It’s a Hot, Sweaty and Machismo Driven World: Becoming a Woman in the Glassblowing Community
Glassblowing is and always has been a male dominated world. I thought this was something special to the U.S. before traveling abroad as a glassblower for the first time. As a fulltime artist traveling overseas, the ocean felt a little brighter below the plane and the horizon a little broader from the windows. I was headed to Murano, Italy. I was elated! A boat ride of fifteen minutes from Venice’s main island, Murano has been an established glassblowing community since the late 13th century. It grew as a leading glass producer in Europe by the Renaissance,
specializing in beads and mirrors. The technical quality and renown of Venetian glass became a valuable export for the then city-state of Venice. Legend has it that during medieval times glassblowers were actually forced to spend their whole lives on the island. If they escaped, the state would hunt them down and chop off if their hands, for fear they would teach apprentices Venetian secrets. Murano is still recognized as the glassblowing Mecca of Europe.
It is every glassblower’s dream to make that sacred trip. I had created fairytales about Murano with visions of dancing artists and sparkling chandeliers. Murano was a symbol for me. Not receiving the intrinsic respect artisans seem to have across the pond, nor the title “journeywoman,” I was ready for my Venetian debut. When I had the chance to go, my bags were packed and I hopped on a plane. Venice was everything I had hoped, cathedrals hovering over a crystal blue skies and opera singers echoing in the streets and gondolas tethered loosely to posts Mozart must have leaned on… heaven on earth. When I made my way to Murano, I could have sailed on angels’ wings before being brought down by a metaphorical “thud.”
I stepped off the boat amid barges with oxygen tanks and the smell of sea salt. The air was thick in humidity and damp tourists. Most of the big studios close for the summer because of the heat, but the token few that stay open make a killing as foreigners from all over the world flock there for day trips to see the ancient art in action. I made my way through the crowds to meet a few of the famed glassblowers of Murano. They welcomed me into their brotherhood, even jovially pulling out trinkets of scrap and demonstrating in swooping gestures how things were made. (Allow me a second to acknowledge: Italian men, make no mistake thinking it an understatement, really enjoy women… and, I felt that had some, if not a lot to do with their magnanimity.) As kind as they were, I confused them and their sense of balance by me being glassblower. Honestly, they were amazed that I was a glassblower with breasts, even over being an American glassblower… a commodity in itself. It was then I noticed that the whole island, crammed with glass kiosks and lampworkers in storefronts, had not one single female glassblower. The women of Murano seemed banished behind cash registers and sales counters. Europe was even more entrenched in machismo than the states.
In the U.S. I had been given a chance to learn glass, but lacked the given respect from my peers that comes so easy for guys. In Europe I had an automatic respect for being a female glassblower, but would have never gotten a chance at an apprenticeship. Lesson learned.
There is a southern adage every lady learns: Southern women don’t sweat; they glisten. I sweat! The things I make may be pretty, but being behind a torch day in and day out is not. I get heat rash on my face, burns catch my arms at times and my nails have not seen polish in years. It takes a very special gal to be part of my sisterhood. I like to use the word “vocation.” The Latin root is “vocare,” meaning to call; that is the only way I can describe what it is to be a glassblower. Glass, fire and art call an individual.
In an era where people look for jobs or try to build career treks, this type of calling is difficult to explain. Then, to describe what it is to be called as a female glassblower gets even harder to translate. I have seen and heard it all. I have listened to countless jokes about blowing for a living. I have dealt with countless men thinking they are trying to be nice by starting a sentence, “Let me help you with that, little lady…” All these things are usually said in good humor, and never misogynistic. It is not that I don’t appreciate the help nor the generosity; it is the vernacular, the misunderstood didactic that gets passed down from generation to generation. At the same time, I feel the constant struggle between the classical ideals of femininity and the pride of being a strong, independent woman. There is something to be said about a gal that handles the most delicate of art forms one moment and get grease-covered knuckles changing a propane tank the next. It’s all in a day’s work; I laugh at it, laugh a lot.
I am enlightened by the many new definitions of womanhood I have gleaned in my becoming a female glassblower. I would not change a thing for the experiences I have had in my life and in my career. As a summation, I quote the fortune cookie I opened just the other day: If you work hard, good things will inevitably happen. To that, I have but one addendum: Amen.