New reality show pits 10 glass artists against each other and the clock to create works of art
Reality television competitions are always built on big talent, and big stakes.
But a new reality show debuting on Netflix, and starring Edmonton artist Leah Kudel, kicks it up a notch. In Blown Away, a 10-part series about glass-blowing, contestants work with molten lava (ouch) to create works of art, as well as everyday items.
The winner of the competition, which debuts Friday, July 12 for the streaming service’s 139 million viewers, gets a prize package worth $60,000, including a scholarship at the prestigious Corning Museum of Glass in upstate New York and a mound of cash.
Kudel, a glass artist with an art education degree from the University of Alberta and a Bachelor of Fine Art in Glass from the Alberta College of Art and Design, applied online for the opportunity to compete. While she can’t reveal the outcome of Blown Away, she was thrilled to take part, and to get to know the other glass artists.
“The great thing about the show is that there is a lot of creativity in it. It wasn’t just ‘who can make the best vase?’ because that’s not fun for anybody,” says Kudel, freshly back in Edmonton after a lengthy stint at a glass-blowing studio in New Zealand. “Everybody comes with their own tool kit of what they know how to do. Some are into sculpting, and others are into blown or solid work. That makes it interesting and diverse.”
Kudel, 35, is a contemporary artist, and a practical craftsperson. In the process of launching her own studio in Edmonton, Kudel has shows in Europe and Scandinavia under her belt. She also has a “functional design practice” working for companies that may need, say, a certain type of jar, or a chandelier.
Kudel loves working with fire, and the way glass behaves when it’s molten.
“It’s a very kinaesthetic art form. There’s lots of movement and you’re working with people and in teams. It’s exciting and immediate.”
In Blown Away, artists are given a task each week and judged by experts inside and outside of the field. The series’ executive producer, Matt Hornburg of Marblemedia in Toronto, says glass-blowing is the perfect medium for a reality television contest. It’s exciting, beautiful, sweaty and unpredictable.
“We’ve cast some great characters with different techniques and personalities, and we’re putting them in a pressure cooker with timed competition and the fragility of glass, and the heat and intensity of these furnaces,” says Hornburg.
For the series, which was filmed in the fall of 2018, Marblemedia assembled what ended up being the biggest ‘hot shop’ in North America at the time. Situated in an empty warehouse in Hamilton, the shop contained 10 furnaces (known as a ‘hot box’ or ‘glory hole’ in the business), leading to extreme temperatures during filming.
“There were a couple of close calls for heat stroke,” says Hornburg. “In the first week, it was a new hot shop and we had a late summer in Toronto and Hamilton and it was scorching. With 10 hot boxes, the air conditioning couldn’t keep up. In the first episode, they were dripping with authentic sweat.”
Every half-hour episode in the series starts with a challenge, which competitors have four to seven hours to complete. Episodes end with a dramatic moment that sees artists running with a piece of glass to a cooling system at the far end of the hot shop before the doors close. One of the 10 contestants is eliminated each week.
One challenge asks contestants to design a piece of glass inspired by food at the behest of a chef. Another focuses on pop-art, à la Andy Warhol, with glass-blowers creating an homage to an everyday object.
“Every week is something different and surprising, and each challenge is a window into a better understanding of the artists themselves, and what motivates and inspires them,” says Hornburg.
Glass-blowers are risk takers, says Kudel, and glass-blowing is the adrenaline sport of the art world.
“It is dangerous. You can get burned, you can hurt yourself. It looks easier than it is,” she says. “You don’t really realize how hot the environment is. Often people will open the furnace door and feel like they are standing in front of the sun.”
The series is both artful and exciting to watch. The artist blows the molten lava, which twirls like honey, into shapes through a tube with their mouths. The material expands and contracts; artists must keep heating it to avoid disaster. Things smash in a noisy and explosive spray at the worst possible moments.
“Glass will break, it’s what you do with it after that that matters,” says one artist in the trailer for Blown Away.
As Hornburg points out, that poignant moment speaks to the philosophy behind glass blowing.
“Yes, it’s about the end result, but there is a lot about the process and the journey that they have to think about…this really is a show about art.”
Hornburg notes that Kudel was cast because she brings a number of key elements to Blown Away.
“She was always pushing the artistic limits. Part of how people are evaluated on the show is for creative bravery and I always felt she was big on thinking and being more abstract, less literal in the interpretation,” he says. “That’s takes courage and confidence and she really brought that. I think she’ll inspire young artists and young women.”
Kudel is hosting a viewing party for Blown Away at the Alberta Craft Council in Edmonton (10186 106 St.) where she is also part of an exhibition called Coming Up Next. The party is Friday, July 12 at 6:30 p.m. Attendees will watch a couple of episodes and Kudel will talk about her experience, and her art. It’s free, but you must register with Eventbrite.
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