Michelle Madge, 24, is a professional glassblower who came to New York City two years ago from Cincinnati, Ohio via University of the Arts in Philadelphia. She teaches her craft at 160 Glass Studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Gothamist met Michelle earlier this week during a desperate, crazed but ultimately failed attempt to escape the brutal mid-July heatwave that has descended upon fair but stifled Gotham. Fascinated by what would drive seemingly sane people to voluntarily proximate themselves in the vicinity of temperatures nearing 2000 degrees, we couldn't help but stick around and suffer the heat to find out more.
Just curious, but that big red furnace fire thing. What’s that called?
It’s called a Glory Hole. That’s where you reheat the glass.
How hot do those get?
About 1900 degrees.
Wow. What would happen if, I don’t know, if I just, like, stuck my arm into one of those things?
It would melt. A little bit of bone, maybe some skin. I stuck a bagel into one of those once, thinking I could toast it. No, it just charred.
Just curious here, but what are some of your least favorite things about glassblowing?
Getting burnt. That’s one thing. Every now and then you make a mistake. I’ve had glass fall on my arm. It bubbled up, probably a third degree burn. On my other upper arm I touched hot metal, this metal shelf inside the box where you put the glass away, and that’s 900 degrees, and my skin stuck to it. I had to pull it off.
Okay, getting burnt, that’s one thing. Anything else?
Summer. Summer is my #1 most hated thing. I hate blowing glass in the summer. I don’t hate it, you can’t hate it, but it’s just miserable. The shop is like 120 degrees.
How do you deal with it?
Gallons and gallons of water.
Any other least favorite things?
Always looking like a grub. I see all these cute people going to their jobs and I look like a mess. It goes one with the job, but I’m always dirty.
So how about the upside of glassblowing?
It’s fast. You can never put it down. There’s constant movement, so it’s kind of like dancing. It’s very physical. Also, it’s instant gratification.
However long you work on it, once you put it away, it’s basically finished. It’s done the next day. It’s not like ceramics where you let it dry, have to fire it five times or whatever. So that’s cool. Another thing is that you can make anything you want. It’s not limited to vessels. It’s not limited to anything. You can make any crazy shape, any sculpture. Solid. Blown. Textured. Anything.
So is there an artistic element in it for you?
Yeah. I do a lot of sculpture. I do a lot of vessel work as well. But I carve it if I make vessels because it gives it a different, liquid, element than just blown.
Basically you can work with the glass cold. Like if you took a glass from a dollar store and it’s already in a solid form, you can take it and create any form you want. You can manipulate it cold as well as hot, as opposed to blown glass which has to be hot.
That artistic element you mentioned. Ever exhibited?
I sell in Soho on the weekends. I just set up there.
Do you sell functional pieces or artistic pieces?
Did the craft lead you to the artistic, or did the artistic lead you to the craft?
The artistic came first. I started off painting, but I don’t work really well 2-dimensionally so I started ceramics, and the school that I went to, University of the Arts in Philadelphia, had a glassblowing facility. It was a really dumpy little shop and we’d just mess around and do weird stuff.
So, do you still dabble in other forms of art or is glass your major medium?
Glass is my major medium really. I mean I sew sometimes. But for the most part it’s all I really work in.
You’re a teacher and you’ve got a class. What’s the one thing you tell your students “No, don’t do that!”
First, I don’t say that. But I tell everyone to relax. The reason why a bunch of potheads blow glass is not only because they can make bongs but… it’s very relaxing. You have to be really in control of your body to be in control of the glass. Really tense people, who are always fighting with something, they… well, it’s like honey. You have to flow with it. So the tense people never get it right.
So that’s the Zen of glassblowing, eh? Blow with it… Any common mistakes your students make over and over again?
Not getting it hot enough. People think the glass is hot, but it’s really not.
How do you know when it’s hot enough?
When it moves. Quickly. But people get nervous when it moves too quickly. So then, once it starts to move a little bit, they think it’s hot. They struggle with that.
I was watching you teach for a little bit earlier and I heard you saying “Do it backwards.” Is that a standard piece of glassblowing advice?
Well, you do make glass kind of backwards. With a building you work from the bottom to the top. But in glassblowing you work from the top down. You start with the lip, that’s the opening on top of a piece, and you work down to the base. Also there’s an inside and an outside, two different skins. You build it up from the inside and then you go back on the ouside.
Who's your typical student?
It ranges. From 21 year olds to 50 year olds. But usually 20-somethings interested in checking it out, seeing what it's all about.
What are some of the essential tools of the glassblowing trade?
Well, you need a facillity. A furnace, like a big pot of melted glass…
The Glory Hole?
No, the Glory Hole is where you reheat the glass and the furnace is where you keep it all. So the furnace, that’s where the glass is already melted. You don’t necessarily need the Glory Hole. That’s just been created the last 50 years or so for studio work. Back in the day they used to reheat out of the furnace so you only needed one source of fire. And you need pipes. And to shape the glass, to cut it, pinch at it, you need tools like jacks, diamond shears, tweezers… and they’re all metal and it’s like Edward Scissorhands when you work with the glass. You can’t touch it.
Is there any kind of macho associated with glassblowing?
Are you kidding me? The Glory Hole? You stick the pipe into the Glory Hole to get it nice and hot and you “jack off” the glass with jacks. I think it’s hilarious.
Ever seen or done anything really dumb?
It’s back to the macho thing. You can lick your hand and slap the glass, just by grazing it, you’re not even touching it. It’s the steam on your hands that’s touching the glass, so we would mess around and slap the glass off of each other’s pipes or, you know, just really stupid stuff like that.
Do you tell your students “No, don’t do that!”?
Oh, I don’t show them that. We do it just in private just with professionals. Another dumb thing is, you swing something to make it longer, using gravity, and sometimes you swing it and it flies across the room.
Ever done that?
Oh, yeah. I felt pretty stupid.
Is that a glassblowing faux pas?
No, it just happens when you’re not paying attention.
Is there, like, a glassblowers code of honour?
Kind of. There’s kind of like this weird rule, if you can’t make it good, make it big. If you can’t make it big, make it blue. For some reason people just like ugly blue glass.
How do you tell the difference between good glass and bad glass?
Well, there’s glassblowers’ glass and consumer glass. Consumers like foofy, swirly, ugly, weird stuff. No skill involved. But glassblowers like really refined shapes. Really thin, elegant work. It’s really all about the skill level that we look for in someone else. It’s weird, consumers just don’t care. They’re like, “It’s so pretty!” or “Ooh, it’s shiny!” A lot of people have no clue what’s really good or really bad.
And do professional glassblowers scoff at that?
We scoff at “hand blown” stuff that you see in place like Crate & Barrel, like “Poland Hand Blown!.” It’s not made by an artist. It’s made by a big factory of people. It’s basically assembly line and they claim it’s hand blown because someone actually touched it. But there’s no attachment to the work. Noone has signed the work.
Earlier you mentioned your students taking your glassblowing classes just to "check it out." What does Michelle do when she just wants to check something out?
I take a class. I've wanted to make rocking chairs, but I haven't done that yet. And I like metal, it's very similar to glass because it's very physical and there are sparks and you heat it up and you hammer it...
Different medium, same job?
Yeah, I ride my bike like it's my job too. And that's also physical.
Fave place to ride?
I like to ride over the Williamsburg Bridge and then from there just go visit my friends wherever they are.
I don't know. To be happy and chill and to not worry about stupid stuff like money.
Do you see yourself still blowing glass 20 years from now?
I don't know. It's very physical, so when you are older it can't be easy. But it's something I see myself doing for a while. Maybe I'll own a farm later.