped like a sea urchin and, with fellow contestant Deborah Czeresko, a beaker pouring liquid into a chalice, representing science and religion for an assignment on the theme of two opposites.
“The urgency of the situation is something I responded to well,” said Czeresko, a New York glass artist with 30 years’ experience who thinks the show will speed her future work. “It forces you to stick with it and get through … I do need to make more pieces faster.”
If the deadlines were novel, the pressure of working under the critical eye of the judges didn’t bother her. "We are always competing as artists, but with work that was previously made.”
From the studio, the show then proceeds to the gallery where Gray, host Nick Uhas and a guest host for each episode evaluate the work.
“Katherine is the bigwig glass person, she’s a connoisseur and sees it with a critical eye,” said Uhas, who also produces his own YouTube science channel that includes a liquid sand experiment with more than nine million views. When it comes to liquid glass, however, he admits he’s a neophyte. “I’m the person walking by the gift shop saying, ‘This is neat.’ I am the voice of the people.”
The judges have the job of gradually eliminating contestants until one artist is left standing, heir to a week-long residency at the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, N.Y., and the opportunity to sell work through its gift shop. If he wins, Pozniak says the money will go toward his child’s education fund – plus he wants to open a craft business with his wife back in Seattle.
But first, he’s worried that another contestant has got an unfair head start and he’s grumbling loudly as he starts picking his colours for his next assignment. It’s time to ignore his competitor, gather his tools and get down to some hot work.