Getting Ready For Blenko

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Preparing for a sampling (prototyping) visit to Blenko Glass in Milton, West Virginia is a lengthy but rewarding process. The amount of time involved in having ideas for the year; the amount of designs sketched and re-sketched far outweigh the number of designs that are eventually produced. For every idea produced there are probably 15 to 20 that are not. I have come to accept this proportion as normal. When I think of the source of my ideas as a bottomless coffee pot and look at enough sources for inspiration, and sit long enough drawing or making models, there are plenty of ideas for the coming year. It’s worked before, and it will work again.

Once I get 15 or so ideas together I send images of the drawings to the company for review. Most importantly,  the ideas are shared with master gaffer Randy Rider. It’s not long before Randy and I are on the phone; catching up on family news and fishing before discussing the pros and cons of making some of the designs. This is where it gets interesting.

Blenko has been working with designers as a central part of its operation since 1947. It’s a place born out of a tradition of European hand glass factories that dates back to the industrial revolution. Working with a designer is in the company’s DNA. One of the ways I know this is their attitude to trying things that seem initially difficult. They (and I mean everyone) expect the designer to stretch the glassmakers’ abilities and to challenge them to invent new skills or ways of making the designs. Time and time again I’ve seen the skilled workers at Blenko rise to the challenges I have brought them. Sometimes it’s a shape that requires the ingenuity of Daniel Chapman, master mold maker, other times it’s Randy Rider, or blower Perry Bays who have to think of new ways of working the glass in order to produce the imagined finished object. These guys and all the other workers at the factory are my heroes. They have dedicated their lives to solving problems – so that beautiful objects can be made. That’s a very honorable thing to do.

When I work with the folks at Blenko I take part in an age old dance where questions like “Can we…?” to and fro with answers like, “Maybe if…”. This is the way Tiffany, Lallique, and Gallé worked. It must have been like this in many potteries, weaving, metal-smithing, and furniture factories too. The industrial revolution was, according to John Ruskin, “The best and worst of times”. One of the good things it heralded was the possibility for an artist to work with a team of skilled makers, producing multiples of art and craft objects, often by hand. Many such products we cherish today, knowing that they could not have been made any other way.

Bertil Vallien, contemporary Swedish glass artist and designer for Kosta Boda, once told me he felt honored that his artwork and ideas were responsible for the employment of over 100 people. I feel that way too when I am at Blenko – honored and grateful to be part of something bigger and grander than me and my work – yet where me and my work are needed. It’s quite a special feeling. Now especially that there are no other hand glass factories like this left in the USA. As I often tell folks, “No one else gets to do what I do.”