Blown Away contestant Leah Kudel
Photo courtesy of Blown Away / Netflix
Blown Away, Netflix’s new original series, is bringing craft artistry back to the reality tv stage. The first season of 10 episodes debuted on Netflix on July 12th. The show highlights ten master artists, who complete glassblowing sculpture challenges for the chance to win a $60,000 prize, and an artist’s residency at the renowned Corning Museum of Glass.
In each episode, artists interpret a creative brief in their own style. The challenge: impress the judges with their glassblowing skills, or risk being eliminated. Ten artists compete on Blown Away: Alexander Rosenberg, Edgar Valentine, Janusz Pozniak, Kevin Kiff, Leah Kudel, K. Momoko “Momo” Schafer, Patrick Primeau, Annette Sheppard, Benjamin Kikkert, and Deborah Czeresko.
The artisans’ levels of experience are varied. 23-year-old Edgar speaks openly about how many underestimate him because of his age. Compare with Janusz, who trained under glass master Dale Chihuly, and has 30 years of experience. I asked Blown Away competitor Momo, a recent MassArt graduate, about how she felt about joining the show:
“It’s been a running joke amongst glass blowers, saying ‘there totally should be a reality show about glass, because so many crazy things already happen in a studio.’ It just very easily leads to drama.”
When Momo was contacted by the casting director for Blown Away, she was hesitant. “I was a little bit nervous… we knew that this would be the first impression for so many people. To even know what glass art is, or what glass blowing looks like… If this is their entry point, we didn’t want to make a bad impression. I felt excitement and apprehension all at once,” Momo explained.
Inside the Hot Shop
The series is recorded in North America’s largest glass studio “hot shop.” The studio provides the space and the equipment the artists need to create exceptional work. Watching the process is alternately spellbinding and nerve-racking. Artisans manipulate molten glass taken from a furnace with a long metal blow pipe. Using paddles, mitts, metal tools, and the force of their own breath, they sculpt the material, reheating the glass using torches, or by inserting it into a furnace called a “glory hole.”
Fragile materials add drama to the creative challenges. Artwork can easily crack and break away from the pipe, shattering on the floor. The artists have just a few hours to complete their challenge, with help from their assistants, glass students from Sheridan College. The head judge, award-winning glass artist Katherine Gray, circles the studio as they work, inquiring about each artist’s process.
The cast of Blown Away, Netflix’s new glassblowing reality show
Photo courtesy of Blown Away / Netflix
Finished artworks are transferred to a white cube gallery space inside the studio. Head judge Gray, host Nick Uhas, and an eclectic mix of guest judges (including a Gastronomy chef, a Lighting designer, and a Sommelier) convene in the gallery, where they discuss and evaluate the artworks. After a critique with the artists, the judges select one artist to award “Best in Blow,” and one artist to eliminate from the competition.
Crafting Reality TV
The show follows in the footsteps of 2015’s Forged in Fire, a reality show about artisan bladesmiths which aired on The History Channel. Similarly, NBC found a hit in 2018’s Making It, a craft competition show that aired during prime time. Making It was recently renewed for a second season. With Blown Away, Netflix is betting on a continued interest in niche craft content.
Blown Away doesn’t shy away from drama. The evaluations can be cutting, especially compared with the convivial Making It, or Great British Bake Off. Biting commentary comes from judges and contestants alike, who criticize artwork for being too “pedestrian” or “out of a gift shop.”
Beyond the creative tasks, sharing tools and space when the stakes are high presents its own challenges. In my interview with Momo, she explained, “We’re all in survival mode. There may be moments where we aren’t our best. In a large studio, the bench next to you has a torch roaring… you have to raise your voice for anyone to hear you — that could be portrayed as drama. Some of the way we communicate is very curt because there is very limited time, and you just need to get the job done… Most people don’t take it personally, it’s just the circumstances.” Momo shared.
“Being in the competition, it’s a lot more stressful than I ever could have anticipated,” Janusz shares in episode four.
Representing Contemporary Craft
The show also touches on issues like representation, gender equality, and artist stereotypes. “When I say I’m a glassblower, people think I make pipes and bongs,” jokes judge Katherine Grey. “This show will showcase the huge range of work that’s being made in glass, and what different generations are doing with it.”
After her interview with the casting director for Blown Away, competitor Momo reflected on the experience in an instagram post,
“Whether I end up on the show or not I’m super excited to see a growing interest in my field. But I’m also crossing fingers cause #representationmatters and it’s time to shed light on #girlswhoblowglass”
Blown Away viewers watch Momo highlight her Japanese heritage through her art, and Deborah’s defiant feminism comes through in several of her pieces. In short, that’s what sets this show apart: treating the artisans’ work as serious art, worthy of contemplation.
Erin is the textile designer and artist behind the home décor company, Cotton & Flax. She licenses her surface designs for fabric, home décor, stationery, and other clients. She’s also a teacher, writer, and enthusiastic advocate for small creative business owners. She lives in San Diego, California.