Glass with Deborah Czeresko – finding your voice, love languages & mentorship
Explore glass with Brooklyn-based glassblower Deborah Czeresko. Visit us in the hot shop at Brooklyn Glass and discover the otherworldly pull of glass; we discuss how glassblowing can be empowering, the power of representation and how one’s voice can be a force of change.
To dive deeper into more interviews with Deborah, check out this episode of Talking Out Your Glass, or this article in Artsy. Or, check out her amazing work and craftsmanship throughout Season 1 of Netflix’s Blown Away!
If you’re interested in some of the sources I reference in this episode, you can read scholar Julie Hollenbach’s article, Moving Beyond a Modern Credit: Thoughts on White Entitlement and Culture Appropriation in Professional Craft In America here, and check out All About Love by bell hooks at your local bookstore.
Deborah: It’s those feelings, right? The feelings in your body that it’s, that like, that the world becomes brighter. Your feelings are more intense and that was happening to me. I was just so excited about being alive and doing this activity. You see the world in a different way. It’s like, you’re, you’re on the mountain in a different position than you are, uh, when you’re not in love.
Deborah: I’m Deborah Czeresko. I work in glass.
Catherine: I would love it if you would just tell me that story of the first moment you noticed the material, when, when you first fell in love with glass.
Deborah: That was the magnetic pull up the ramp of the New York experimental glass workshop. But when you sent me the questions I started to think was that really the first. I began to think about why there was magnetic pole. And is it really that momentary fate, like thing that happens or is it something, a collection of things that happen over time that you don’t even know are being impregnated into your mind and being, and I, I think it’s definitely that there is that, uh, collection of stimulus or events that get into one’s memory, body experiences. And that then there’s a, a cataclysmic moment where it all just kind of coalesces. There’s one missing piece to the puzzle, and then you find the piece and that’s when the magic quote unquote happens.
So I realized that for me, I was hanging out with a bunch of artists in New York city, and we were all for some reason at that time, it was the eighties into mysticism. We were like into Madame Blavatsky, the golden triangle, the not, I don’t know what the Rosicrucians, seances, Houdini, I dunno, stuff like that. And one of them was Sufism. So one of the mystical arts that we were like all so enamored with was Sufism. And the mesmerization that happens, hip hypnotic occurrences, uh, you know, the roto rig from Duchamp is this like spiraling thing that goes around that causes you to go into a hypnotic trance.
Well, the glass is the same exact way! It’s turning and turning and turning. So no wonder, after I made it up the ramp, when I saw it being made, that that happened to me because was I already predisposed to mysticism. In Sufism, the bodies are literally going around in a whirling dervish.
Catherine: So you walked by and like the spinning of the glassblowing tools and the spinning of the glass caught your eye.
I just saw these cases. And in those cases, there’s one going up, there was this weird glass things that had no clue what it was. I was like, Oh my God, what is this stuff? So I got up the ramp, there was a little gallery and then there was someone gathering glass. So the first thing was the material itself. It was glowing and it was hot and it was gooey and oozy. That was immediate love for me because I liked that kind of feeling that sensuality of the material was very powerful for me. I didn’t know at the time what I was struck by, but I know I analyze it since then. I felt like it was an androgynous material. It was my material counterpart because I felt like I was an androgynous person.
I asked if they gave classes or how I could get involved and they did give classes. So I was broke at that time. So I took the shortest possible class could possibly take.
Another mystical thing, happened, and that was, I lost my job. I was working in an office doing some stupid thing, filing some stupid files somewhere but the way people are doing things, now they’re getting unemployment and they’re learning new things because the things that they were doing no longer are pertinent because it don’t even exist. So the same thing happened to me back then. I used it as an opportunity to learn a new skill, which was Glassblowing.
<Welcome back to Material Feels, where we explore the intimate relationships between creative people and the materials they have fallen in love with. I’m your host, Catherine Monahon, I’m an audio storyteller and writer based in Oakland, California.
I have been looking forward to this month’s episode for a looong time. We all have rituals for relaxing our brains and reconnecting with ourselves, especially during the pandemic. A big one for me: while working during the week and eating the same exact thing every morning at 7am, on weekends I would cook myself a luxurious hot breakfast and watch an episode of Blown Away, a Canadian reality glassblowing competition on Netflix. The show is similar to the Great British Bake Off in that it involves heat, time-sensitive ingredients and very supportive people. It focuses on the material world in a beautiful way, and the contestants are these gritty badass glassblowers who are so in love with glass, and also super cool to each other.
Because social media is a modern day game of tag, I actually got in touch with my favorite artist from Season 1: Deborah Czerekso. Deborah is an incredible queer glassblowing icon based in Brooklyn. She’s been working with glass for thirty years. And she’s even cooler and more interesting than Blown Away led us to believe.
Material Feels is sponsored by Brown Sugar Botanicals. Brown Sugar Botanicals is Oakland’s black, queer and trans founded CBD company, proudly crafting herbal CBD infused products grown by resilient communities. As of March 5th 2021, Brown Sugar Botanicals has closed their online shop to tend to a new period of growth, and will reo pen on May 1st, 2021. In the meantime, go follow their journey on Instagram @brownsugarbotanicals, and make sure to follow their community updates at: brownsugarbotanicals.com/community–.
Before head to Deborah’s studio in New York City: what is glass?
Sand, soda ash and limestone, melted at very high temperatures. While humans have mastered the art of making glass, it can also occur naturally; when lightning strikes sand, it creates a glass called fulgurite. Obsidian is formed by the rapid cooling of lava.
Archaeological evidence suggests glass was first fabricated four thousand years ago in coastal north Syria, Mesopotamia or Egypt.
Glass, like wood, wool and most of the materials we talk about on the show, is all around us and has a huge impact on our society. Glass has been used to make knives, jewelry, money, decorative objects. And post 1800s, industrialized manufacturing processes gave us window glass, bottles, lightbulbs and mirrors, eyeglasses, food containers, telescopes, beakers, microscopes, and more recently, computer screens and high speed internet cables.
Glassblowing is known as a “high heat industry,” similar to ceramics and metalworking: basically, it takes a lot of heat to transform the material. Glass artists combine heat, breath and centrifugal force to shape, sculpt and transform glass. Glassblowing happens in a hot shop, and there are a lot of tools associated with it.
Deborah (in the hotshop): Jill slash Jack, pincers, diamond shears, straight sheers, long straight sheers, we also have a sophieta, taglio, that’s another one we use to blow into the piece from the top when it’s no longer on the blowpipe, the air gun beeswax for lubrication, and our oxyporopane torch, cork paddles, we had a hot kiln shelf to shape the bottom when it came off the punty, and our wooden paddles! The unsung star, because they actually do a lot. A lot of old newspaper that we wet, use it to shae pthe glass, put water on it and the glass rides on steam. The block, that’s used for shaping the molten gather, and then water in a bucket! Water is very important to keep these fragile tools from sticking to the glass. The marver, that’s the flat, steel table; pipe warmer, face shield, our reheating table, loading gloves made out of Kevlar, blowing bench, with table and chair section, and of course the blow pipe and the punty! The stars!
In its molten form, glass is structurally similar to a liquid. It is glowing, flowing and hot as hell. The window of opportunity for glass artists to transform the material occurs in varying degrees of this volatile state. As it cools, it becomes frozen in time.>
Catherine: What does glass require you to be extra sensitive to when you’re working with it?
Deborah: I equate it to learning another person’s language, how they express themselves or how they speak. It will not speak your language. that’s where the key, the key to learning glasses in that it’s, uh, it’s just, uh, being, taking a step back and realize, and being in communion with it in a way I think is that’s how I approach it. And it’s constantly teaching me even to this day. I’m like, I cannot believe I’m still learning stuff about this.
Catherine: What are some of the components of that language?
Deborah: Yes, it’s definitely about moving and the movement comes from the heat. So the temperature is really important, but the movement, how it moves…how long you can touch it with a tool before it’s frozen, shall we say, even though it’s still like screaming hot to a human, it’s frozen to the glass.
So, the earth has a crust and a molten center glass is like that. So when you touch it with a tool on the outside that it gets a crust, literally a microscopic one, but inside it’s still moving. So learning how much you can touch it. It’s really about being very efficient, learning how to be very efficient with it. Doesn’t want you to touch it too much. Just little movements… that took forever for me to learn. It’s not just about squeezing harder and more and more. It’s just about squeezing, coming off, letting it reheat. Managing temperature and movement is really important.
<A lot of Deborah’s work focuses on atypical beauty. Right now she’s producing a buffet line, which features glass eggs, pads of butter, tater tots and entire turkeys. It is a series of artist editions inspired by the finale project on Blown Away, which was based on the gendering of objects and actions.
What is atypical beauty, and how is Deborah inspired by it?>
Deborah: Coming into my studio, we, saw broken car windows that I’ve, uh, put together and Mount it that have little sayings on them, like airbag in place or security alerts that are calling the whole thing. False security cause of a lot of them are security stickers. I find them over the years, like just walking around when there’s a broken car window on the on the street, I looked down and see if there’s anything to, to salvage from that window and make into a piece of art because it’s like, I want to switch that destruction into something creative. I know it always hurts people when they go out and they see their car window smash. If there’s something redeeming about it, some weird beauty that comes from the destruction.
Around me are my sculptures of animal feet. So that a big series of large animal feet that I think the reason I did the foot was, well, it’s a place of strength where the animal touches the ground. It’s really the grounded part of the, that being those creatures. But also because it’s just so weirdly narrative about that animal. Typically we look at animals or taxidermy of them anyway, they’re heads are out there. It’s just so much more powerful than looking at things face. I guess I’m really into this things that aren’t considered beautiful being beautiful.
Catherine: Glass is a great invitation for recreating those things with your own voice.
Deborah: It’s like instantly beautiful in a weird way. It’s such a beautiful material. Even the weirdest beginner things, they have this beauty to them, this kind of capturing people’s souls in a way it’s like so much effort into that one little thing. And then it’s like, there it is.
Catherine: Yeah. And it was, so it was so mobile at one point, it could have been anything. And then because of the steps they took and their intention it’s now that
Deborah: All their like frustration and effort is in there.
Catherine: Do you remember that the sensations of that class on the emotions that you had throughout,
Deborah: It was ridiculously humiliating? Honestly, it was like, Oh God, I suck at this so hard. And it’s really embarrassing. And I consider myself fairly coordinated. I was, uh, played women’s sports in college and I thought I was coordinated. Learning to coordinate the two hands and learn all the steps while trying to keep the thing rotating was really confusing to the brain. I would say, although I’m athletic, I’m not good at dance.
Catherine: Is glassblowing more like a sport? Or is it like dance? Or is it both?
Deborah: I think it’s got the combo because it has athleticism, definitely. But it also has coordinated steps that say are, are instigated by an object.
<I ask Deborah about the emotions she feels when she’s working with glass.>
Deborah: Well, stress comes to mind first. It’s stressful. Cause there’s so much at stake. It’s expensive to work in glass. So when you go in there, um, it’s not easy to just be like, I’m gonna throw like $500 out the door, but like, like you gotta like try to make this thing work.
Although I’m in love with the material, it is, it is a hard material to work in. Um, you gotta have a lot of things, um, for me anyway, in alignment. So, uh, to, to feel comfortable, um, the heat causes me, my, uh, body temperature would go up and that causes me to be more stressed. So I’ve worked on staying calm, but sometimes it’s not easy when things start going wrong. Sometimes I fabricate work for other artists and that’s a particularly stressful situation because then I feel them behind me with expectations. I think it’s the expectations of myself and the other person actually that, um, but then sometimes it’s just fun when it’s going right.
I do have a high expectation for myself, which is, um, I think causing most of the stress though. And that doesn’t mean it has to be, uh, the most perfect form in the classic sense of the word, but because I’m looking for something in the glass, it’s not that perfect form. It has to reflect the glass and me perfectly for me to like it.
I feel drained at the end of the day, as well as physically tiring to begin with. And then it’s also mentally, you have to be so focused.
<Deborah talks about the stress of the hot shop, and the expectations associated with executing a specific idea. Glassblowing can be a strenuous and expensive art form. It comes with risk, it is a process that is time sensitive and it can be hard on your body. From the way she describes it so far, it sounds like a horrendous experience I would not want to go back to day after day, and yet this is her life.>
Catherine: You’ve described your first class, your first experience with glass as pretty negative. It was humiliating, challenging. Like what kept you coming back?
Deborah: Well, I was in love with the material. So that was, I think love happens pretty quickly, honestly, in a lot of different ways. Like when you see something, you know, it’s for you or not for you, I’ve tried this thing where you grow love for things. Growing love to me is like something that doesn’t happen very often. So like, for example, I’ve had sushi many times and I’ve tried the sea urchins, the pasty orange stuff, and friends of mine are like, Oh my God, this stuff is amazing, but no, it doesn’t work. It didn’t work for me. Nope.
Catherine: How did you know you were in love?
Deborah: It’s those feelings, right? The feelings in your body, that like, that the world becomes brighter. The, your feelings are more intense and that was happening to me. I was just so excited about being alive and doing this activity. You see the world in a different way. It’s like, you’re, you’re on the mountain in a different position than you are when you’re not in love.
<I kept trying to work through this in my mind. Many of us go to great lengths to avoid pain, suffering or conflict. Our society paints love as a fairytale, as a rush of overwhelmingly positive emotions. What I’m hearing from Deborah, and from the material world in general, is that sometimes the conversations between maker and material are not easy. Sometimes they take forever!
You are first trying to master a complex skill, then trying to communicate something with that skill. Getting to the same page when the two of you are not on the same page takes work. The same is true, I think, for love between people.
A few months ago, a friend (actually, Redwood, the bartender from episode four!) gifted me a book, all about love by bell hooks. Bell hooks is a cultural critic and talented writer whose analysis of society is intersectional, radical and straightforward in a way I really appreciate. I want to share the way hooks chooses to define love, which spoke to me on both a material, personal and interpersonal level: “To truly love, we must learn to mix various ingredients: care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment and trust, as well as honest and open communication.” She describes it as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.”
I think the bell hooks definition, and Deborah’s experience with glass, checks out for me. I particularly liked the word extend. To me, that’s the labor of being vulnerable. Of pushing yourself to grow, to reach some kind of flow or connection. I think love is that challenge, that growth, in combination with strong positive emotions, and fresh coordinates, as Deb points out.
Deborah has also mentioned she takes a feminist approach to glass, and that being in the studio feels empowering to her.>
Deborah: To me, the empowerment comes from not just this moment that I existed now, but the whole history I have with the material and of being me in the world, just a queer woman that, I mean, years ago just got a lot of, negative feedback for being me. Ot was hard. It was hard to just walk out the door and get harassed because of how I looked or something. And that’s part of what I’m talking about too. Not just the glass blowing floor, the whole experience of being alive and walking to the studio, traveling to the studio and, um, then having to exist in and hide parts of myself in a way, because, I would say that we are changing that the world is changing excruciatingly slowly, but, in my opinion, the stupidity that still permeates is, it’s just heartbreaking that these issues don’t change, in fact, sometimes regress, like we saw recently with the, Oh, God, I can say the last administration. That was really causing flashbacks of what used to be like how hard we fought for certain rights, And that comes into my feelings of being on the glass floor too, because back then there was a lot of, I think, hiding parts of myself to make the people that could give me knowledge feel better. They they’re centering themselves, it’s just this mindlessness of how you approach dealing with another person, like stupid jokes about me riding a Harley Davidson or something with a vibrator and like stupid like that as a joke, but it’s hateful jokes, you know, stuff like that. I’d have to be like, ha ha, ha. That’s so funny.
Catherine: I feel like there are these patterns that come up that certain people are subject to, um, that other people who have historically been in power or been majority don’t even realize that that pattern is just, it’s like a thousand cuts.
Deborah: Yeah. And it still happens. I’m like, are you kidding me with all this awareness around us?
<Deborah points out a few things here. First: it is harder for some human beings to exist than others in our society. Walking to work feels dangerous because of how you present. How people read you. For trans, nonbinary and many queer folks, the way you walk, dress, wear your hair, present yourself or don’t present yourself is still, somehow, controversial. A threat. A threat to gender norms, heteronormativity, patriarchal dominance, you name it. Your identity is seen as dangerous, and then you are in danger.
I have experienced this on public transport depending on how I’m presenting as a genderfluid person. Deborah and I can speak to these lived experiences.
Then there are the experiences we cannot speak to, but we need to acknowledge. The reality for Black and brown folks. The history of sundown towns. A society where ICE exists, and there are camps at the border. The reality for Asian Americans with the upswing in hate crimes and discrimination since COVID, elders walking on the street from point A to point B, verbally or physically assaulted.
This is not new pain. While people who have been violently categorized by white supremacy as visually different, also known as marginalized identities, while people are connected in their struggles; there are acute histories we need to memorize, learn and pass on.
For example – I mentioned sundown towns. If you’re not familiar with the term, sundown towns are all-white municipalities that exclude non-whites with a combination of discriminatory local laws, intimidation or violence. Traveling in this country was and still is very dangerous for people; so dangerous that from 1936 to 1966 was an annual guidebook called The Negro Motorist Green Book, also known as “The Green Book:” a guide for Black motorists to try and stay safe. Sure, there’s no longer a Green Book published every year, but the violence, discrimination and trauma has not gone away.
I mention this specific example because it takes a quick google search to learn about it, and there are countless examples like this for any marginalized groups in our society.
This is a pervasive issue that touches every part of society, even in off the beaten path, artsy fartsy communities… So in addition to taking up space and navigating those dynamics in the public sphere, makers and artists who are seen as different are still fighting for both representation and equity. Deborah shares more about how being in the studio feels for her.>
Deborah: There’s different motivations throughout my career. Originally when I saw people working, I was like, I mean, men, they were all men. I was like, I can do way better than that. So easily. They’re like, Oh my God. So I knew, I just knew that I could do better than that. That was a driving force. And that was like, but that changed. I was like, I don’t need to prove that point anymore. I did that now. Now it’s about enjoying, like, let’s take the victory lap, let’s celebrate being there.
Now it’s truly, I’ve been thinking about getting other people involved that were the typical demographic of the hot shop, how I can directly impact that is really important to me. And I’ve started to figure that out.
The world has changed in glasses many more, different people. But the one thing that’s still missing is a lot of diversity. There’s many more women, there’s a smattering of queer people. There’s not, um, huge amounts. Oddly enough. I was like, where are they? I mean like, Whoa, is this going to happen in my lifetime? So I want to really impact that now.
Me being there represent it proved to me representation. Wasn’t enough. I have heard from many people that like seeing you in their gay, like I hated going in there until I saw you in there.
Back then, like when I first started, I was like, so there’s this thing called machismo. Right. And I was like, can women be machismo? how do I perform? That was like, so there’s interesting things as far as like, I do talk a lot about crafts being, being the art itself. Like I’m sorry that I’m part of the art, like in some way that the whole being on the floor is part of the art, the whole just standing there and taking up the space is, but I think now I realize that, um, a definitive action of some source necessary to make this go faster to make this change.
POP CULTURE / ACTION SEGWAY
<If you still are having trouble believing this, or if you have family and friends who have trouble believing these barriers permeate every aspect of our society, let’s point them to a lil’ clip from one of my favorite movies, My Cousin Vinny. Because movies are fun. And people sometimes believe movies more than they believe life. I dunno, it’s a little phenomena, we love it, we love celebrity.
Anyone who has seen My Cousin Vinny hundreds of times (points thumbs at face – this guy) knows that simultaneously infuriating and gratifying moment in court when the prosecutor doesn’t think that Lisa, Vinny’s girlfriend, can possibly be an expert mechanic. She’s loud, fashionable and duh, a woman. But finally when her expertise is undeniable and she testifies that only a car with an independent rear suspension and positraction could have made the tire marks, which rules out 1964 Buick Skylark. MMM So satisfying. BUT also frustrating that she’s not taken seriously for like the first half of her testimony. Also courts. Also law. Yikes.
There’s lots of movie clips I could of chosen, I just…really like doing the Lisa impression, that was just like…really great for me so… thank you.
Deborah points out that representation is not enough for her now. Yes, there is social commentary in her work, and navigating the world as who she is in the hotshop makes a difference. As we talk more about what it’s like to be in the hotshop, and how Deborah operates with her team, another opportunity for action stands out.>
Deborah: I’ve been doing this series of objects I call the buffet collection…I’ve been taking the income from that, that’s going to finance me to duplicate the experience I had…access and knowing. How can I be more effective with my platform? And I thought about it with what I do. So that’s like that got me thinking about how just going for it is the way I want to do.
Catherine: I’m curious about not only the dance and the athleticism with the material and the tools, but then also your communication and relationship with your assistants.
Deborah: Yeah. I don’t think I am like really doing the typical Maestro two assistant relationship.
<When Debra says the word maestro here, she’s talking about a tradition of individual artists being the expert, and disseminating information down to apprentices who spend quite a long period of time learning from them. It’s sort of like a one way street, trickle-down-effect with this artist person put on a bit of a pedestal.>
Deborah: I sort of reinvented it a little bit where I do accept a lot of dialogue from the people that helped me. And I depend on them. It’s a, a slightly different way of working where I’m not just the one with all the answers. We’re all the Maestro collectively on the team, we’re really part of the one bigger organism, it’s not so authoritative.
Catherine: It sounds like a lot of your values, like your life values, you’re integrating them really intensely with your process.
Deborah: I feel really good about the people I’m working with and our relationship, the give and take, and that it’s mutually beneficial.
<It felt so good to talk to someone at this stage in their career, and life. To learn from her wisdom, and see that growth and transformation happens at all stages of a creative relationship.
I think about my own mentors who have shaped my perspective. Strong, powerful, outspoken, wonderfully weird people who I’m still in contact with regularly. My chosen creative family.
There is something very special about having a mentor who shares a part of your identity. Not only is it common ground, for those of us not used to seeing people who look and talk like us, or people with goals and interests similar to our own successfully living out their dreams, it’s a radical type of self-love, reflected in the other.
Spoiler alert, my mentors are outspoken older women with a taste for the theatrical and a lifelong careers in the arts. Who would have thought!? Without their influence, I’m not sure I would have the confidence and strength to be where I am today.
The mentor/mentee relationship is such an integral piece of the creative world, one that has literally co-created industries and built out our society, like, literally, physical buildings, it’s not conceptual, it’s not theoretical. Mm. Delicious.
Who are your mentors? Have you asked them the burning questions on your mind? And if they have passed on, how do you feel close to them still? What insight and lessons impact your life?
And who do you mentor? Who could benefit from your life experience? Why not share it?>
<The sounds of a hotshop key in, with Deborah and her assistant Ali talking.>
<That’s the hotshop in action.
There is a dance associated with glassblowing; part performance, part sport. If you’re not familiar with glassblowing just imagine that you’ve got this molten ball of material and you’ve got a certain amount of time with which to work it, all the while you’re in conversation other people on your team, moving through the process in concert.
Associate Producer Liz de Lise did what we call in the business a tape sync. They went to Brooklyn Glass, a hot shop where Deborah has a studio, and they joined the fray. They actually put a phone around their neck and FaceTimed me so I was kind of there too. It felt like a scene from The Bourne Identity series I don’t know if you’ve seen that that, it was very shaky camera work, and I felt like I was there running with them and bobbing and weaving and witnessing this amazing demo that Deborah and her assistant Ali so generously offered to do for us.>
Liz in the hotshop: So, Deborah is heating up a paddle…Ooh! It’s on fire! It’s like… the most rock and roll of all art forms.
>As Debra and her assistant began working with the material, heating it up cooling it down sculpting it blowing with their breath, using various tools to change it, they were also chatting. Chatting about how tools over time have been renamed to be more gender inclusive. Talking about the history of glass blowing, and technique. Also communicating in very direct ways.
<Deborah and her assistant lobby observations, tool names and imperatives across the studio as they work with the piece>
Ali: My name is Ali Feeny, I work as an assistant for Deb in her hotshop but also in her studio for the cold process of things. We started in October and November, COVID made things a little blurry, it was in the fall. I went to Alfred University where I focused on glass and printmaking, and then I got my masters degree at the university of Texas at Arlington, where I studied with Justin Ginsberg and I honed in a lot of my artist’s practice there, so it was a really wonderful experience.
They are making a poached egg vessel, by the way: a blown white form with a yellow egg yolk pressed into the center of the form. Eggs are a big part of Deborah’s buffet line; she jokes that she’s now synonymous with them!
It was a beautiful thing to witness. It was kind of a surreal time for me, I was actually in Liz’s ears and I would chat with them and they would respond to me as Deborah chatted with her assistant. The four of us were involved in an ethereal orbit around the glass.
<Deborah explains what she’s doing to Liz as she and Ali cool the yolk and work on it, tell us about the cooling process and how different colors of glass behave differently>
It was so fun to be a part of it, and the stress that Deborah had mentioned earlier wasn’t really apparent to me, but she pointed out why.>
Deborah in the hotshop: I’m not stressed because I’m enjoying tell you what I’m doing, I’m having fun!
<So the plan deviates: the yolk of the egg that Deborah was sculpting with Ali exploded. But in glassblowing, unplanned events are pretty common, I think. The egg yolk dropped off the punty into the furnace, and caught fire. In less than a minute Deborah reacted, touched base with her assistant and they decided to make another.
My favorite part was when they debriefed at the end. There’s no blame, no excuses or shame. They talk about the hiccup and walk through what happened. I say hiccup, but seriously, the thing that they were making caught on fire and exploded. Can we just… can we just sit with that? How often do you worry about making a mistake, any kind of mistake, and your mind fixates on the dire consequences that will undeniably follow. This situation gave both Deb and Ali an opportunity to live out the worst possible scenario of something together, and no one got in trouble, no one got yelled at…They problem solved for next time and moved on.
I’m not saying every creative relationship is like this. There are toxic relationships between people trying to create something together. But this kinda relationship, the people and places where we are safe making mistakes… that’s where we want to be. That’s where I want to be, at least.
When I told Deborah how much it meant to me to get to talk to her, I got kind of emotional.>
Deborah: Are you stroking my ego?
Catherine: No! I have been looking forward to this conversation for like six months. Um, and everyone who I know who in my life like knows about today.
Catherine: When I first started watching Blown Away, I was like, before, even like the first episode of the first season, I was like, I want to interview Deborah. And then like, you know, second, second episode. I was like, yeah, she’s the one, and then when you won, I was like —
Deborah: I feel so happy that I won that now. Um, it was so important. Not just to me. I know I told you about the hate mail, but I received so many people telling me that what I did was…I gave them, I don’t know how, but like exactly, but it gave them purpose. It’s say they were on the edge of not doing art or women in atypical fields to a lot of queer people reaching out to me saying, just thank God you won.
Catherine: And also just like your radical way of being or political way of being, um, was, was so such a pull. Um, so I think everyone who identifies in that camp, like felt seen.
Deborah: One of the things I was thinking in that occupying is from occupy wall street, which I witnessed down there on wall street, um, and how they occupied space and that gave them power. And I’m like, well, I’m occupying space too, so I should have power. So that’s where it came from. It was coming from that kind of the occupy movement in a way like I’m like that was influential in how I thought about it. I think.
And that is political, that who’s in a space is political or who isn’t in a space is political. And crafting honestly is also political and the, how it’s been disregarded as something lesser than how it’s been plucked by colonized societies, like other cultures where crafting is the primary form of art, and that’s just plucked by Western society.
This happens to me all the time. Cause I’m a fabricator. My skill is plucked by these people that call themselves designers. And so I see it happening to me. I see it happening to other cultures, without any credit, it’s like the anonymous-other-maker-person that you never give credit behind. This is an old school, old world, Western designer, way of working. Watching someone work, being like, that’s what I want to make! And it’s repulsive to me. It’s exploitative.
EXPLOITATION VS MENTORSHIP
<The world plucked here is interchangeable with exploit. And as a glass blower in 2021, Deborah not the first fabricator to observe this. In fact our entire concept of craft — bohemian, hippie, what’s cool and stylish, the artisanal line at the big box store in aisle 27… originates from cultures outside of Western culture. It’s a form of cultural appropriation.
I’d like to share a quote from an essay I read recently by Julie Hollenbach, a queer settler artist, scholar and cultural worker based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The essay is titled Moving Beyond a Modern Craft: Thoughts on White Entitlement and Cultural Appropriation in Professional Craft in Canada. It also applies to the United States and European countries as well.
“Often, because non-western cultures don’t place the same value on authorship or the identity of the artist, and work is made anonymously or collectively. Western people may make the mistake of assuming that it is unattributed, that it doesn’t belong to anyone and is therefore fair game to be taken or used. However, many Indigenous societies understand their cultural objects and practices to belong to everyone in their community—past, present, and future.”
This brings me back to the concept of mentoring, as a kind of antithesis: passing knowledge forward, growing a creative culture collaboratively, as an act of love. To me, it’s the polar opposite of the violent, extractive practices of colonial rule. To me, it’s centering relationships that are about consent and mutual growth rather than profit, dominance or ownership.>
Deborah: Like talking about that nonprofit organizations like, Oh, they’re trying to diversify the board or they’re trying to bring other people to the table, but I don’t need their table. That’s what I realize. I need a different table.
Catherine: Different table may have something different. Maybe it doesn’t even look like a table.
Deborah: Right! That’s what I’m kind of coming into, it’s a revelation to me.
Catherine: I think a lot of people, um, in different avenues and different ways, or having like iterations of that revelation.
Deborah: My career is a slow burn. I really went for technical in the beginning. Then just let everything simmer, simmering, simmering simmering until now it’s boiling. And now is the time now I am in the spotlight and now I can. And I realize, like I said, representation is one thing, but the voice is another. It’s time my time to do this. So I am just at the beginning.
<Last episode, I was inspired paper artist Zai Divecha and the world that she creates with her material. It made me think about what world I’m creating when I’m working on the show. I often visualize a theater where all of us are experiencing the story together, in my mind, sometimes I am in the audience, on stage or backstage… as long as I am part of the show in some way. I call it my “happy place.” I think there are a range of happy places that we go to, real or imagined, to find peace.
I think in this spectrum of happy places, there is one that makes us feel most like ourselves. That is what the theater visualization does for me.
I’ve also been thinking a lot about core values, and how the values that are the most important to us can be embedded in a particular happy place.
I felt like when Deborah glanced up that ramp in Little Italy and glass caught her eye, she found some kind mystical doorway to her happy place in real life. In the hotshop, I felt I was seeing her live out her values with the way she communicated with the material, with her assistants, and with her guests (Liz and myself).
Okay, have I totally lost you with this core values talk? Do you know what your core values are? I get it, not everyone is bffs with a handful of therapists and not everyone lives in the Bay Area, where if I had a nickel for every time someone mentions values, boundaries or needs, I would be able to afford breakfast sandwiches out here.
I recently realized these buzzwords were everywhere but I wasn’t really sure what values were, it’s this term that’s thrown around and I think I always confused it with morals or ethics. Turns out that’s not what values are at all, turns out there are so many values that you can choose from to prioritize. Like friendship or honesty or creativity. And if you’re clear on what values you feel are most important to you, I think it makes it a little bit easier to pick and choose what to surround yourself with.
I mulled it over and identified my six core values using the happy place I shared with you. I came up with mindfulness, humor, connection, contribution, creativity and solitude.
Let’s try to find your happy place if you haven’t already figured it out. Think of a time a time you felt seen by the people around you, or an environment you felt at peace in. The monologue in your head fell away. There wasn’t any fog: everything was very clear. In fact maybe everything felt… brighter. What were you prioritizing in that moment?
I think that memory you have pulled up is a version of a happy place. I think with a combination of internal drive and community support people can conjure that happy place in real life over and over, pouring energy into structures that eventually begin to function with more and more ease, creating a momentum that, even when your cup is empty, keeps you in touch with what matters to you most.
In Deb’s studio, I felt like she had followed that thread. She was drawn to an experience. She discovered love. She keeps working at it, even when it is stressful, building not only a relationship with the material, but a relationship with herself, with a global community of glassblowers. Lady glassblowers. Queer glassblowers. Gender non-conforming non-binary trans glassblowers.
I think of it as a well-traveled path, and even when it gets dark and overgrown, you still know the way because you’ve been practicing, whatever that is for you, keeping you to exposed to your core values and in the rhythm of practicing those values.
This philosophy around creative practice parallels how mindfulness can change the brain.
Mindfulness is an intentional state where you are aware of the present moment without judgement or analysis. Over the past decade research has emerged around mindfulness and neuroplasticity: the brain’s ability to adapt, heal, change and grow.
The paths we travel in our minds are not just woodsy metaphors: they are neurological pathways we tread over and over. And because the brain is mutable, adaptable and changeable… much like a material… and by traveling certain paths over and over, we can alter our mood, learn a new skill or turn rituals into reflex.
Mindfulness and creative practice have a lot in common. Especially when you learn the love language of your material and get in a flow state. I wonder if forming a relationship with the material world, engaging with creative practices and expressing ourselves is a way to conjure a value-based happy place. And the radical act of mentoring is a way to invite others in, and share that happy place. So that not only are your well-traveled paths accessible for you, you are sharing that wisdom with other travelers.
And whether you are the steward of that particular path or a first-time traveler, you are not alone in the woods.>
<Material Feels is produced by me, your host, Catherine Monahon. I’m a writer and audio storyteller with a background in art education; I live in Oakland, California. Associate Producer Liz de Lise composes original music for the show as well. This episode features sounds from www.FreeSound.org, as well as underscores and music created just for the show, by Liz. The show is a labor of love; and your contributions mean the world. Here’s how you can support us:
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Here is an original piece of music composed by Liz, inspired by paper as a sculptural material and our interview with artist Zai Divecha.>