You might think it’s coincidence or random chance the Seattle area has not one, but two contestants on the new Netflix glassblowing reality show “Blown Away.”
Turns out there’s a very good reason for this.
“Seattle is the glassblowing hub of the world without a doubt,” Seattle-based artist and contestant Janusz Pozniak said. “The only place that gets close to it is Murano in Venice, Italy, which is the traditional center of the glassblowing world. Nowhere else in the world comes close to having the density of glassblowing studios, apart from Murano. There are over 100 glassblowing studios in the Seattle area here. That’s hundreds of people in the industry.”
And with two participants to cheer for, they’ll be paying close attention to “Blown Away,” all 10 episodes of which will be released Friday, July 12, on the streaming service. Pozniak, a 53-year-old veteran of the scene who came to Seattle nearly three decades ago to work with glass master Dale Chihuly, is joined by Edgar Valentine, a 23-year-old from Tacoma.
At its most intense, “Blown Away” involves 10 artists and their assistants working furiously around 10 closely packed furnaces creating delicate pieces of art. A process that sometimes takes months or even years is compressed into hours as contestants work with unfamiliar helpers and tools in North America’s largest glassblowing facility, built in Toronto for the show.
Blowers are given a challenge at the beginning of each episode and have about 20 minutes to plan their creation. The finished pieces are judged and one contestant is kicked off each week. The winner gets a $60,000 prize package that includes a weeklong residency at The Corning Museum of Glass.
The heat was intense, the pressure even more so. There was fainting. And vomiting. “From the point of view of the Netflix crew themselves, they had never been immersed in an environment quite as hot or tense as that,” Pozniak said. “They were suffering at first — at least until the ventilation was sorted out.”
None of this makes the show, Pozniak says. What is conveyed to the viewer, however, is the difficulty of the situation as contestants struggle to overcome their circumstances and deliver something they’re proud of.
“It was challenging on more levels than I expected,” Pozniak said. “Being given a challenge and having to react to it — being creative and just go — was very difficult. Often times it can take months, and an idea can take years to evolve the way you’re really satisfied with. So to potentially be on TV and have to make something you just heard about that represents you as an artist and that will be seen by millions of people, that’s a lot of pressure. I didn’t really expect it to be as immediate as it was.”
Valentine said in a text message from Pilchuck Glass School that he found out about the show through a Facebook ad: “I saw it and thought, ‘hm. Probably fake, but like, I blow glass and this is literally directed at me …’ So I applied.”
“It all seemed so surreal and I couldn’t really believe it was happening,” he added. “I never thought they would make a glassblowing reality show, so in all honesty I didn’t think it was real until two days after I got to Toronto and met the other people.”
Though he’s the youngest contestant on the show, Valentine has more than a decade of experience already. After he showed interest, his mother enrolled him in glassblowing classes at the age of 12, and Pilchuck is just the latest stop of several in his education. He’s so enamored with the craft that he gave up a college scholarship to play lacrosse in Colorado to return and pick up his studies. He now works at Tacoma Glassblowing Studio, making a living as an instructor while also creating art in the hot shop.
Pozniak emigrated from England to Seattle at 25 and has worked with many of the area’s top artists and instructors. Like Valentine, he has studied at Pilchuck, which was co-founded by Chihuly, and has presented his work at museums and galleries around the world. Though he does occasional handyman work, he also has carloads of collectors show up at his private studio in the Wallingford neighborhood from time to time.
“I feel fortunate that I’m able to just about earn a living doing what I love to do,” he joked.
All those years put into their craft were important on the show, but they also were challenged in unexpected ways. Pozniak admitted he struggled with the idea of competition on “Blown Away.” He believes art is a collaborative, not competitive, endeavor. Most folks who know him would be surprised he participated, he said. But his wife, Michelle, pushed him to do the show, if for no other reason than to spread his name and his work.
While it was fun, he never expected it to be so challenging.
“I was in tears on the phone with my wife because the stresses built up,” Pozniak said. “Basically you’re blowing glass every three days and there’s all the (expletive) to deal with in between that, making the piece, the piece cooling down over night, then you’ve got to cold work it and glue it and present it in a gallery, and then be judged and eliminated. And all the waiting around to do with just making TV. So it all added up.”
Like Pozniak, Valentine liked the idea that the show will help spread his name and work. But he also thinks it will help expand interest in the art form.
“It’s going to blow glass art up and put little cities like Tacoma on the map,” Valentine said. “Lots of people in this day and time think of pipe making, bowls, cups and vases with glass as art. But not a lot of people see the physicality, timing and frustration behind the sport, and this show will display the ups and downs of working in a hot shop. Especially under pressure.”
All 10 episodes of “Blown Away” are available starting Friday, July 12, on Netflix.