In 2017, artist Laura Donefer's phone rang. It was the executive director of the Glass Art Society gushing about the idea of having one of Donefer's signature glass fashion shows on boats during the 2018 Murano conference. She loved it, a definite "yes!" There was only one problem: Donefer says she'd never proposed it. The concept had been pitched by the artist and conference steering committee member Lucio Bubacco. "I was like WHAAA?" Donefer said in an exclusive interview with the Glass Quarterly Hot Sheet. "It usually takes me three years to organize one of my big events, and this gave me very little time. And I was totally unsure of how this all would unfold…."
For those who lined the canal of the Rio dei Vetrai as the sun set on the evening of May 19th, 2018, the appearance of a line of hand-propelled gondolas and caorolìnas bearing artists wearing ornate and exotic glass costumes was breathtaking. To witness this distinctly global intersection of artists and tradition here in the historical crucible of glass working made the event that much more poignant as locals leaned out of second and third-story windows to watch the scene on the waterway below.
To honor this extraordinary event, the Glass Quarterly Hot Sheet is presenting a gallery of images of the fashion flotilla, along with an interview with the diva herself.
Glass Quarterly Hot Sheet: Was this Glass Art Society fashion especially important to you? You flew your mother (pictured above) to Murano, and your husband, Dave, made a rare appearance -- I'd never seen him parade with you. It seems you pulled out all the stops in terms of involving your family -- why was that?
Laura Donefer: Actually the Mighty Dave is my secret weapon behind the scenes at every glass fashion show. He helps with all the heavy costumes, he keeps people calm, he runs around making sure everyone is in the correct spot. In a word, he is indispensable, and when I have a meltdown he helps me get over it! My mom was in the very first glass fashion show in Toronto in 1989, and in a few at Corning -- it is one of her favorite things to do. She loves to hang out with the glass people and have a blast on stage. So when it came to doing a glass fashion show in magical amazing Murano, I wanted them both in the boats. The truth is I did not sleep properly for months worrying about them falling into the water and drowning as neither of them swim. My daughter, Ana Matisse, was very very jealous she so wanted to be there with us! And I wanted my mother, Vera, to experience Murano because she is almost 86 years old and I'm not sure she will ever get there again. She had a blast and everyone treated her like royalty, she was so happy with the glass peoples!
Glass: It seemed somewhat smaller than a typical Donefer-curated fashion show -- was that a function of the logistics of getting the costumes to Murano, or was it the gondolas
Donefer: Because of the way this unfolded with the Glass Art Society, I had far less time than usual to prepare. I invited my best, most trustworthy glass fashion show peeps who had done shows before. And got them on board and working fast -- we had less than a year to make costumes. I immediately got paranoid about heavy glass costumes in boats, and could not sleep well thinking bad drowning thoughts. I also found that it was very difficult to actually organize anything at all in Murano when in Canada. So last September, while preparing for SOFA, I had to jump on a plane and go to Murano to "Power Organize!" I needed to find boats, figure out the route, find a place to change into our costumes, and I also realized that I wanted artists from Murano to be in the GFS as well. So Lucio Bubacco and Cesare Toffolo and I went to the boatyard on Murano, the one by the sportsfield, in Cesare’s boat and checked out the colorful racing caorolìna boats. While there we found a big red racing gondola. The guys thought that Dave and Vera, my mom, could accompany me in the gondola, and that everyone would follow in the caorolìnas. There would be two rowers per boat, and we could get our hands on 11 caorolìnas and the one gondola, making it possible to have 33 people wearing costumes if we had three models per boat. The only problem was that the caorolìna boats needed to be in Venice the next morning for the huge annual Vogalnga Regatta so all the planning with those boats and the rowers who were procured last September had to be changed last minute. And the route was the smaller canal because we did not have permission to take up the big canal with all the vaporettos in them. So I went around to many Muranese artists and persuaded them to make a costume (Had to twist a few arms!) and to act professional! And their costumes were stunning! I really wanted Marina and Susanna Sent to be part of it. I needed to set up a formal meeting with them, they thought about it, and agreed!
Glass: How did you feel the costumes comparing this year to previous years?
Donefer: Getting the costumes to Murano was a nightmare, but the participants came from all around the world and are so dedicated to the glass fashion show that they somehow got their costumes to Murano. I Fedexed two large boxes with a few costumes and it cost a small fortune! People brought costumes from Japan, Turkey, Canada, Spain, Australia, and the U.S., just carted giant boxes through airport. Charlynne from Ottawa bought an extra seat on Air Canada to take the Wolf Head with her so it would not crushed! My peeples are amazing! One costume was totally smashed and the artist spent the conference in Cesare Toffolo’s studio trying to redo it………..and in the end she managed to fix it perfectly…….. so there were lots of trials and tribulations.
When I had the initial meeting in September, I met with Marina Tagliapietra about where to have all the people change into the costumes and in the end we agreed that the best place was the Cabana in her dad Lino Tagliapietra’s backyard, which is where we stored the costumes, fixed them, and put them on. Lina, her mother, was very gracious and eventually just gave me the key to the back gate of their house. At one point on Saturday afternoon there must have been 50 people in their small backyard getting changed! Lino came into the fray and was very, very amused!!! Lots of semi-naked peoples at his house
Glass: There were light-up costumes, architectural costumes, and a few semi-racy costumes, but it seemed tamer than years past. Was that out of respect for the more conservative population of Murano, or a function of the logistics?
Donefer: As far as the raciness of the costumes for Murano, I was told by the Glass Art Society board "NO RACINESS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! We are ending up in a church yard, and the priest will be there!!!!!!!!!!!!!" So I told my peoples to tame it up. The only semi racy ones were from Murano, so that is kind of funny! The costumes were beautiful, which is amazing considering they had to be carted half way around the world, and I was very specific with no high heels, and something on every head, and glass above the knee since we were going to be in boats.
Glass: I know you were very nervous about everything coming together, but it seemed to go so smoothly, as it always does. Was there a moment when you could relax and let it flow?
Donefer: I had bad nightmares for months and could not sleep at all once I got to Murano. The Canadian Broadcasting Company called me for an OnAir interview about the glass fashion show, and I told the interviewer that I was tying my mother into the boat. He thought that was hysterical, but I was serious. When my mom listened to the interview on a podcast, she had a small fit and told me "YOU WILL NOT TIE ME INTO ANY BOAT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" So I did not.
The day of the glass fashion show, to get all those people into the boats in the right order was very difficult. No one listened to me and I kept shouting "Do not fall in! Do not fall in!" as we got into the boats by Lino’s house. So we had a long row in the Vaporetto lanes and there were a few very tense moments with the Vaporettos beeping and beeping at us! Egads! I was a wreck but it turned out that the Carolina boats were very very very stable…………so everyone was fine and at the last minute I stuck VERA in one of those boats, because the head rower told me that the only unstable boat was the gondola!
Even though I am a veteran canoist and kayaker, the minute I got into the gondola with my 55-pound dress on I thought "Oh my God, it is Laura Donefer who is going to fall in and drown!" So it took all of my concentration for that not to actually happen. Every time the rower in front of me changed her rhythm, I almost lost my balance -- and that happened a lot. I could hardly enjoy the ride!
The only time that I could relax was when all thirty-three of the models were safe on shore and in the church field. Phew!
Glass: What was the high point for you, personally?
Donefer: The high point was when we were all coming down the top of the canal and there were all these people on the sides screaming and yelling and cheering. That was the moment I realized wow -- we are doing it! We are doing a glass fashion show in boats in Murano and it is actually happening! And I was thinking of the long history of glass here and how we were becoming a small part of that history. While we were being rowed down the canal, I noticed that in the upper windows ordinary Muranese people were leaning out, staring at us in a kind of awe, and I waved madly at them all! And they all waved back, smiling! They never had seen anything like it before, and that made me very proud!
I've received so many emails and texts and phone calls now that it is over. People loved this particular glass fashion show. The idea that the glass family got together and came from all over the planet to be together on Murano, and we put on this show for them, it blew people's minds! Mine too! And can you believe that I already have a big list of names for the next show in three years? Seattle in 2021 to celebrate GAS turning fifty and Pilchuck turning fifty! Pam and I had started to plan that one so I am hoping it will still happen after she retires. This thing is much bigger than me right now, I could not stop it if I wanted to! The glass family has spoken! They demand to be able to make costumes, it has turned into such a tradition. YouI never know what is going to happen in the future, I just got asked to do a fashion sho in Turkey. Who knows? I will ride this along to the end. It keeps me in shape; I got up and worked out for months and months to be able to just wear that super heavy costume!!!
Glass: We all know about the amazing history of glass in Murano, but were there any personal reasons why the show in Murano was such a big deal to you?
Donefer: When I was seven years old, my family went to Murano. There, for the first time, I saw the sun coming out of these furnaces. And sweaty semi-naked men dancing around. I had no idea what I was looking at but one of those men dipped something into the sun and came out with a blob that he turned into a long wiggly string. And he came over to me and broke off that string and put it in my hands! I'm not sure why he did that. Why did he choose me? I know it was a stringer that he made and gave me but it was kind of like a baptism. Doing the glass fashion show in Murano was a bit like coming home -- a full circle!
Another strange bit of history. About 40 years ago I was living in Crete with an Italian boy, Sergio, who I ended up living with for a time in Rome and the Florence countryside. We hung out in Venice, too. Wel Sergio and his wife showed up in Murano the afternoon of the glass fashion show. I had not seen him in four decades, but he and his wife came to Lino’s backyard and took a million photos. It was absolutely strange but it somehow seemed normal, too! Oh, there was Sergio! Oh there was my mom. Oh there was Lino Tagliapietra! Why not? Perché no?