John Moran, whose no-holds-barred hot-sculpted works have taken on sacred religious icons as well as cultural ones such as Mickey Mouse, McDonald's, and Osama Bin Laden, identifies himself on his Belgium Studio's website as a "politically and socially engaged hot glass sculptor." Writing about his work on his website, Moran states he sees "the barrage of consumerism, religion, and politics colliding with depictions of social injustice, secular beliefs, and popular culture," and he is unafraid of engaging controversial subjects as he works out of Gent (sic) Glas, the nonprofit studio he founded in 2014 in Ghent, Belgium. In her feature article on Moran (Winter 2019, Glass #157) Glass contributing editor Emma Park wrote: "Moran has become known for works that are satirical and shocking, with unflinching portrayals of human suffering." Given his view of the "absurdity and hypocrisy of society," it is somewhat surprising that Moran not only took part as a contestant in the third season of Netflix reality show Blown Away, but deemed it "an incredible experience" in an exclusive interview with the Glass Quarterly Hot Sheet. Against arguably the strongest grouping of glass artists in the three seasons, Moran made it to the final rounds of the program (you'll have to watch it to see if he won), and we are pleased to present an in-depth conversation about his experience.
Glass Quarterly Hot Sheet: I understand you tried out for Blown Away Season Two and didn't get selected, right? What inspired you to try again for the third season?
John Moran: That's right, I tried but didn't get on for Season Two, and I realized it was because I spent a lot of time on the questionnaire but only a few minutes putting together my video. I spent a lot more time on the video and got it the second try.
Glass: What made you so intent on getting on the show?
Moran: It seemed like it was fun, and so many friends had done it. It seemed like the perfect thing to do during the pandemic.
Glass: Were you worried at all they would stoke rivalries and create bad blood between the competing glass artists? I remember Christopher Taylor was made out to be a really scheming character in Season Two.
Moran: I ended up talking with Elliot Walker before I went on Season Three, and he said there really weren't any rivalries in Season Two. While Chris Taylor seemed like the evil guy, Elliot told me everybody loved him on set. From Season One, everybody loved Deborah [Czeresko} even though she can be intense, and the outside world might have perceived all these other layers, but she's a sweetheart. It becomes this drama that isn't really there.
Glass: I wonder if the producers really selected for people with a strong backstory this time around? Season Three seemed loaded with contestants with very clearly drawn characters, and it also seemed more diverse.
Moran: I don't know if the backstories and equity we saw on Season Three was deliberate. When you watch the show, all the characters they chose were just there to compete; I think it came out naturally. I knew four or five of the people going on the show, and there wasn't anybody I didn't know once-removed. It was a really tight-knit group of people, and there was no interpersonal drama. We just went in all these directions in our work -- it wasn't fed to us or anything. Everybody started making personal stuff pretty quickly, and that opened up a lot of stories when you started talking about your work.
Glass: What about the work you made for the show, which seemed much more personal than the social critique I associate with a lot of your glass artwork. Did the show steer you away from this side of your work?
Moran: My work has gotten less overt in its political critique over the past four years but yes, legally I wasn't able to use any corporate imagery. I don't know if it's as you get older, you get more open-ended in your work, but I've noticed that a lot of my hero artists and musicians have gotten that way as they matured. But with that first assignment to do something about my evolution, I had time to reflect on it, and there was a cathartic release about when my Dad died and all this shit happened.
Glass: Who were the biggest competitors you were worried about going into the taping of the show?
Moran: I knew Dan [Friday] from before, and as soon as I saw him there I was like, "Oh shit." I knew how good Rob [Stern] was on working with speed. I was concerned about Claire [Kelly], but it was mostly just because I knew them, and knew how good they all were. But from the first challenge, everybody there seemed so skilled. Every time I made something I was sure it was at the bottom. This was where they fed lines to you about the competition, but I don't remember ever thinking about that.
Honestly, I was enjoying it since I didn’t have to worry about paying the studio bills or anything. I could relax and just make. I didn’t have to worry about the overhead, purchasing -- all the odds and ends of running the studio. I feel like it let me have a freedom in creation I don’t usually have.
Glass: It was clear the heat was a factor in the studio, wasn't it?
Moran: Yes, especially in the earlier episodes when everyone was there and every glory hole was lit, it was just awful. Working in those conditions is physically draining. But once you get halfway through the season, the shop cuts down in half, and it gets a lot better.
Glass: It was pretty impressive when the program cut from boxing things up in the annealer to the exhibition of the finished pieces. Were there any opportunities to work on the pieces before presenting them?
Moran: This was the first season where they had a sandblaster in the coldworking shop, but you only have a very limited time to put things together to display -- you only have 45 minutes. But the amount of stuff people did in 45 minutes, it did offer us the chance to bring some of the sculpted things to life.
Glass: There has been criticism that the show is not about art, that that the artistic process doesn't happen under artificial time constraints of a reality show. What do you think about Blown Away as an artistic opportunity?
Moran: I think a lot of us actually grew artistically because each assignment was a finite challenge. It puts you in this frame of mind like being at school again. You have to be creative with the task and find a way to go against the rules. It gives you a creative momentum that keeps going afterward. And the physical challenge of working in a new shop with a new assistant, it makes you think on your feet more quickly. I think being here [in Belgium] where the hotshops are pretty terrible gave me some insights in how to work through problems that might have helped me somewhat.
Glass: How bad was the actual studio?
Moran: It's hard to put ten glassblowers in one shop, and nothing about it was refined like it would be in a personal studio. Remember, we were working in this big studio that was only turned on a few months of the year. It's not like it's maintained all year. The other thing to remember is that it's a film set, and a lot of things are done for the camera. There were a lot of things that were just part of the set, like you realized what you thought were steel beams were actually wood frames painted to look rusty. A lot of it was done with paint. The pipes are all a little gummy with some kind of coating. But you have to realize that it's what gives the show this visual strength -- the texture. They could repaint all the glory holes so it looks like the studios at Corning, but it's not supposed to be Corning.
Glass: As someone with a critical eye on the corporate world, did the packaging or slickness of Blown Away bother you at all?
Moran: Yes, in a way, but it's about knowing who the show is for. I know what's it's done for the glass community. People are making a living and selling work because of the show. As long as they stick to the reality of what we make, I don’t see it any more fake than Corning and other similar institutions. Every studio you go to, every kind of artist you feel is branding themselves. They’re making a brand that fits into what viewers want to see, I understand that. I can’t say I don’t struggle with that with that now, doing a Netflix show and making the anti-corporate work, what will get the best of me? With the restrictions on what I could do on the show, not referencing anything that's a trademark, I think it's only part of what I do, anyway. To step away from all that was refreshing, and not something I do typically.
Glass: In a way, the show could be seen as a democratization of resources -- to put these beautiful productions of glassblowing normally reserved for the artists with the big budgets to commission them, but with a focus on up-and-coming artists who might not otherwise get such a showcase of their hotshop heroics. In a way, is this a way to share that opportunity with a mass audience?
Moran: During the first and second seasons of Blown Away, when we were running workshops at Gent Glas, ninety percent of the people coming in had seen the show. Since Season Three started airing, I've had people from Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, getting in touch with me as they saw my work. I couldn't reach these people otherwise, but I can ship stuff to them after they've watched Blown Away, which they can watch with subtitles in their language. Think about it, how much would it cost an artist to put something out that would be seen my so many millions of people around the world? It made me think about Grant Garmezy and how he has successfully invested so much into social media as a successful business model to impressively grow his business. Blown Away does that for you overnight.
Glass: I thought the filming and editing in the third season showed that the camerapeople and editors had a better understanding of the process than in the first two episodes.
Moran: I think they were better at explaining things, but keep in mind that now these episodes are seven minutes longer. That leaves an extra five or six minutes of explanation. I think they took some of the criticisms they got from the first seasons. But the camera crew was phenomenal, really impressive.
Glass: What do you say to critics of Blown Away who say that having to use your art to compete against other artists as entertainment is exploitative?
Moran: In almost any situation, people are making money off of artists. You're always exploited if you think about it. If you're working at Corning, and doing a demo, you're drawing the crowd, but you're not the staff who's on salary. The artists are often the people who aren't being paid by the museums. And I don't think you'd ever reach the same amount of people in a museum demo that you reach on Netflix.
Glass: Do you think now that the show is in its third iteration, that the public might be getting more sophisticated about the issues facing glass art, and that the show reflects this?
Moran: I think so. From the first season, there’s a dramatic jump as you see in the second season. The budget is clearly bigger. I think it was the best way to get people to start watching, to make it more like any other reality show and there are fans of the reality show drama. But as the show evolves, we gain more time per episode, and have a different following. I’m not a huge fan of the Inkmaster show about tattoo artists, but I watched them when I was in Canada filming. They’ve evolved to having an hour-long program. People have started to get really into that more now.
Glass: Katherine Gray looks like the sharpest critic on the show -- she is pretty demanding when discussing the work. Is that true in your experience?
Moran: Keep in mind, that's the edited version, but she wasn't that way in the filming, but Kathy, whenever she was critiquing, she offered critical but constructive feedback. I don’t know how much the judges are told what to say. Having done the show, you never know whose words are whose, but there were points where I felt she refused to give criticism that wasn't in some way constructive.
Glass: Do you wish there was more time to have a more complete discussion of the artwork than the couple minutes it gets on each episode of the show?
Moran: Yes, of course I do. But will it happen on Blown Away? No, I think it opens up the possibility of having that longer discussion. And the people they had on this season were all articulate and conceptual artists, so they're pushing in that direction in some ways. Unfortunately, if it goes too far in that direction, you'll lose some of the excitement. How about an Art21 program just focusing on glassmakers and their concepts? That will come in time. We're in a new age of glassmaking, and the old guard is dying off and changing the whole way it works. It will take some time.
Glass: In some ways, glass culture is all about being supportive of the community. Do you think it's a bad fit with the reality show format of competition, and does it give an accurate representation of this aspect of glass?
Moran: I’ve heard a lot of this critique, but for me, the experience is incredible. Think about it, we always compete with each other. If a buyer comes in to a gallery, it's as much a competition between all the artists with work on exhibition. We weren’t directly competing with each other, and we’re all there to support one another. I was going to say that was representative of the glass community, and in fact one of the the most genuine representations of it I’ve seen in a very long time because on Season Three we were so supportive of each other. It really didn’t feel like a competition. I would tell people that was the thing I would disagree with. We were openly talking about our ideas, color choices, comparing notes on which assistants were easiest to work with.
Glass: Speaking of the assistants, do you think they've become less of a factor than in the early seasons when I've heard they were a challenge to work with skills-wise?
Moran: Well, I believe they're the same assistants, but they just got better (like the show). There are a lot of things not set up ideally for a glassblower, but you have to understand that there's only a month to get the studio together after it's been in storage for a year. There were definitely technical issues on the equipment, but I didn't hear myself swear once on the show. I didn’t think about it a lot, maybe because I’m used to working with people who are lower skilled, like the interns at my studio. Any mistakes in my process happened on my end and were not my assistants' fault.
To hear more of John Moran's experiences on Blown Away, tune in to a virtual presentation he's doing with this longtime dealers at Habatat Galleries, part of the opening events around a solo exhibition of his work at the Royal Oak, Michigan, gallery on July 30, 2022.