I didn’t mean to fall in love with glass. A few weeks after I watched the first season of Blown Away – a Netflix reality TV show based on competitive glassblowing – I thought I should try glassblowing at least once in my life.
For some, Blown Away might be just another artsy competition reality show – The Big Flower Fight and Forged in Fire come to mind – but for me it is so much more. Glass is magical. As resident judge Katherine Gray suggests, its manifestations are limitless. At times, it is as freefalling as honey from a dipper or as stretchy as hand-pulling ropes of taffy. As it cools, it is as fragile as the temper of a toddler. “Glass will smash, and so will your dreams,” says Gray, as she introduces 10 artists to the competition. The smashes make me flinch in my armchair.
There’s a circus-like enchantment to how this molten substance is gathered out of a furnace onto a hollow blowpipe and manipulated until it becomes something solid. Glass is shaped in arcane processes – rolled mesmerisingly back and forth on a steel bench, blown through the blowpipe, or shaped with wooden paddles or wet newspaper. To create an opening – perhaps for a vase or a drinking glass – the hot glass is transferred onto a punty, a non-hollow rod. Finally it is cooled down slowly in an annealer, because it will crack or explode if left to cool at room temperature.
This is what I learnt in one ordinary hot shop. The Blown Away hot shop is 10 times bigger, with all the visual drama of artists swinging blowpipes like pendulums, flames exploding seemingly out of nowhere and assistants in protective suits running towards the annealers.
The first episodes explain some of the basics of glassblowing but leave the process mostly a mystery to viewers. While host Nick Uhas has a lot of time for puns, he avoids the sexualised vocabulary of glassblowing – glory hole, jacking, flashing, just to name a few – and I appreciate that the show focuses more on artistry than on innuendo.
This season – the second – was open to artists from across the world, and includes Australian artist Tegan Hamilton, Nao Yamamoto from Japan and underdog Cat Burns from New Jersey. These contestants – one of whom is eliminated in each episode – represent a range of styles and years of experience; among them are skilled sculptors and fabricators, a production glassblower and a flameworker who works with smaller, non-blown hot glass.
No matter their primary skills, watching these artists work is like watching athletes. In many ways, glassblowing reminds me of my childhood in rhythmic gymnastics, as the blowpipes and punties become an extension of the body. I cannot look away from the swirls of colours that Andi Kovel, Elliot Walker and Chris Taylor manipulate into mushrooms growing out of plastic-like bottles, a dung beetle, and a Venetian goblet with a convincing sippy-cup lid.
I find myself drawn to Burns, who shines from the beginning. Each episode presents a new challenge; in one, she creates a piece that replicates the layers of a human eye that is losing vision. In these thickly patterned layers, she forces the viewer to obstruct their own vision, to look but be unable to perceive the entirety of what they are seeing.
Blown Away brilliantly captures the immense heat of glassblowing, with sweat dripping from every inch of the artists’ bodies. I’ve heard it said that glassblowers are often pyromaniacs, or at the very least attracted to danger. Neither is true for me; when I walk into a hot shop, I’m told to assume everything is hot, but that everything is beautiful, too. I can’t stop smiling at the possibilities created by fire and breath. The heat becomes a flirtation, always just out of reach, but in Blown Away it feels as if injury is just a moment away.
The glass is so hot that flames erupt when it’s shaped with moistened wooden paddles, and smoke fills the hot shop. Hot glass has to keep moving all the time, with blowpipes constantly turning, and slow-motion shots throughout the show capture this labour of love. Despite the seeming danger of so many artists and assistants working with molten glass, there is a surprisingly comforting rhythm to the show, punctuated by the soft metallic “tink” as glass pieces are tapped off punties and taken to the annealer.
While Blown Away largely avoids competitor-on-competitor drama, every artist has a personality that is ignited by the challenges. Yamamoto has an infectious positivity and sense of vulnerability as she creates a piece with a luscious red flower emerging out of shards of sharp glass, representing her growth from grief; Mike Shelbo resourcefully uses his flameworking skills to create an infinity symbol full of vibrant leaves, plants and creatures in response to an environmental challenge.
Taylor, however, is something else. At times, my housemate – who binges all 10 episodes with me – leaves the room, unable to tolerate him any longer. More than once Taylor comments on the mediocrity of his fellow competitors, claiming he is the true innovator.
Anyone familiar with the conventions of reality TV will recognise that Taylor is the villain, and won’t be eliminated quickly. Frustratingly, he ignores crucial components of the briefs in two episodes but isn’t eliminated in either, while less experienced artists are removed for seemingly less important errors. His Instagram bio now reads – perhaps too tongue-in-cheek for me – “trouble with reading and then obeying briefs”.
The half-hour reality format is at times the show’s limitation: because there are so many artists to focus on, we never get a clear sense of how a piece goes from a dollop of hot glass to a completed marvel. Yet lingering longer to see a piece develop more fully would cut through the tension of the challenge. I am a cautious fan of the mystery, though that’s easy to say when I know more of the secrets.
A glassblower friend once said to me on a very drunken night that glassblowing is about sharing. I take that to mean not just transferring the knowledge of a centuries-old art form, but also of sharing new ways to gaze at the world. Blown Away amply achieves both.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 13, 2021 as "Hot magic".
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