Arts

Blown away by Blown Away? Fact checking the new Netflix reality series with Canadian glass artists

It's a competition for glassblowers. Yes, glassblowers. And these ones like it a lot.

It's a competition for glassblowers. Yes, glassblowers. And these ones like it a lot

Hot takes, coming right up. (Netflix)

Somewhere along the line, our TV-devouring culture decided a reality series can be about pretty much anything. There are shows about body-painting (Skin Wars), shepherds (Flockstars), Australian Airbnb hosts (Instant Hotel), mini golf (Holey Moley) — an entire subgenre of programming exclusively dedicated to cake.

And yet, somehow, there are still things we've never seen before.

Things like shooting fire bubbles out of a pipe.

Earlier this month, Netflix quietly dropped Blown Away, the world's first show about glassblowing. Technically, the series first aired on Makeful, but on the mega-streamer, this refreshingly tight competition format (binge it in four hours!) is now reaching that sweet, sweet, global audience — and it features artists from Canada and the United States who fight for the title of "Best in Blow."

Hold your giggles. I haven't even mentioned the "glory holes" — which are not what you think they are, unless you already know loads about glass — and beyond introducing some industry terminology, the series tries to be a bit of a primer on the craft. But does it nail more than those basics?

Deep, bro. (Netflix)

CBC Arts tapped four Toronto-based glass artists to give their hot takes, and since the series shot in nearby Hamilton, they've been waiting to see the finished product since the casting call went up.

Incredibly, only one of the four tried out. That's Minna Koistinen, owner of Playing with Fire studio. Jade Usackas, who also works at Playing with Fire, is a graduate of Sheridan College (which is heavily featured on the show) and she describes her work as "thinky pieces" about sexuality, human connection and gender identity. Brianna Gluszak, a recent resident at the Harbourfront Centre, focuses on conceptual sculptural work. And Jared Last, who's currently at Harbourfront Centre, makes objects "based in pattern, colour theory and architecture." Between them, they have 49 years of experience.

Here (in the edited-together conversational style popularized by reality TV) they review Blown Away.

Here we blow! (Netflix)

Let's talk first impressions...

Brianna Gluszak: The glass community is so small. Everyone was wondering, "How is the show going to go? Should we apply for it, should we not apply for it?"

Jade Usackas: I didn't ever think it would be something designed for glass people.

Minna Koistinen: I was excited that this was happening, but at the same time I was a bit nervous because I've done TV work and I know how intense it can be, working in front of cameras while talking. It's like juggling chainsaws.

BG: Going into it, I felt like I was going to hate it. And then I kind of came out of it going, "Oh, mom — you should watch it."

MK: It's so good.

Jared Last: I kind of avoid reality TV as much as I possibly can, so I was worried about it. But it wasn't too bad. Pretty painless. Very short episodes, I found.

I know how intense it can be, working in front of cameras while talking. It's like juggling chainsaws.- Minna Koistinen, glass artist

JU: At best I thought it would be an interesting peek into our world for people who'd appreciate it. And at worst, maybe it'd be a terribly dramatic, overly produced piece of entertainment that pits people from our community against each other. So I was really happy when it wasn't. (laughs)

BG: I think the glass community in general is a very supportive community and is very kind and loving and everyone works together...I think they did a good job of showing our community.

JU: The first episode was such a relief — to see artists from all different backgrounds, all different experience levels, and they all had their own story with the material. It wasn't just a bunch of like beefy hot shop gaffers showing off.

JL: I think they did a good job of capturing glassblowing and dramatizing things that, for us — as glassblowers — become kind of pedestrian. Like even something as simple as shielding, manipulating the glass to keep the heat away, they did a good job of capturing those things in a super HD way that makes it seem more extreme.

JU: It wasn't a show about the BEST GLASSBLOWER IN THE WORLD! It was really a show about the glass.

That set! What's the big deal about building "North America's biggest hot shop"?

Greetings from Hamilton. (Netflix)

BG: (laughs) I can't help but laugh every time they say it. It's kind of like when they say "Best in blow!" I, like, can't help but laugh because it's just so funny.

JL: It's a little flex, yeah.

JU: There were a lot of benches and a lot of glory holes, but I dunno. It's a great studio, a nice studio, but I don't know if it was like, "Wow, what an incredible palace!"

MK: As much as I'd love to have a little bit more space, it doesn't mean anything. The bigger the better — it's the American way! (laughs)

JU: Honestly not much about the set [caught my attention]. If anything, it might have been a little crowded, which is probably deliberate. (laughs)

My eyebrows raised a little bit on the first episode to see everybody struggling with the heat so much.- Jade Usackas, glass artist

BG: It looks like it would be a challenging studio to work in — just the way it reads on the show, the way the layout is. All the heat would be coming into the middle of the room and not escaping out, just by the looks of the building. And it would get sooo hot in there, would be my guess. Like, unbearably.

JU: My eyebrows raised a little bit on the first episode to see everybody struggling with the heat so much. I know that they filmed in November in Hamilton. So if you're in a warehouse — and it's November in Hamilton — and your gaffers are struggling, that tells me that there's maybe an exhaust issue. It seems like they were a little too hot on the first day.

JL: I kind of liked that it was in a very authentic environment. Glassblowing typically takes place in these sort of industrial areas. [...] I personally have worked in places that were almost identical to that.

MK: The gallery set up for the critiques was beautiful. Oh, that colour bar. Everything that they got together for the show and that was offered to the contestants was really — it gives them freedom to do everything they could possibly think of. It was wonderful.

What does the show get right about glassblowing?

JU: I think it definitely felt true to life.

JL: They were definitely very honest about glass falling off and breaking on people. It's a medium that definitely keeps you humble all the time because that sort of thing happens with frustrating regularity!

JU: Oh my gosh, that was the best. I was so, so, so pleased with how much glass broke (laughs). That was such an amazing, wonderful thing that they included.

As someone who educates the public — like, I teach and guide people through this experience hundreds of times a year, and we make it look really easy in the demonstration. That gives people a lot of confidence, but I feel like we're constantly riding that razor's edge between making it and breaking completely. So it was really good to see so much failure.

Smashing. Simply smashing. (Netflix)

BG: They kind of jumped through the making process pretty quickly in the show, but they still describe a lot of the weird terms throughout, which I was really glad about.

So, it's totally ordinary to be screaming about glory holes?

BG: Yeah, that is normal terminology. You get used to it really fast but, like, I remember being in the first year of school and them saying "glory hole" and everyone being like "hee hee hee hee hee."

I forget when I'm not talking to non-glass people that what I'm saying could potentially be very inappropriate. (laughs)

Is anything about the show just plain wrong?

BG:  As far as process goes, they show everything fairly correctly.

MK: The hornblowing! At the beginning of the episode, that is the funniest thing (laughs). There's like a factory horn. It's really funny. It's cute. But there's definitely no horns [in a hot shop]. The noise that you may hear is an air compressor, but that's a WAY less appealing sound. ERRRRRRGH!!! A big roaring noise. So they just added that in.

What did you want to see more of?

JU: It would have been nice to see a little bit more about the individuals creating the material in less of a soundbite-y way.

JL: I just really wish I'd have seen more glassblowing. That's the thing — like, there were tidbits of it here and there, but I think a lot of it was sort of focused on the relationships of the cast and making them characters for you to cheer for, to want to see win or even despise.

Classic. (Netflix)

BG: You know, they show the pieces breaking — or someone yelling about a torch — but they don't really show a vessel being blown out.

JL: As an aficionado and a person who's constantly surrounded by glassblowing, I wanted to see more. So I can only imagine your general demographic, people that you want to watch the show would want to see even more than me, right?

JU: I think it would've been really nice to have given the assistants a little more of a shoutout.

BG: With making glass, so much of it is who you work with. So to just disregard that was a little bit weird to see.

MK: I think it was maybe the second or third last episode where they had to pair up with someone. That is one difficult thing: to work together on an idea. And even that went well! There's a reason for that, too. We often work together on pieces. The main glassblower is called the gaffer and there's an assistant, so that's a very common practice that you work with another person. It's like dancing: if you know the steps, you can work with everyone.

With making glass, so much of it is who you work with. So to just disregard that was a little bit weird to see.- Brianna Gluszak, glass artist

JU: Some of the assistants are just such incredibly talented artists with just years and years of experience under their belts, and [the competitors] don't even know what a gift it is to have, like, Tommy Cudmore or Alyssa Getz assist for them. [...] Silvia Taylor, she's in there. These are people who have well-established careers in the glassblowing world — and you would have no idea! They're just kind of background people.

BG: You know how sometimes in Project Runway they have competitors come back and assist them and they get to choose who they work with? I almost wish they had the contestants choosing the assistants.

To just randomly get assigned someone would be challenging, I think. And you can see it come through in the show.

JL: It's very focused on glassblowing, but there's a whole lot of glass making that is not featured at all. There's casting and then there's all this cold working that we do, and then there's this entire other version of glassblowing using high powered torches that's typically associated with the pipe making movement and like making beads and that sort of stuff. So they really only touch on one community of the broader glass landscape.

BG: They don't really talk about finishing the pieces. So often, things you make in the hot shop aren't done right after the hot shop. They have to go into the cold shop or the grinding room and have either a punty mark removed — which if you watched the show is the connection of the piece to a rod.

JL: I wish there had been more detail included of the finished pieces, too. You kind of get a general overarching shot of them. They don't really zoom in, except in a couple instances, on anything of note.

About those challenges: Who were you cheering for?

BG: Naturally, I automatically cheer for the people I know. I TA'd a class that Edgar took a couple years ago, so from the beginning I was kind of cheering for Edgar. And Alex and Leah I know personally.

JU: I definitely know Benji. He's a Harbourfront/Sheridan guy, so everyone knows Benji.

JL: I know Leah very, very well. I worked with her and went to school with her. [...] But then after she left, I was cheering for any Canadians that were left in the competition.

MK: Oh man, I hate to name names. I did like Leah in the beginning.

But I think the right person won and fully would agree with the judges on that.

"The Disappointment of the Tropics." Alex's design for the botanical challenge. (Instagram/@rosenbergalexander)

BG: The challenges didn't blow me away. Yeah, I've been waiting to use that one (laughs). I thought they could have been, I don't know — I guess coming from a more art-based standpoint, I wish there had been a little bit more depth to the challenges.

For me, so much of working with glass is how I can figure out to use the material to make my ideas. I think Deb does that really successfully throughout where she draws her own inspiration the whole time. But I think with, like, the wine decanter/wine glass challenge it was so hard to put your own spin on that.

The challenges didn't blow me away. Yeah, I've been waiting to use that one.- Brianna Gluszak, glass artist

JL: I liked the decanter challenge. I really like design and I felt that one was more of a designing challenge because you have to think about both what it's going to look like and how it functions. And you have this set of objects that tie in together. For me, that was probably the most interesting one.

JU: I LOVED Alex's piece, the plant piece. Alex just made really beautiful work all the way through.

MK: I did love the lighting episode. I guess that's my personal favourite. The way light changes glass is kind of my special interest to explore in my own work.

How would you judge the judges?

(L-R): Guest evaluator Jay Macdonnell, resident evaluator Katherine Gray and host Nick Uhas. (Netflix)

BG: I personally just have an art crush on Katherine Gray. (laughs)

JU: Oh! Katherine is, I mean, easily one of the most well respected glass makers, glass artists in the world — especially in Canada. I know that all through my education I really looked up to her and it was really a pleasure watching her critique the work.

JL: She's a Canadian icon in the glass community and so I definitely respect her opinion. And as an educator, she's coming with a lot of knowledge and a lot of experience and she can provide really great insight to people. I definitely felt like her opinions were very important.

If we'd had a mudslinging Gordon Ramsay there, I think the contestants might have walked out.- Minna Koistinen, glass artist

BG: I think that a lot of people have an art crush on Katherine.

JU: Her criticism was constructive. She found value in what everyone was doing and I felt she made some really strong judgments.

MK: If we'd had a mudslinging Gordon Ramsay there, I think the contestants might have walked out. (laughs)

JL: I don't think the host should have had ANY say in the judging whatsoever. He kind of seemed like he had no idea what was going on and so he was only able to make his judgments based on what he was seeing face value. I don't see any value in that myself, or to the contestants, because it's just like another random Joe Blow off the block critiquing your work. It's not something that's going to be really beneficial for you — it's ultimately just a baseless opinion.

JU: I think one of the biggest pluses with the show is getting an outsider's perspective on glass. They had a few different judges come in from a few different backgrounds and it's always nice to have fresh eyes. Glass people talk to a lot of glass people and it can become myopic sometimes without outsider perspective.

BG: But sometimes the judges are pretty cruel. [...] I think Katherine is more subtle in her criticism. The decanter wine glass episode, the sommelier is just straight up like, "I don't like this."

JL: The sommelier who knows a lot about wine but doesn't know anything about glass — that was a bit of a stretch.

Is this the ultimate insult to a glassblower? (It sounds like the ultimate insult to a glassblower.)

Sickest of burns? (Netflix)

BG: I don't think it was that — GASP!

JL: Depends on the glassblower — big time! I know friends, they make the majority of their yearly income making gift shop stuff. I don't knock them. It's a hustle. Get your money where it's due. However, like, I think that is a bit insulting.

I mean, I would take offense to it if someone said that the work that I do — that I spend hours and hours cold finishing — looked like it was from a gift shop.

I also make things that definitely would go in a gift shop. Actually, I sell work in the gift shop at Harbourfront Centre.

Final score!

JU: 4 out of 5

BG: 4 out of 5

JL: 4 out of 5

MK: 4.5 out of 5

MK: We always get this question that pops up: is it art, is it craft? It still prevails. And I think this show put all that out extremely well because every episode was looking at glass from a different angle and it's not so straightforward.

Reality TV usually gets better as you go along, so I'm really hoping — keeping my fingers crossed — for a second season.

JU: I know that a lot of people in the glass world have some pretty harsh things to say about it, but it wasn't made for us — it was made for the people who are really interested in what we do and love what we do and want to know more about what we do. So I think they did a really good job of sharing that with people who don't speak our language and don't live in our world.

I think they did a good job. I'd love to see another season.

JL: It's really great to see something that's happened almost in secret for a very long time in a public light like this.

BG: Glass is a mystery to the public, especially in North America. Like, if I go to the bar or something, and I'm flirting with a cute guy, depending on how much explaining of my job I want to do, I just lie. You know? (laughs) It's like, do I really want to explain glassblowing for the next hour to someone? And so, I guess in that way, I hope it serves as a love letter to our community in the regard of just showing more of the process and what goes into making glass.

MK: Now if we have someone asking, "How long did it take you to make this piece?" we have something to refer them to. (laughs)

JL: There should be more glassblowing in a show about glassblowing. Other than that, it was very well done.

(Netflix)

About the Author

Leah Collins is the Senior Writer at CBC Arts.