More than most other art-making processes, working in the glass hotshop lends itself to spectacle with the attendant smoke, fire, and heat. It's surprising then that it's taken so long for a reality television show to be themed around the practice. Blown Away, which has wrapped up shooting but is not yet available for streaming on Netflix, is tentatively set to debut in the U.S. in July 2019. (It had its world premier on the newly launched Makeful satellite channel in Canada in February).
Created by Marble Media, a Toronto-based entertainment production company, the series was co-produced by Blue Ant Media. Ten accomplished glassblowers compete, working in what is billed as NorthAmerica's largest glass studio, over the span of 10 episodes. Like a cooking show, the series is full of stress-inducing gimmicks, such as giving the glass-blowers only four hours to complete a task presented to them by the judges, culminating in the elimination of one contestant. For the finale, Marble Media partnered with The Corning Museum of Glass, who's Senior Manager of Hot Glass Programs, Eric Meek, stepped in as "guest evaluator." CMoG also contributed six of their talented glassmakers to assist the finalists. All other assistants were students of Sheridan College.
Many from inside the glass world question the value of this flashy television production reframing their beloved art form into a competitive event that will supposedly christen the "best" glassblower in the world. Could this presentation of glassblowing as a cut-throat battle of survival hurt the world's perception of what glassblowing is all about? Seeking insight into these types of questions, the Glass Quarterly Hot Sheet spoke separately with the Corning Museum's guest expert to the program, Eric Meek, and with glass artist and educator Koen Vanderstukken, who served as "glass consultant" for the show. Vanderstukken was involved in the earliest stages of development and helped to develop the show's concept. He was determined to make it more than just a technical competition.
Glass Quarterly Hot Sheet: It sounded like you guys were a bit skeptical of Blown Away at first, can you talk about how you first heard about it, your initial reaction?
Meek: Skepticism is a natural reaction, “reality TV” doesn’t bring the best image to mind, especially in such a close community. The production team visited Corning, and from our first meeting, we began to gain confidence this was going to be undertaken with respect for the art form and the participants.
Koen: At first I wasn't interested. But it was clear early on that pitting the artists against each-other wasn't the intention and that the whole focus was on the artistic aspect.
Glass: Did you encounter skepticism about a reality program that would subject the glass world to the scrutiny that these types of programs usually bring -- fomenting conflict, looking to highlight emotional distress, and other common techniques in reality television to create more compelling content? Were you reassured by something you saw or were told that made you feel they would take the glass world seriously?
Meek: Of course—we shared that skepticism. But, we continued the conversation. The production team at Marblemedia worked very hard to make us all feel comfortable. We learned who was involved in the project and knew the caliber of contestants and judges would ensure that Blown Away would be a quality production. The producers were adamant that the show would focus on the art, the people and the process, not the drama. They used examples of shows which inspired them, which were shot beautifully and respected the competitors. We were invited to attend the first day of filming and saw firsthand that was true. We were impressed by the attention to detail and incredibly high standards in every aspect of the production, from the creation of the set to the camera equipment being used to capture it all.
Koen: The intention was not for it to be too competitive and in fact it was the contrary. The artists were very supportive of one another, exchanging equipment throughout. The team has stuck to this attitude of artistic and professional focus and the wider glass community is now taking it seriously.
Glass: When did you realize it might actually be a great way to promote awareness of glassblowing?
Meek: Now that the show is being released and we can talk about it, the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. Among the glass community, people have been supportive, curious, and excited. Glass is so visually compelling that it’s really surprising something like this hasn’t come to TV before. Blown Away will introduce entirely new audiences to glassmaking. It brings glassmaking into the mainstream’s consciousness and makes it accessible in a way that has never happened before. This could be a game-changer for all kinds of people who make a living working with glass, and could potentially expand the field as more people become inspired to try glassblowing for themselves.
Koen: It definitely seems great for the promotion of the glass community and there are a lot of firsts at play, for example our use of the biggest hot shop in NorthAmerica. Netflix reaches a big audience and thus will open up glass-blowing to a whole new public. This kind of hype around glass has the potential to have a big impact on glass art education, helping colleges and individuals.
Glass: Do you feel that the program took into consideration the creative aspects of glass art, or was it solely focused on the skills based precision of it? Meek, what criteria did you bring as a judge in the exhibition?
Meek: One of the biggest surprises for me was that this was not a purely skills-based competition. I was impressed that the challenges for each episode were developed in a way that the normal viewer could easily understand the criteria for success, and the participants’ voices in concept and design could shine through. I can’t speak for each episode, but for me, judging was one of the most difficult things I have been asked to do because we were really reacting to the artists expression of themselves and not just a technical exercise.
Koen: There was strong attention paid to the artistic aspect of the contestants' process and they were given one day before each challenge to think about their approach as well as one day after to finesse it. There were over 200 applicants and the quality of the applications were extremely high in terms of artistic ability.
Glass: What can you say about the general level of skill of the show's participants? I'm sure they were selected not only for ability but also how colorful they would be on camera. Did you feel the caliber of glassblowing was satisfactory?
Meek: The caliber of glassmaking was excellent. Of course, there is a diversity of skill levels and backgrounds represented. This approach played well to the format of the show as it resulted in a great diversity of work.
Glass: What were some of the biggest surprises for you, personally, in your involvement with this project?
Meek: Casting surprised me. I was pleased that among the participants were some really amazing artists. But, the real surprise was how truly difficult judging was. Every one of the glassmakers poured their heart and soul into their work. I thought I was going to pick the straightest goblet, or the prettiest vase—I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Glass: Do you think Corning might play a larger role in Blown Away in future seasons if they have them?
Meek: We would certainly be open to it. It’s an approachable way for people to be introduced to hot glass and its creative potential. Of course we hope it brings more people to Corning and helps artists and glass programs across the country.
Editor's note: This article was edited on 4/29/19 to describe Koen Vanderstukken's prominent role shaping the project in its earliest stages.