Glass. A material that has ignited the imagination for centuries and one that we use countless times a day, often without any appreciation for its beauty or wide-ranging functionality. Blown Away, a new television series airing internationally on Netflix this summer, aims to uncover the complexity of working with this artistic medium. Faculty, staff, students and alumni from Sheridan’s Honours Bachelor of Craft and Design (Glass) program contributed significantly to the show’s development and are featured heavily throughout nine of the ten episodes. With Netflix’s unique ability to reach over 139 million subscribers, Sheridan’s contribution to the technical and artistic aspects of this ancient and intricate artform will be at the forefront of your next binge watching experience.
A show about glass?
For many years, several production houses in the United States have attempted to develop a television show to demonstrate the use of glass as a versatile material in art and design. It was only in 2018 that marblemedia, a Toronto-based production company, teamed up with Netflix and Blue Ant Media to develop Blown Away. The series showcases some of the best glass-blowers from around the world, pushing glass artists to their creative extremes and revealing the artistry involved in working with glass. Mike Bickerton, Series Director and a Senior Producer of Blown Away, whose credits include So You Think You Can Dance Canada and The Amazing Race Canada explains, “unlike other reality tv competition shows, Blown Away showcases an art form that has never really been explored on television and certainly not in a creative competition format. The beauty and complexity of the medium is absolutely captivating and was what drew me to the project in the first place.”
Behind the scenes
The series faced significant challenges at the outset, given marblemedia’s lack of familiarity with producing glass art. The producers approached Koen Vanderstukken, Head of Sheridan’s Glass Studio, for advice. One thing led to another, and he assumed the role of series consultant while on sabbatical. “It was the involvement of Sheridan and myself that made the series possible,” says Vanderstukken. “And I give full credit to marblemedia – they were not daunted by the many challenges and went above and beyond to make it happen.”
The set for the series is located in Hamilton, Ontario, and is a purpose-built facility– the largest hot shop ever constructed in North America. It features two large glass-melting furnaces, ten reheating furnaces and ten individual workstations. In each episode, the contestants have four hours (compressed into a 30-minute show) to fabricate a beautiful glass piece with a variety of artistic or technical challenges.
To prepare for filming, which began in October 2018, the first challenge was to produce the ten workstations. Under Vanderstukken’s leadership, and with Sheridan’s support, they were constructed in Sheridan’s Glass Studio. A combination of seven Glass alumni and students were recruited to work on the build and were supported through the process by Jason Cornish, the studio’s technologist. Lindsey Adelman, a fourth-year student at the time, was one of the students who assisted. “It was such a valuable experience because knowing how to build and maintain equipment goes hand-in-hand with being a glass artist.”
Emma McDonald, another fourth-year student that assisted, adds that the opportunity to work on a hot shop build was invaluable in that it showed her how accessible her own studio could be: “Thanks to this amazing experience, I’m now fully capable of putting together a rudimentary shop myself.”
Two additional Sheridan alumni contributed in other ways: David Thai provided many pieces of equipment essential for the production and Sylvie Jensen, owner of Colour Fusion provided the on-set supply shop for contestants to select the colours necessary for their creations. Sheridan also partnered with marblemedia as a financial sponsor for the show, and loaned the production approximately $10,000 worth of equipment for use by the contestants.
A further 14 students and alumni from Sheridan’s Glass program are featured as assistants on the first nine episodes. Deepening Sheridan’s on-camera involvement was the participation of alumnus Benjamin Kikkert (Glass ’05) as one of the show’s 10 competitors. Originally from Vancouver, he moved to Ontario to study at Sheridan. After graduation, he spent four years as the artist in residence at the Harbourfront Centre, and returned to Vancouver opening Vancouver Studio Glass in 2016.
Answering a casting call on social media, Kikkert wanted to gain visibility for his work, and show the world a bit about his process with the craft. Of the end result, he says, “It’s really incredible and speaks to the drive and ambition of the show’s producers to be able to put that together because it really seemed to be against the odds.” Vanderstukken notes, “I was impressed with how the director and producers of the show succeeded in capturing the process and the results in a very complete and dynamic way. I do believe they struck the right balance.”
A Collaborative Process
Glass blowing is unique in that partnership is essential. The gaffer (or primary glass blower on the project) requires an assistant to support the entire process. Dr. Owen Johnson, acting Head of Sheridan’s Glass Studio, maintains that “One of the things that glass blowing shows at its best is that unlike almost any other medium, it’s collaborative. There’s always two of you involved. And those people, regardless of who is the gaffer and who is the assistant, are both equally involved in the making the work. Both of them have to be skilled and both of them have to be conscious and aware of what they are doing.”
McDonald likens the language of a gaffer and an assistant to a dance: “When people who have done it for a very long time together it really is like a dance because they just move seamlessly around each other, and they don’t really need to communicate as they can anticipate what is needed.”
Watching the process unfold, Bickerton observed, “I was amazed by the incredible partnership that is required between the gaffer and assistant. They are working together for four to six hours at a time. The Sheridan students and grads did a phenomenal job working with the competitors.”
I was amazed by the incredible partnership that is required between the gaffer and assistant. They are working together for four to six hours at a time. The Sheridan students and grads did a phenomenal job working with the competitors. – Mike Bickerton
For the first nine episodes, contestants were paired with either a Sheridan fourth-year student or an alumnus. “I felt some skepticism when contestants were first told that their assistants would be students and recent graduates,” says Vanderstukken. “But after the first episode, everybody realised that there was no reason for concern. As familiarity grew with the studio and the people on set, so did the results. I only heard praise for the students and graduates from everybody. Of course that made me feel very proud of them too. They did a fantastic job under sometimes very challenging circumstances.”
For Lindsey Adelman, another fourth-year student who assisted on set, the learning opportunity was second-to-none. “Where else do you get to work with such a variety of artists in such a short period of time? There’s a lot of different ways to achieve the same end-result, with variations in technique and process that are nuanced from person to person.” McDonald adds, “It was an amazing learning opportunity because we were assisting people who had been working with glass for 20 plus years, as well as some who have only been working with glass for several years. It was really interesting to see the different perspectives and approaches.”
If you ask Johnson, the students’ readiness for their roles as assistants can be attributed to their experience at Sheridan, which is hands-on from the start. “Almost every other program in the world does an introductory six months to a year in art and design more broadly, whereas our students are in the glass studio from day one. As a result, they have more time to develop their skills and practical thinking.”
All of Sheridan’s glass students have the unique opportunity to work with resident artists frequently throughout the Glass program. Students often play a support role for Sheridan’s resident artists like Tom Cudmore, Alissa Getz and David Thai. As such, they’re used to working with new people.
“I was impressed with how the director and producers of the show succeeded in capturing the process and the results in a very complete and dynamic way. I do believe they struck the right balance.” – Koen Vanderstukken
The captivating and lasting appeal
Adelman and McDonald both suggest that the calibre of Sheridan’s glass program, including its faculty, resident artists and studio spaces, is second-to-none. McDonald, who has a Bachelor of Philosophy, originally came to Sheridan to study Art Fundamentals for one-year to explore art more broadly and its intersection with philosophy. However, the magic of the glass studio called to her: “Everyday when I went to class, I happened to walk by the glass studio, and I would stop longer and longer. How many opportunities do you get to blow glass? Not many. I just snagged the opportunity and applied since it is such a unique program in Canada.”
Adelman points out that glass is unlike many artistic mediums, “Glass is so intriguing. There’s not a lot of materials that you get to work with using intense heat, and have that transition from a solid material to a liquid, with an elastic period in between where you can manipulate it. It was just very different from anything I had ever done.”
At Sheridan, the collective hope is that Blown Away will elevate the perception of glassblowing as a complex, contemporary art form. Compared to other fine arts in North America, the studio glass movement is still in its infancy, having been established in the 1960s. Sheridan’s own program was founded in 1969 by Robert Held and remains one of only two bachelor’s degrees in Canada. Johnson points out that our prime location is also an advantage, due to our proximity to other glass artists and programs along the US East Coast, which creates opportunities for future collaboration.
Vanderstukken hopes that Blown Away will help studio glass reach a wider audience. “The series has the potential to expand the market for individual artists and makers, and to show young people the possibilities and excitement of working with glass.”
Bickerton concurs. “I believe Blown Away is one of the most bingeworthy 23 minutes of television right now and there’s no shortage of talent around Canada and the world. Glass is around us everywhere from our phone screens to dishware to our windows and lights. I hope this show elevates the appreciation of glass more broadly.”
Get ready by downloading the Blown Away Viewer’s Guide: The (in)complete lexicon of glass blowing, a beginner’s guide to glass developed by Sheridan’s in-house experts.
Want to see more from our alumni?
Alyssa Getz – Tropical Iceberg Glass
Benjamin Kikkert – Benjamin Kikkert Glass Artist
Courtney Downman – Courtney Downman Glass
David Thai – Oakville Glass Studio
Emma McDonald – Organic Punk Rock (Instagram)
Geoff Crozier – GC Glassworks
Gordon Boyd – Gordon Boyd Glass
Ian MacInnis – Ian MacInnis Glass
Kat Looby – Kat Looby Artist
Lindsey Adelman – Lilac Glass
Nadira Narine – Nadira Nadine (Instagram)
Nick Bissember – Gaianese Glass (Instagram)
Priscilla Kar Y Lo – Priscilla Kar Yee Lo Glass
Rob Raeside – Rob Raeside Glass
Robin Ritter – Robin Ritter
Reid Ferguson – Okera Design Company (Instagram)
Silvia Taylor – Silvia Taylor Glass & Copper Artist
Sylvie Jensen – Colour Fusion
Tommy J Cudmore – Tropical Iceberg Glass