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Mountain Home Magazine

Blown Away

May 01, 2024 09:00AM ● By David Higgins

Spring has sprung at the Poźniak residence, and things are a little hectic. Janusz and Michelle, both hot glass professionals, are scrambling to get their studio and furnace up and running. The driveway is crammed with lumber, extensions cords, rolls of insulation, and shop tools. A dump truck is parked axle-deep in a bed of daffodils—luckily, it’s only a child’s Tonka toy. Two free-range little boys chase squirrels through the greening yard as a staple gun hammers nearby like a dystopian woodpecker. The snow has finally melted, the puddles are drying up, and the scraggly trees and shrubs are showing signs of life. There is work to be done…lots of work. It’s late March 2024 on Spencer Hill, and Janusz Poźniak, runner-up and fan favorite from Season 1 of the hot glass reality show Blown Away, has moved with his wife, Michelle, from Seattle to a lovely property in Corning to raise their two young children and grow their arts and crafts business.

Janusz (ya-NOOSH) is British by birth and still retains a Lancashire accent. His father was a post-war refugee from Poland who married an English lass and settled near Liverpool. Though neither of his parents were artistically minded, they gave Janusz and his older brother the freedom to pursue their own interests. For Janusz, that led to art school. He originally thought of becoming a ceramics or jewelry major—“the only glassblowing I had seen was in a documentary about making soda bottles and lightbulbs”—but on a visit to Birmingham University, he stumbled upon a small, closed-down glass studio with dusty old student work on the shelves. Intrigued, he did some research and eventually matriculated at West Surrey Art College, one of only three schools in the UK with art glass programs.

Armed with a degree, Janusz then served a three-year assistantship at a hotshop in London, but reached something of a dead end. “In England in the early ’90s, there were few options to take if you wanted to continue your training and get better at glassblowing,” he says. “I decided the best choice for me was to look abroad.” Venice, recognized since 1291 as the traditional center of the glassblowing world, was still mostly a closed society then, so the road to mastery led to either Sweden or the USA, which was just beginning its climb to art-glass eminence. In 1991, Janusz, at age twenty-five, cold-called Seattle’s Dale Chihuly, now famed for bringing blown glass into the realm of large-scale sculpture. “I left this stammering message on the answering machine,” remembers Janusz, and a couple weeks later, after mailing over some sample images and a resume, “I was accepted! I packed one little backpack and headed over to America.” He has been in the states ever since.

Semi-Sleepless in Seattle

Janusz spent years at the furnace with the very best: first with Chihuly, and later with artists like Lino Tagliapietra, Sonja Blomdahl, Josiah McElheny, Dick Marquis, and Preston Singletary. But his closest relationship was with Seattle’s renowned Dante Marioni, for whom he served as top assistant for three decades. Along the way, Janusz patiently mastered reticello (“little net”), a difficult sixteenth century Venetian technique where filigree spirals nest inside a clear vessel, creating a fishnet pattern. When properly done, tiny bubbles are centered in each diamond with a regularity that once must have seemed like witchcraft. It is a triumph of the glassblower’s art, and the technique has been prized by kings, queens, and aficionados for centuries. Though he is expert in several different sculptural and functional styles, Janusz’s critically acclaimed reticello pieces, for sale on his website, are essentially what pays the bills. Tina Oldknow, a foremost glass expert and curator emerita of the Corning Museum of Glass, wrote of Janusz’s piece, Sanctuary, that “the authority of this work lies in its technical sleight of hand and in the obscurity of its meaning. …It appears as a mystical object of power.”

Michelle, or Miishka, also has a degree in glass arts but has since branched out in other craft media. Janusz met Michelle in 2007 at a class session at the world-famous Pilchuck Glass School near Seattle, founded by Chihuly. Janusz, working there as a gaffer (glass blower), was present at the traditional meet-and-greet when the kitchen door swung open and Michelle appeared, framed in the doorway. She had just driven over thirteen hours from Calgary on short notice to pinch-hit as a teaching assistant, and was road-lagged and scruffy. Yet Janusz took one look and, as the old usage has it, was smitten. “The first time I saw her, I knew I was in trouble. And the rest is history.”

But their romance did not come easy. Byzantine immigration regulations and the suffocating international bureaucracy (Canada, America, England) interposed between them. The obstacles were like something out of a TV rom-com, except that there was no guarantee of a happy ending; it was two years of agony and frustration. “But we survived the storm,” recalls Janusz, and doubtless it made their relationship stronger.

Michelle hails from Alberta, a Canadian province above Montana. She was born way up north in Fairview, and grew up near Edmonton, in the steppe-like prairie known vaguely to Yankees for its wheat harvests, Arctic winters, and a certain hockey player named Gretzky. Says Michelle, “I’ve always been crafty, so it was an obvious choice for me to attend the Alberta University of the Arts in Calgary.” While majoring in studio glass, she learned to make leather handbags as a side project, and that eventually grew to become her full-time job. Partly in honor of her Eastern European heritage, she also practices the Ukrainian art of pysanky as learned from her mother and baba (grandmother). Pysanky is an intricate egg-dyeing technique using wax resist and natural pigments; it’s so much a part of Canadian culture that there’s a giant decorated egg, almost four stories high, displayed in a public square just east of her hometown.

“For the last ten years, I’ve taught a pysanky class once a year a few weeks before Easter,” Michelle says. “When things settle down, I hope to continue this in the new studio.”

Michelle and Janusz married in 2011 and settled in his small apartment in Seattle, the “Emerald City” (or, as some new arrivals prefer, “Rain City”). Their first son, named Attila in honor of Miishka’s Hungarian papa, arrived in 2016. But the joy of the newborn came with some financial reckoning. To pay the bills, Janusz was working as an assistant gaffer, crafting work for hire. He’d built six hotshops for clients, but had never had one of his own. Michelle, too, had little time to spare for her own work. Unfortunately, the Poźniaks found it harder and harder to stay afloat. The gallery system was unrewarding, studio costs were daunting, and Seattle was becoming a very expensive place to live. Despite decades of hard work, “there was a downward spiral in our income level and my career path,” remembers Janusz, “and being both self-employed, there’s no guaranteed paycheck, and if your work’s not selling and the market is collapsing, there’s not much you can do about it but hope.” They needed a stable future. Something had to change. And it did.

Blown Away

The glass world is a small one, but a wide one: artists and teachers the world over all know each other through the grapevine or personally, via travel to seminars and workshops (Janusz himself has been globe-trotting for decades—Turkey, Australia, Scotland, Finland, the Maldives, and Japan). And through that grapevine, in 2018, came word that the content-creator Netflix was looking for glassblowers to star in a new reality series. It was to be called Blown Away. “Ten master artists turn up the heat in glassblowing sculpture challenges for the chance to win $60,000 in prizes and the title of champion,” was the Netflix synopsis.

At first, Janusz was not interested. “Glass is a collaborative process, and I didn’t like the idea of it as a competition,” he says. But Michelle recognized the opportunities the show could provide.

“I talked him into it!” she exclaims. The last two or three years had been tough for them, but now there was an unforeseen chance to gain an audience and maybe even win some cash. Janusz was one of ten who made the original roster. The group was sequestered for six weeks—the duration of the show—at a purpose-built hotshop in Hamilton, Ontario. For ten nerve-racking episodes, each artist’s work (based on a weekly theme) was assessed by a panel of judges, and the loser was sent home.

“[Blown Away] was challenging on more levels than I expected,” Janusz told the Seattle Times; “to 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.” Perhaps because glassblowing relies so heavily on intricate teamwork, the other contestants were mostly a congenial and supportive bunch. Even so, he missed his family dearly, especially since little Attila was just beginning to speak in complete sentences.

Show feedback on social media ratified him as an immediate viewer favorite. He possessed obvious skill, he was articulate and gracious, and he was relatable to experts and amateurs alike. “I’m just shocked at how many people liked me. I’m still humbled beyond belief,” Janusz marvels. From the very first episode, he spoke eloquently of his family as the motivating factor for both his aesthetics and his desire to win, and that mindset (“if something could be perfect, other than my wife, it would be my son”) resonated with many viewers. His first piece for the show, Shelter, externalized both his role as a protector of his son and also the inevitable and bittersweet separation as the small child grows into adulthood. He won three of the ten weekly challenges before falling just short (among much controversy) in the climactic episode.

Blown Away has now spanned four seasons and a Christmas special; it proved to be a ratings and critical success, and is available on Netflix. “Some in our community were worried that the show would cheapen their craft, but everybody is just elated by the exposure,” said Janusz in the Seattle Times. “The small glass shops everywhere have seen a huge upswing of purchases and sign-ups for classes. [Blown Away] has been nothing but positive.” Corning artists loom large on the show; contestants with Crystal City roots include Annette Sheppard, Cat Burns, Claire Kelly, Brenna Baker, and Eric Meek, the judge. As CMoG founder Tom Buechner once said, “Corning is incredible. …Every time you go to Wegmans, you could be sharing an aisle with one of the world’s greatest glass artists, and you wouldn’t even know it.”

Who Is That in the Produce Aisle, Anyway?

As Michelle had hoped, the exposure on Blown Away was providential. For months afterward, the Poźniaks spent four hours a day answering internet queries about the show from thousands of people all across the world. Several times, he was recognized by strangers on the street or at his local coffee shop. “The Blown Away fans were an amazing support base,” Janusz says. Michelle led the way in leveraging that goodwill on a shared dream they had been mulling for years: a bespoke design firm. To be called Hohm-meyd, it would utilize a network of local artisans to produce leather goods, candles, handbags, soaps, and functional housewares. Its mission statement is to unite a guild of makers under the core values of community, sustainability, and ethics. Michelle spent countless hours mastering the Kickstarter app, and she was “basically the machine that got [Hohm-meyd] going and finished,” notes Janusz.

Though their financial outlook had brightened, when Olek (Polish for “Alex”) came along in 2020, the Poźniaks had to confront a growing reality. Seattle, for reasons of cost, congestion, and other urban ills—all worsened by the pandemic—was becoming a less desirable place to raise a family. According to Michelle, “it required planning aforethought just to take the boys outside in the stroller to play.” And living for thirty years in an increasingly cramped apartment (only 900 square feet) was losing its limited charms. It was time to move. But what location offered world-class professional resources while also being a healthy place for children to grow up? One small city seemed to fit the bill.

Despite passing through the Crystal City several times, Janusz wasn’t all that familiar with it.

“I had been to Corning in a purely professional role for several glass museum events, but I hadn’t seen much of it other than my hotel and a few restaurants on Market Street,” he says. Michelle had been to Corning only once, in 2009, “but I remembered it as a nice little town.” One day in early 2023, she trawled through the real estate site Zillow and discovered a splendid woodland homestead on Spencer Hill at a price they could barely) manage. It had ponds, an outbuilding that could be remodeled into a studio, and a house suitable for a rambunctious family. While visiting a friend in New York City, Janusz took a long bus ride upstate to have a look…and they pounced.

“This move was so quick,” marvels Janusz, who describes the property as “perfect beyond words—amazing.” Michelle was succinct: “The stars aligned! Comparatively, in Seattle, we would have gotten a townhouse with a tiny yard and no place for our business.”

They soon discovered that the architecturally distinctive property, built in 1973, had been the home of Jamie Houghton, former CEO of Corning Incorporated, and whose family had founded not just the Glass Works but CMoG as well. As Janusz observes, “The Houghtons meant so much in the glass world. It’s an honor to raise our kids where they once raised theirs.” Unfortunately, the house had passed through several owners in the last decade and had suffered some neglect. The living quarters were mostly intact, but the grounds were a mess. Hard frosts and hungry deer took their toll on the trees and plantings, and it will take many years and lots of TLC to restore them. Luckily, the new owners are used to manual labor, they’re good at building things, and they’re in it for the long haul. Yet even in dull, drab March, the grounds are charming. Come a midsummer evening with fireflies winking around the pond, it will be positively magical.

After an epic nine-day cross-country journey in two crammed vehicles and a jury-rigged trailer, the Poźniaks arrived in Corning for good in September 2023, in time for the new school year. Leaving Seattle and the friendships forged over thirty years was “truly bittersweet,” says Janusz, but even amid the controlled chaos of the move, life is good on Spencer Hill. Hohm-meyd is on hiatus until the Poźniaks can finish the new studio and rebuild their inventory; they hope to be blowing glass this spring. They are delighted at the small-town friendliness of their new neighbors. The boys love their schools, and the wooded property is ideal for building forts and digging for buried treasure. Attila has already shown aptitude in the hotshop.

“If he stays interested, he’s going to be good!” says his dad. And Olek, at four, is a budding ninja and thinks the Bills are pretty cool. But is there anything the Poźniaks don’t like about life in the Finger Lakes? Janusz doesn’t hesitate.

“Ticks!” he shudders. “How on earth do you deal with them?” (We all can relate.)

Janusz and Michelle, once settled, look forward to being familiar faces in their new community—you may even find yourself sharing an aisle with them at Wegmans! Their work will soon be available once again at hohm-meyd.com and januszpozniak.com, and they’re on Facebook and Instagram as well. They will host an open house in the fall, closer to the holidays. Until then, they invite the public to follow their progress via social media.

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