Monday July 22, 2019 | by Andrew Page

CONVERSATION: Deborah Czeresko, who won the Netflix glassblowing competition Blown Away, tells all

New York-based artist Deborah Czeresko has a foot in two glass camps. She was drawn to glass by the precision of Venetian glassblowing, which she studied at the New York Experimental Glass Workshop under the tutelage of William Gudenrath, now resident advisor at the Corning Studio. (Disclosure: Czeresko is currently a board member of UrbanGlass, the successor of NYEGW.) But she is also an accomplished conceptual and performance artist, and has fabricated work for Kiki Smith and Rob Wynne, among other prominent contemporary artists. When not making her own work, or fabricating for others, she is often at work on her lighting-design line that helps provide income. Surprisingly, despite her wide-ranging skill and high-level art-world connections, Czeresko is not presently represented by an art gallery, though that might change given her recent star performance (and victory) in the Netflix reality show Blown AwayIf you've somehow missed the big debates about the program, think of the Great British Baking Show except, instead of fancy desserts, the contestants are asked to create on-demand glass artworks under time pressure. The Glass Quarterly Hot Sheet caught up with Czeresko to discuss her experience behind and in front of the Blown Away cameras in an exclusive interview with the show's winner.

Glass Quarterly Hot Sheet: The first question is simply: "Why'd you do it?"
Deborah Czeresko:
Well, I guess because It provided me with a global platform for my voice and message. And in some ways, I've really been behind the scenes with fabrication and lighting and no gallery representation. I wanted to let people know who I was.

Glass: Did you have any reservations about how it would turn out, or whether it would be a serious look at the field or just another sensational reality show?
Czseresko: I thought it would be a good thing for me and glass, I felt that I could represent myself, though I also realized they could edit it any way and make me look like any kind of person. I remember asking if we were going to have to live together, because that’s when I knew it was going to get crazy. But I was reassured when I heard there would be no home scenes, we'd not be near each other but staying in the same hotel. I was reassured when I found out they weren’t creating personal dramas through home scenes because that would have been a red flag.

Glass: Did you get the inside scoop from someone involved with the production to check them out? 
Czeresko: I didn’t have any inside track, I just responded to the open casting call and  made a three-minute audition video on my iPhone about why I thought I'd be a good candidate. I also remember filling out a five-page form, which was very detailed about my process and my work, my influences, and what I’ve done. They said I was the only person that worked with performance in glass.

Glass: Did they try to build interpersonal tension during the filming of the show?
Czeresko: I don’t feel they really did that at all. They'd ask us what we thought about the other people and their art, who we looked up to or who we thought was not doing well? Every interview I said, "I like Alex’s [Rosenberg] work, I think I could learn from him conceptually," but they never put that in. Honestly, I thought he was my biggest threat on the show.

Glass: That brings up a key question: How much is the edited version a representation of what you actually experienced?
CzereskoIt’s really accurate, but obviously it’s cut down tremendously. For what you see when one of us is talking and it's dubbed over a scene, we were interviewed between one to two hours to get that. But I think they did a good job of reflecting who we are and choosing phrasing that represented us. I say something about Janusz, he’s mechanical, it shows a little bit, but it’s honest, it's how we were feeling. But they didn't ram it down our throats; they didn’t force us to answer the questions. I mean, we could go silent.

Glass: Did you personally feel offended by anything any of the other contestants said? 
Czeresko: I expected to get criticism for the things I did, Janusz is the only one who was really critical. At one point he said "she's shouting, I wish she'd shut up." But I expected someone would say something like that about me, that was a very intense moment when I was working on the foot, I felt I was going to go down, there wasn't enough time to make another one of those things, it ratcheted up my stress level. That’s my personality.

Glass: Did they do things to make it more adverse? I heard at one point it was ridiculously hot.
I don’t think they purposely made it so hot. I walked in day one, it was hands-down the hottest studio I'd ever been in, you could barely stand -- it was insanity. They hadn’t ventilated the studio right, but immediately, by the next day, they blew out holes in the ceiling and put a huge vent in. There were ten glory holes and two electric furnaces, even though it was really high ceilings, like working in a hot sauna. That was a mistake, probably something driven by ignorance and they fixed it, but it always remained pretty hot.

Glass; How were the assistants to work with? In some of the episodes it looked like they weren't always the most skilled.  
Czeresko: The assistants were from Sheridan's glass program. I have to say as far as character goes, they were all super-nice people, super-supportive, what they did really well was to keep me calm. They were reassuring, encouraging by saying things like "you got this." But they weren’t allowed to interact with the piece creatively, only as cheerleaders. As for skill levels, some were still students, and some were recent grads, maybe out working for a year or two. At times, that was very stressful because you didn’t know what skill level you were going to get, or how much experience a person had. The good thing was that no matter what happened, the assistants rotated, nobody got favored, so it was equal. We all had to work with that person. The very first episode, I'm teaching my assistant on set how to bring a blown foot for my taco holder. And when we did the solid hot-worked foot, it was 20 pounds of glass hanging by a thread.

Glass: Did anybody get eliminated because of the assistant?
Czeresko: I don’t think so, people were able to recover, I was super-worried about that with the foot piece, I almost convinced myself not to make that piece because I wasn’t sure the assistant could do it. That was one of the things I factored in when doing the piece. We’d find out who the assistant was the night before, and I realized I would just have to cross my fingers. But I really wanted to show I could sculpt solid hot glass, like in the way Pino [Signoretto] would, that’s something I knew the other contestants had never focused on. I felt I wanted to do something in the competition that I'd be unique in, but it does take someone who can reheat that for you. It’s like lifting a barbell over and over again.  

Glass: What was it like being interviewed as you worked. I noticed how Katherine Gray would walk around during the process -- and sometimes contestants would change their approach based on her early feedback. Was it annoying to have to talk while you worked, and did you ever change up what you were doing after chatting with her?
Czeresko: It was hard at times to get into a thoughtful conversation while working on the piece, but as time went on, I started taking a break to collect my thoughts instead of trying to work while talking. I know she’s going to come over, want to know my thoughts, so I started to have an assistant take over and I would take a break. There were two times I reset -- one was on the wine challenge and we had to make a decanter and glass for the wine. Kathy mentioned the wine person was very traditional and I realized no traditional wine person is going to want a colored decanter and I threw that first attempt away. The other time was with the potatoes, when Kathy questioned the size I was making it, and I had to make a decision, and began working at more realistic scale rather than as a Pop-art piece. That showed me something artistically that I wasn’t aware of at the time -- how much scale mattered, that really changed, fortunately that potato went down, that was huge.  

Glass: Do you think Kathy found the right balance between the technical and conceptual considerations of her critique?
Czeresko: She really did bring that technical knowledge, the way Alex was criticzed for punty marks, and I think she also criticized Momo for her technique, and Leah when she was making those goblets. I do think she was fair. I don’t think she saw my depth from the beginning of the show but as it went on, she started to see I had a more conceptual base. I learned a lot from what she said, and I started to pay more attention to the balance between concept and technique. I started to see my pieces more objectively and it became almost like a residency for me. I have an MFA from Tulane, but the nature of that program is almost like an independent study. Filming the show was an educational opportunity for me, when I was forced to focus only on my own work with no distractions. I isolated myself from everybody there, spent any time not in the studio researching forms and subject matter on my computer, and informing myself on the concepts I was interested in. I've never done that every single day, looking at how other artists have approached subjects that I was thinking about, seeing how they talked about it.

Glass: What do you say to people who feel strongly that competitive art making is not true art making?
Czeresko: This is modern times, and if I can make something in a competitive TV show, that’s not automatically invalid. I think the potatoes are art, and so many people have written and related to them that way. I am sure you can make real pieces of art under these circumstances. I understand the criticism honestly, I could see the problem with competitive art making, but conceptually, that doesn’t mean you can’t make art. Not every piece is going to be a piece of art, but I felt that several art pieces came out of that show.

Glass: What was your favorite piece in the work you made in the show?  
Czeresko: Definitely the installation of the potatoes, and I also like the final installation I made with the foot. I also liked the man-bun in the oven, but the potatoes were more sublime. I would sometimes have doubts, I mean the studio wasn't the perfect studio, and the assistants weren't the perfect assistants. I really had to rely on myself more than I ever had to, wondering can my assistant even reheat this? I ended up doing a lot more than I would normally do. Thank God I've worked with so many artists fabricating -- you had to get those proportions right immediately, and then it was just a matter of putting in the details. One of the biggest challenges was the glory holes, which really needed two burners but only had one. The moment you opened the door, you had maybe 15 minutes of working time left. It was an extreme challenge, they needed to put two burners in the glory holes. 

Glass: What's it been like since the show actually aired recently, and since the show has started publicizing you as the winner
I’m getting a lot of fan mail via my email address, which can be found on my Website. People are pouring their hearts out to me. A lot of people saying thank you for being who you are, for being genuine. I've heard from over 100 people, so that's been so heartwarming. I haven’t been reading what's being said on Instagram, where I've heard there's been some negative criticism. Things like "she won because she was a woman," or "identiy politics should stay out of art." As I said in episode one, I have lovers and haters. I’m polarizing, and apparently the Instagram dialogue has 50 percent say they like me, 50 percent say she’s an asshole, she’s arrogant. They don’t like what I said, or how I presented myself, and at times it's getting passionate.  I decided to bow out of reading that stuff. 

Glass: What about from the art world, has there been any feedback?
Czeresko: I got a heartfelt email from Kiki Smith, she related to some of the work I made. But no galleries have reached out yet. That's the key for me, I'm going to keep going forward with it, get some representation.

Glass: Do you plan to further develop any specific works from the show? 
Czeresko: I’d like to do a larger installation of the potato piece. And the finale piece relates to what I have in the big exhibition at Corning called "New Glass Now." I feel the chandelier is something I want to work on. I feel like I’m at the beginning of my art career. For the last four or five years, I’ve been thinking in these terms really strongly, how express myself through fine art and glass. I've really been doubling down on glass because of the metaphorical power for who I am. I think it’s me. I see glass as an androgynous material, embodying both masculinity and feminitiy. It's sharp when it breaks, and can also be soft when it forms. It occupies all these different states. As a material I connect with it very much in that way. It's in my DNA, you'll never get it out of me.

Deborah Czeresko's Meat Chandelier is currently on view as part of The Corning Museum of Glass exhibition "New Glass Now."

Glass: One thing that I worry about is whether with all the really tight editing you get any sense of what it takes to make a piece in the hotshop. What kind of an impression do you think people who only know the show will get? 
Czeresko: I think it’s enough information that people can see how interesting the process is, it’s really mesmerizing. But yes, I wish there had been a little more narrative once or twice so you can see the evolution of the entire piece. I understand the show producers had hoped for each episode to run for an hour, but they only got 23-minutes.

Glass: Would you do it again if they asked you back for a second season? 
I’d love to go back and be a judge. I hope there’s a season 2 and I’m invited back. People ask me if it’s fun? I can’t say fun is my first impression, it was so intensive, that was my first reaction. But now that I’m looking back, I can say it’s fun, but in the moment, it was super intense. I started getting migranes toward the end. I was under so much stress I didn't even know it.

Glass: The UrbanGlass Quarterly, a glossy art magazine published four times a year by UrbanGlass has provided a critical context to the most important artwork being done in the medium of glass for more than 40 years.