Glass MastersMay 01, 2023 09:00AM ● By Jan Bridgeford-Smith
Glass is the great equalizer, reflecting the image of whomever stands before a mirror without regard to rank or fame. It’s found in the equipment of Michelin-starred restaurants and local soup kitchens. Glass moves data across oceans, continents, and the heavens, thereby connecting disparate people and places, paying no attention to borders or politics. Our modern life is suffused with, dependent on, and decorated by glass. And when it comes to celebrating this marvel, few places in the world rival the small city of Corning, New York.
Situated along the banks of the Chemung River, birthplace of Corning Glass Works, now the global enterprise Corning, Inc., the town is also home to the world-renowned Corning Museum of Glass. Established in 1951 by Corning Glass Works in honor of the company’s 100th anniversary, the nonprofit museum is dedicated to the display, celebration, and promotion of glass, glorious glass.
But here’s the challenge. The greatest contributions of glass to humankind can only be realized when a fiery amalgam of sand, lime, and sodium carbonate, the material’s origin stew, is patiently taken through a process. From delicate beads to fiber optic threads to breathtaking sculptures, glass is a human endeavor requiring a skilled hand, a patient attitude, laser focus, and an intimate knowledge of how the substance moves, reacts, and responds to the demands placed on it. To work well with glass, you must learn how to dance with it, seamlessly, as if you and the medium are one.
In 1995, the museum addressed this challenge by hiring Amy Schwartz and William “Bill” Gudenrath, a husband-and-wife team from Manhattan, to start the Studio. This state-of-the-art teaching facility for glassblowing and cold-working opened in 1996.
After more than twenty years of active leadership, cofounders Amy and Bill remain the guiding forces behind the Studio’s mission to be “a leader in the worldwide glass community and a creative resource for the region.” A 2015 collaborative venture by the Chihuly Garden and Glass, a museum in Seattle, Washington, showcasing Dale Chihuly’s studio glass, and the Glass Art Society, an international nonprofit membership organization, also based in Seattle, produced a comprehensive study entitled The Landscape of Glass Art in America. The report noted that “organizations like...the Corning Museum of Glass in upstate New York have become pillars in the glass art community, making their regions central to the studio movement in the United States.”
Love at First Glass
Amy exudes warmth and a quiet joy thanks to an infectious smile and dark, twinkling eyes. Before coming to Corning, Amy worked in the computer field near Wall Street and blew glass as a hobby. “My first glassblowing teacher pointed Bill out to me and said, ‘if you really want to learn glassblowing, that’s the man you should take a class from,’” she says. “At that moment, Bill, in his red jacket with his red backpack, rode into the studio on his red bicycle, and I swear he had a red aura. He made one piece at the furnace and then left. Months later, I signed up for a class with him.” They started dating several months after the class.
Amy was three months pregnant with their first child when the couple relocated to Corning in the summer of 1995. “In March of ’96,” she says, “we had our first child, and in May of ’96 we had what I affectionately called ‘our second child,’ which was the Studio.”
Tall, with an easy grin and a gentle Southern accent, Bill is a master glass artist, an expert’s expert—glassblower, scholar, lecturer, teacher, and author. Invited by the museum to design, build, program, and lead the Studio, Bill is arguably a rock star in the international glass community. Today, he serves as resident advisor of the Studio, a fellow of the museum, and a hugely popular instructor/mentor who is requested far beyond his availability.
It’s easy to understand his reputation. He moves around a hot glass studio with the ease and comfort of a concert musician on a familiar stage, all the time narrating the process while giving tips and tricks. For Bill, the siren call of glass happened thanks to a chemistry set he received at age eleven. But his creative curiosity also led him into music, a pursuit that eventually led to a master of music degree from Julliard. His instrument of choice? Harpsichord. The earliest references to the instrument appear in the fifteenth century and the oldest surviving harpsichords date from the 1500s. It’s not surprising then, given his love for an antiquated instrument, that Bill’s fascination with bygone objects extends to his career in glass.
Recognized for decades as one of the foremost authorities on glassmaking techniques of the ancient world through the eighteenth century, Bill spent years as a sleuth identifying historical hot glassworking techniques. After the 2016 release of his first opus, The Techniques of Renaissance Venetian Glassworking, published on the CMoG website, the Associated Press dubbed him the “glass detective.” But in addition to a slick moniker and creation of a comprehensive, widely consulted resource, Bill mastered the methods and made them his own. His pieces, sold in galleries, museums, and exclusive shops around the world, are stunning examples of how ancient techniques, when correctly applied, produce a modern piece of art that happens to be a functional object. What’s more, he creates intricately decorated Venetian glass pieces solo, when most experts work in pairs.
The couple work together to create “a space that is accessible, welcoming, and supportive for people working with glass at every stage,” says Amy. “The Studio’s programs support absolute beginners through to internationally recognized artists.” It’s an endeavor that requires major investments of money, imagination, and expertise. Though Amy was recruited to nurture and develop the project, she’s also been tasked with other responsibilities along the way. For over a decade, from 2002 to 2014, she directed education programs for the entire museum, including K-12 school highlights and curriculum-based tours, and the museum’s docent, Scout, Junior Curator, Explainer, and public education programs. From personal experience and decades of observation, she knows a glass-as-art experience at any age can kickstart a love affair with this magical material.
Today, Amy’s full-time focus is on the Studio. Her position as director resembles that of a Broadway producer combined with stage manager, theater director, concierge, and nonstop hostess for an operation that welcomes thousands of visitors each year, all of them eager for an artistic encounter with glass. She is devoted to ensuring that everyone who participates at the Studio, as an instructor, artist-in-residence, seasoned gaffer, or glass art novice, has “a five-star experience in a warm and friendly environment.” It’s a monumental show of hospitality coupled with nonstop attention to endless details. Her portfolio of responsibilities includes curricula design, instructor selection for year-round classes, student selection, scholarship awards, and oversight of the residency, walk-in, group, and school programs. These are just the highlights.
An accomplished artisan in her own right, Amy also carves out slivers of time to maintain “a glassblowing practice as a designer and maker of functional and decorative objects.” She credits southwestern Native American pottery, Venetian blown glass, and concepts popularized through the Bauhaus movement with inspiring and influencing her work. In addition to creating items that exemplify elegance through form, her pieces are distinctive for their depth and richness of color.
Raising Their Second Child
Amy and Bill are zealous advocates and compelling ambassadors on behalf of the glass community. They’ve witnessed the life-changing magic that can happen when an individual is introduced to the wondrous properties of hot glass. Learning about glass, Bill says, “is not a theoretical thing. It’s not something you just talk about. It’s really entirely hands-on and practical.” It’s a medium that requires special equipment and focused attention to mastering not only the techniques but also the order in which the procedures occur. And because of the demand imposed by the material, “to reinvent the wheel” on your own, Bill observes, “would take a lifetime.” “Glassblowing is always learned by doing,” Amy adds. “You watch and you practice. We used to pass around VHS tapes of glass masters at work, and we would watch them over and over. These days we have the internet and YouTube, and everything is there.”
Sharing knowledge, know-how, and unbridled enthusiasm is the purpose that guides the Studio. These ideals are embodied in every aspect of the facility's operations. It’s evident in the work areas that have been outfitted with top-tier equipment and all the tools necessary so that artists and students are able to take risks and make discoveries. Programs and visitor experiences are tailored for people of all skill levels to forge and deepen their understanding of glass.
Workspaces are outfitted such that they can provide opportunities to do furnace working, flameworking, kiln working, cold working, and more. Resident artists and students of the Studio have access to the world’s largest museum collection of glass—numbering 50,000 objects—as well as the prestigious Rakow Research Library. Working glass artists, whether newly acquainted with the medium or well-established in the glass community, can apply for a fully supported residency at the Studio.
The facility also maintains a year-round schedule of classes, from introductory to master’s level and ranging from one-day workshops to intensive, on-site, two-week sessions. Cognizant that cost can be a barrier to participation, the Studio awards 100 scholarships per year. The Studio also shows its commitment to fostering accessibility for glass artists by making their workspaces available.
What the popular Great British Baking Show did for cake art, the Netflix series Blown Away did for glass working: put it squarely into our cultural zeitgeist. The show is a competition among artists to create marvelous concoctions in glass. The grand prize for the season’s winner is a residency at Corning, and this growing attention translates into bourgeoning requests for classes, artist-in-residence placements, and access to studio facilities. The museum’s response to this growing demand has been an ambitious campaign, StudioNext, affirming the organization’s commitment to remaining a global leader in glass artistry and glass innovation with an emphasis on nurturing and promoting “unbridled creative expression and push[ing] the conceptual and technical boundaries of art in glass forward...” This endeavor is about expansion writ large. In addition to more space, the campaign will impact these four key areas: revolutionizing contemporary art in glass, inspiring the artist in everyone, creating transformative opportunities, and invigorating the region.
Space is needed to achieve these goals. The Studio’s physical plant will be upped by 36,000 square feet, taking the facility from 24,000 to 60,000 square feet. This hefty increase in square footage will allow for development of the first large-scale kiln casting facility in North America, which will feature an impressive array of equipment such as six large kilns, a 500-pound gravity-feed casting furnace, and a 1,000-pound overhead crane system. Mold-making and cold-working rooms are included in this configuration, and cutting-edge technologies such as computer numerical control, or CNC, machines—they’re automated, pre-programmed, machining tools—3D printers, neon-making facilities, and wood and metal shops are also part of the plan. This is the basis for revolutionizing contemporary art in glass.
The Studio’s goal of inspiring the artist in everyone can be seen in plans to boost the number of available artist-in-resident placements, introducing an intensive two-year training program for aspiring artists, and enlarging the space used for the Make Your Own Glass component, considered a “keystone experience” for visitors. Creating transformative initiatives include expanding opportunities for diverse voices in glass to be showcased.
For nearly a quarter century, Bill and Amy’s work to advance the Studio’s reach to an ever-greater audience has been guided by this principal: show, don’t tell. The StudioNext campaign is one more crucial move toward furthering the facility’s leadership in the global glass community, and securing its reputation for providing comprehensive, accessible, and technologically advanced resources dedicated to glass artistry and innovation. For Amy and Bill, who are intimately engaged with this undertaking, the StudioNext campaign is another (giant) step on a journey that started long ago.
When Anton Chekhov wrote, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass,” it was a reminder to aspiring writers that drawing a reader into a story is best accomplished through offering sensory details and actions, rather than exposition. It’s a technique that primes the reader’s imagination allowing them to “see” the story as if they were in it along with the characters. This is the literary equivalent of the guiding philosophy Amy and Bill share when it comes to the Studio—glass is a sensory experience that can inspire the hidden artist lurking in every soul.
The expansion of the Studio is also an expansion of their legacy. “In the end,” says Amy, “we hope we will have contributed to and grown the wonderful glass community.”
At the conclusion of a short video on the CMoG website, Bill states that working with glass is “exotic and difficult. It challenges people. It brings the best out in people...It brings all socio-economic classes together. It brings all ages together...and that’s a wonderful thing to see.” Amy adds that people who come to the Studio “never stop talking about glass. I mean, we hang out at night and what we talk about is glass and people are very excited to do that and it, it becomes a life. And that’s really what glass is.”