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There’s never a bad time to talk about blowing glass, particularly with the popularity of Netflix’s show Blown Away. Today, Tim talks to contestant Momo Schafer about her experience in the glassblowing world and her time on the show. Listen as they discuss Momo’s life and artistic career, some behind-the-scenes stories from the show, and ideas for helping your students appreciate what happens in a hot shop. Full episode transcript below.
Tim: Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by The Art of Education, and I’m your host, Tim Bogatz.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I have always been fascinated by the art of blowing glass. Now, if you’ve tried it before, you know what an incredible skill it is, the time, talent, patience, and training that goes into making even a single piece is amazing. Now, the reason I bring this is up is I’ve also been fascinated with the series Blown Away on Netflix since it was released a few weeks ago. It is a combination/reality show that features about a dozen glass artists, at least at the beginning, and each episode they are making a different piece. Somebody gets eliminated and we have these great critiques, great judging, just like Project Runway or your favorite cooking show would be and it’s just spectacular.
It popped up on my Netflix a couple of weeks ago and I watched the entire series in like two days and then I watched it again because it is just amazing visually. The camera bringing you into the hot, seeing what the artists are doing and what they are creating and I guess just being able to witness the whole art making process is a really, really cool experience. Obviously, it’s right in the wheelhouse for so many art teachers and it’s been so popular.
Anyway, anything that gets more people talking about art, looking at art, appreciating art is doing really well in my book, and to further that idea I want to bring in my guest who was on of the stars of Blown Away, Momo Schafer. Now, Momo is an incredible glass artist who creates a variety of different types of sculptures. I’m partial to her figurative work, but you can see all of her versatility and everything that she can do throughout the course of the competition on Blown Away.
She’s here to talk about her walk, about blowing glass in general, and of course, give us a few stories about what it is like to be part of Blown Away. I am so excited that she is willing to give me some time and I’m really excited to talk to her, so let me bring her on right now.
Momo Schafer is joining me now. Momo, thank you so much. How are you?
Momo: Thank you for having me. I’m doing pretty good.
Tim: Awesome. I’m really excited to talk to you about, well, just everything related to glass blowing, but especially the show, of course, but before we get into that, can you just kind of tell us a little bit about yourself? Where you grew up, where you went to school, how you first got into making art?
Momo: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, absolutely. I was born in Boston and then raised just outside of the city in Natick, Massachusetts. I was always doodling and drawing and typical artist, like always creating and I was lucky enough to go to a public school where ceramics was offered. I had ceramics experience for at least five years, and then I guess my first encounter with touching hot glass was in Japan in Yamanashi. It was like basically a little bead making workshop, a quick little demo and I got to make purple beads so I kind of had that in the back of my mind.
Eventually when I got to high school and I was thinking more about what colleges to go to or if college was even an option, in my experience in public school it wasn’t told to me that being an artist was a viable future or anything like that. Through my own research I was like, “Yeah, there’s got to be a material out there that I’m interested in that would be worth going to school for.” Then, I saw that some schools offered glass and that’s what caught my attention because the more research I did, the more it revealed that basically it’s a lifelong challenge. It’s a balance between art, dance, meditation, there’s a lot of science to it. That’s what drew me into going to school and I was lucky enough that MassArt, the first and only public art school is in my state, and so I got an in-state tuition to go there among some scholarships.
Through that I also got more scholarships, like full scholarships to Urban Glass in Brooklyn. Took a couple of classes there, and then towards the end of my college career I got another full scholarship to Pilchuck, which is like a really big glass school in Seattle. Then, after graduating, I got to continue that exploration through another scholarship at Penland, Penland School of Crafts. It’s a school in North Carolina. They offer ceramics, painting, metals, anything you could think of. That’s kind of been like my educational journey.
Tim: That’s really cool. If I can ask you, what was your first experience with blowing glass? You talked about being in Japan and doing the beadmaking, when you got to MassArt and started taking the glasses, what was that like for you? What really drew you into it? What made you want to kind of continue with that exploration of that process?
Momo: My first encounter with actually being able to work in a hot shop was during my sophomore year because that when we’re allowed to pick our major. I first walk in, I take a gather, and I just knew immediately like, “This is what I’ve been wanting to do.” It was just like this glowing red fire that I just get to mold and manipulate and caress into a different shape. At that point, I was pretty heavily practicing lucid dreaming and so even after… Our studio classes were like five hours but there’d be like a demo and then we’d get a little bit of practice splitting the time with everybody in the class. You’d get your own like three hours or so to practice with you and your assistant and then I’d go home and I’d dream about it and practice different simulations.
I could tell that I was kind of progressing a little faster than maybe some of my classmates, and so even my professor was telling me like, “Yep, this is definitely your thing”, and I was like… having never tried it and then just kind of jumping into college with the assumption that this was going to be my major, I’m glad that it really worked out. It’s just been like a… it’s kind of like an addiction at this point. It’s just like, “I can’t stop. I can’t let it go.” Anytime I can be in the hot shop is really my little paradise.
Tim: That’s really cool. Now, let me ask you, I guess, what are you working on right now? You had mentioned… last time we talked you had just finished up your time at Penland, but can you tell us about maybe some of the techniques or styles that you’re interested in exploring right now? What you’re creating? What kind of topics you’re addressing with your work these days?
Momo: Yeah, absolutely. I just finished a two-year-long residency and towards the end of the residency I realized that I was doing a lot of torching at the binge and sculpting a lot of details, and I realized I could do those details outside of the hot shop actually. As much as I love being in the hot shop, I’m always asking myself if that’s like the best way to accomplish executing my ideas, and so I realized that flameworking might be my next avenue and so that was a class that I took over at Penland. It was under Carmen Lozar who does surrealist figurative sculptures, which is exactly what I do, and so it was just perfect lineup to be able to segue into getting more miniatures. I can get an entire figure by just a small scale, and so there’s so much more I can accomplish in there, so I’m falling in love with the new process.
Tim: Man, well, that’s the best part of being an artist, right?
Tim: Always exploring, always finding new things. Now, let me ask you about the show. How did you get involved with Blown Away? Were you invited? Was there an application process? Was there something else?
Momo: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Tim: What made you want to that one? What made you want to be a part of the show?
Momo: Yeah, so there was an application process. I think most people in the glass community got emails about it, and so the buzz was already out. It was a joke amongst glass artists like, “Man, there’s glass studios, there should be a reality show about this.” Finally, when the opportunity hit, everybody was excited but also apprehensive, like, “Oh, wait a minute. What would that actually be like?” It’s one thing to have it in conversation, but there could be some consequences depending on how it portrays the process, if it’s not portrayed accurately. We would really become the face of glass because not a lot of people have had the opportunity to see it in person or see it in depth and have it explained to them. I think a lot of people applied. Some people maybe got cold feet, but I just figured with my limited five years of experience, that’s basically baby steps in glass years.
I wasn’t really considering it at first, but then it wasn’t just the emails that I got. I actually was contacted through Instagram by the casting director, and so that was when I was like, “Oh, this isn’t just like an automated Eblast or something like that. This isn’t just like spam. They were actually trying to reach out to me.” I chatted with the casting director just to make sure. I was like, “Hey, this isn’t going to be like ‘who can blow the biggest bubble or something’, right? I’m an artist, first and foremost, and I just want make sure that I’m going to be able to showcase what I do and what I’m capable of.” She was like, “I assure you that it is not going to be like a muscle contest or something like that.”
It also is a very male-dominated field, so I was like, “Do I really want to jump in? The one skinny little girl or something?” It also was affiliated with The Corning Museum of Glass, which is an extremely prestigious art and science museum, so that also gave me some reassurance there had to be some credibility there.
Tim: That’s really cool. I guess now that the show is released, now that it is so popular, I guess the question is like, what do you hope people take away from the show? Do you want to pique the audience’s curiosity about glass blowing? Do you want to get your art in front of a wider audience? Do you want people to learn more about the art form? What do you hope people take away from the show?
Momo: I just kind of approached it as like an opportunity to show my excitement and love and passion for the material and that maybe that would ignite other people’s interest in just learning more, appreciating, maybe even getting into the field. During the time when I was applying, I was also thinking a lot about how representation in different media was also important to me, and so just going on the show just to show my face. To show that people like me can also blow glass. It doesn’t have be like a big, muscular cis male and that they can be anybody. That was important to me.
In terms of getting my art out there, I know that I’m in such a beginning point of my art that it’ll change a lot in the next five years probably, so it was more just getting me, myself, my personality out there more than anything.
Tim: That’s really cool. No, I think those are all very valid reasons. I think that’s some good thoughts on kind of where we’re coming from with that. Now, I have to admit, I’ve watched all of the episodes twice, so I have a lot of questions about kind of what it was like on the show, so if you don’t mind talking about that.
Momo: Oh good.
Tim: I have a few things I want to dive into, sort of behind-the-scenes looks. First off, you have all 10 contestants in this giant hot shop, plus all of the assistants, plus I assume this giant casting… not casting group, but director and all of the camera people…
Momo: Camera crew…
Tim: All the tech work. How crazy is that to have all those people together? Also, I’ve been in a few glass studios that are incredibly hot just with like a couple of people working in them, so what is it like to have all of those people? How hot is it in that studio?
Momo: Oh, it was crazy. All of the glass artists, we’re looking at each other like, “Oh, boy. 10 holes, 10 furnaces, and almost 30 people running around”, plus all the annealers, the ovens where you put the glass away. We knew it was going to be brutal, but it was interesting because no matter how much we tried to insist that we need to get some open doors and windows and stuff, it was just hard to explain how hot it was going to be because it’s like an inconceivable amount of hot.
It’s beyond what your senses can understand and the only reference that I think that the director and the crew had was like a cooking show, and cooking is a very different temperature than glass blowing. You might have an oven that’s 400 degrees if you’re baking something, but in glass it’s like above 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, so very different scales. I think there was a learning curve there, but we figured it out. We figured it out.
Tim: For sure. Good. Now, the other thing I loved about the show is like how amazing things were visually and, obviously, some of that is just inherent with the art of blowing glass. I also loved seeing the supplies, the tools, going in and having all of that glass available. How was it to work in that space? Did you have everything you wanted? How was it with supplies and having all of the glass that you wanted or needed?
Momo: I think a lot of it really worked out where we didn’t run out of glass out of the furnace or anything like that. There definitely were some struggles in the beginning of… those limitations on how many torches we could have in the room. We had to share. Typically we would have just your own setup right by your bench so you don’t have to worry about shuttling it around between two different people working because timing is essential. There was a lot of tools that were there and weren’t there, so that was something to adjust to.
I’m sure you notice that a lot of people were using newspapers to cradle the glass and manipulate it. Typically, or maybe not typically, but in most shops that I’ve been in, we have these wooden blocks. It’s like these little ladles that are saturated with water that you roll the glass in, so there were just the little things like that, but we’re all smart so we all adapted and we figured it out together. I had every culling that I wanted at my fingertips, so that was a real treat.
Tim: That’s awesome. Now, I also want to ask, how long were you there for the competition? Was everybody there together in a hotel? What are the logistics of bringing all of these artists in and having everybody work together like that?
Momo: It was interesting because when we first got there, or on our way there, we were told like, “You’re not allowed to post on social media, you’re not allowed to let anybody know that you’re going to Canada”, or whatever, and then you get there, they confiscate your phone, computer, everything and you’re in quarantine for four days…
Tim: Oh man.
Just because they don’t want you accidentally finding out who your competitors are and researching about them because they know the glass world is really small so it wouldn’t have been that hard to find out, especially through word of mouth and everybody’s excitement fueling that conversation.
After the four days being in quarantine, finally being able to meet each other, it was just kind of a weird start because that’s not how you normally get together with other glass people. Usually it’s a much more casual setting. Everybody goes out for drinks afterwards or something, but that wasn’t there and so I think it took a little while for all of us to kind of like warm up into the situation and just feel comfortable enough to open up. Eventually, being on a film set or I’m sure it’s like being on a movie set, there’s just a lot of waiting in between things, so we spent many hours just sitting in a basement together waiting for the audio crew or whatever to get ready. We definitely got to know each other.
Good, good. That’s cool. Now, also I wanted to ask, how much time you spent there? When they’re filming all of these challenges, was it day after day after day? Or was there some time in between the first and the second and the third challenge? What was the schedule like? Was it really compacted? Or was it spread out over a few weeks?
It was compact. The clock is ticking. You got to think like the camera and the space and all of that is being rented, so the longer it takes the more expensive it’ll be. There wasn’t a single day off. Well, actually there was one day off after recording the first episode because I think we all had to regroup, but aside from that there was no days off. From beginning to end was two months, and every episode is like about three days or so. Day one is meeting the guest judge, being announced what the challenge is going to be. Then, we break for lunch, and then later that evening, then we shoot for real. We go into the studio and actually make the thing and meet our assistants for the first time.
Day two is just like kind of looking back at everything that had happened the day before and doing interviews about all of that. Kind of doing reaction shots or, what do you think the judge is going to say? All of that, and then day three is cold working, which is once a piece is cold enough to handle, then cutting, grinding, doing last minute adjustments to it before putting it in the gallery. Then, at the end of that day, getting dressed up, doing like the gallery presentation, speaking about your piece in front of the judges, and then somebody gets eliminated and the cycle repeats.
Now, let me ask you this. On the show you have four or five hours that you get for the project. Is that accurate to what you actually got? How much of a time crunch is that? Did you feel rushed on everything that you needed to make?
Oh, yeah. Oh, definitely, because you want to maximize what you can do in that time, but also, you don’t want to push the limits and then not finish your piece either because there was no lead-in to it at the time. It was very much just when they say go and then when they say stop. I don’t think any of us were really testing that limit because when you’re rushing glass, that’s when glass breaks.
You can’t rush it, even though there was some rushing happening. There’s a limit. You don’t want to be running across the room. You don’t want to push on glass that’s too cold just because you’re eager. It was a little stressful there, but I tried to keep my calm and stay at my house that I know that I’m comfortable at so that I wouldn’t have to accidentally break my glass and start over.
For sure, and then you mentioned just a little about this, but I’m going to ask you. I guess the atmosphere with the other competitors, did you feel like it was basically supportive? Were people friendly? Or did it fall more on the competitive side?
I think majority of us were not even competitive. We just saw this golden opportunity to have this open love letter about glass, and so we just took that. It’s kind of ironic for me to say, but art is not a competition, it’s a conversation, so [inaudible 00:21:49] conversation with a bunch of creative, sensitive, expressive, emotional group of people when we’re put into these really strange constraints. I think for that reason it brought us together because it was a little bit of survival mode of trying to figure out how to advocate for what we want or need. I think we all got along.
That’s really cool, and then I also wanted to ask you I guess one question about what you created on the show. For me, your Kusama piece I thought, or Kusama-inspired piece I should say, was really, really cool. I love that one, but did you have a favorite that you put together or one that you were really proud of over the course of the competition?
I would say the Kusama piece just really hit a lot of points that I was really happy with. I would have picked a different form, obviously. I don’t personally care for an eraser necessarily, but I think I was happy with the execution. I would say my favorite piece process-wise, like making was really fun, was the exploding sushi one. I don’t know if you remember that [crosstalk 00:23:08]-
Oh, yes. Oh, I love that one.
That one was a lot of fun and it’s just like so visually pleasing. It’s food but it’s sparkly and it’s just…
That’s awesome. Cool. I need to let you get out of here, so again, thank you for your time, but I always like to close with advice for teachers that listen to this podcast, so [crosstalk 00:23:33] blowing glass isn’t something that you can teach in high school, or none that I know of anyway, but what do you think teachers can do to familiarize students with the medium? Maybe prepare them for doing it in the future? What can help the I guess kids appreciate the art form of blowing glass?
Definitely check out a local glass studio. Maybe take a field trip. You could plan, make an appointment with them and just take a tour. I have also hosted middle school and high school classes. It’s all possible, just field trips and funding, maybe afterschool activities. There’s often a lot of open house events at different studios, so maybe even just like letting the students know that so that they can go with their parents.
If there’s anything that people are looking for to do on campus like at the schools, there’s always mosaics. If there’s already a school mural, you can add to that. Fused glass classes, which are super low key, so like even middle school can handle that. Flameworking, which is a stationary torch and melting glass within that torch. It’s smaller scale, so again, might be easier to kind of digest and also to sell to parents.
That’s cool. Well, thank you for the advice, appreciate it, and then just last thing before we go, can you let people know where they can find you on Instagram, your website, whatever else if they’re looking for more of your work?
Oh yeah, absolutely. My website is momokoschafer.com. You can also find me on Instagram, @glassymomo. You can also find me on Facebook, that’s just Momoko Schafer, and then same thing with Patreon, Momoko Schafer. I’ll be putting up different documentaries about my journey as an artist, and then also probably making videos of Q&As and stuff like that. If you have any more questions, you can hit me up there.
That’s awesome. Cool. Well, again, thank you so much for your time. It’s been awesome to talk to you, and good luck in the future.
Thank you so much for having me. This was awesome.
Thank you so much to Momo for coming on. We will link to her Instagram and her website in the show notes, so make sure you go give her a follow, @glassymomo on Instagram and make sure you check out her website. If you haven’t watched Blown Away, go do that this week. I hope this interview didn’t spoil anything for you. I don’t think it did. We tried to stay away from taking the conversation in that direction. If you have watched Blown Away already, go ahead and watch it again.
Feel free to drop me an email and tell me what you think about the show, and most importantly, what you thought about the winner. Apparently, pretty controversial between the final two, but from my perspective, the judges absolutely made the correct decision, but just curious to know what everybody else thought about that. I would love to hear differing opinions if you have them.
Then, finally, and probably most importantly, introduce Blown Away to someone outside the art world. They’re going to appreciate it. They’re going to love it, and we want more people appreciating art, talking about art, going to see art in real life. Momo wants more people seeing her work and buying her work, and honestly, if we can use this show to get more people into galleries, into hot shops like she suggested, that is an amazing thing that we all know is going to be worthwhile.
Art Ed Radio is produced by The Art of Education with audio engineering from Michael Crocker, and sometimes Brandon Crocker, so thank you for filling in this week, Brandon. Thank you again to Momo Schafer. It was an awesome conversation today, and then one last reminder, if you are looking for that discount for the Winter Art Ed Now Conference, make sure you get back in your emails from the conference. That’s still going on for like two more days if you want to get the discount for the Winter Conference that’s coming up, so this is your last reminder. Go get that done in the next couple of days. Thank you for listening and we will talk to you next week.