A light in the dark
A diverse offering of services and activities is keeping Blowfish Glass’ Bethany Wood and Elliot Walker busy and in buoyant mood. Linda Banks spoke to marketing and content coordinator Leanne O’Connor about how the business is developing
You offer a mix of glassblowing services for artists and designers, classes for the public, produce your own work and offer a showcase for contemporary glass artists in your online gallery. How did this multi-strand business model come about?
Our multifaceted approach at Blowfish Glass has evolved organically to meet the challenges and opportunities of the ever-changing artistic landscape. Initially conceived as a hub for glassblowing courses and events, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic prompted a pivot towards a more diversified business model.
During the lockdown, director Bethany Wood ventured into website development and marketing, culminating in the creation of the online gallery. This shift was motivated by a desire to support not just our resident glassblower, Elliot Walker, but also our fellow artists, thus establishing Blowfish as an artist-led gallery.
Upon relocating to Stourbridge – the historic glass heart of England – Bethany and Elliot painstakingly transformed two units into a gallery and studio space. They recognised the importance of offering both in-person and online experiences and knew that glass art demands appreciation at every stage from its molten form to the final masterpiece.
This hybrid studio led to the birth of Blowfish Bespoke, our sister company, project-managed by Bethany Wood. It focuses on collaborations with corporations and artists to bring their visions to life in glass. With the variety of services Blowfish offers, we ensure resilience in a rapidly changing industry.
Please can you describe some of your latest projects?
The ‘Process’ event that we hosted earlier in 2023, with lots of glass artists, was fantastic, as it introduced Blowfish to so many new glassblowing techniques, the magic of stained glass and new artists, as well as encouraging ideas for more bespoke courses for glass techniques across the spectrum. It was a really good experience for Blowfish as our first organised exhibition, and good to challenge our artists to make to a theme. This exhibition also expanded into new historical premises, extending to two exhibitions.
We saw a whopping 300 people through the door on the first day. The exhibition was entirely self-funded, which taught us the need to explore funding options to develop a full public programme of exhibitions and events to explore and support contemporary glass.
Another initiative that Bethany and Elliot have been involved in is an archaeological project that brought academics and makers together to shed light on medieval glass production in Islamic Iberia. A medieval glass workshop is being excavated in Murcia, Spain, at Calle Puxmarina. It is the only one of its kind in the country and one of just two known in all medieval Islam – the other being in al-Raqqa, Syria.
This remarkable discovery ignited the passion of archaeologists, historians and art enthusiasts, all eager to unravel the secrets of glass production in the 12th century. The project is named the COAT (which stands for Clayest of All Time – an affectionate name given to the project’s recreated wood-fired furnace, made to test the ancient style of glassblowing). The plan was conceived by John Pearson, a PhD student at Newcastle University, whose research is titled ‘Experiencing Medieval Craft Practice: New Approaches to Glass Production in Islamic Iberia’.
The expedition aimed to reconstruct the historical narrative of medieval glass production in Islamic Iberia and test how 12th-century glassmakers manipulated hot glass. It also involved other makers who wanted to try new glass production methods. In addition, the project set out to revive the ancient art of glassblowing, breathing life into traditional techniques passed down through generations and new experimental ways of making glass.
Lulu Harrison, researcher, artist and maker in sustainable material development, was involved in the project, too. She has developed a ground-breaking process of working with regional and waste materials to create new glass batches, using items like waste quagga mussel shells, local river sands and waste wood ashes, all sourced from the river Thames.
Soon after that, Disney UK approached Bethany and asked her to star in a short YouTube video to interpret the flaming character of Ember from their new animated film ‘Elemental’. Bethany created a bespoke piece, which responded to the stories of the personified elements in the film: air, earth, fire and water. You can watch her video here.
How has the Netflix series ‘Blown Away’ impacted the business?
‘Blown Away’ has been an incredible booster for Blowfish, since Elliot won series 2. It has publicised our business and made our vision to promote artists’ work a reality. From the hot shop through to our gallery space, we have involved several members of the ‘Blown Away’ family. This TV series, where glassblowers from different countries compete in creative glass challenges over several weeks, has also had a positive effect on all glass businesses around the globe. The more we talk about glass and its amazing potential, the more that potential grows.
‘Blown Away’ competitors Madeleine Hughes and John Moran demonstrated as part of our events at the International Festival of Glass 2022. American John produced a collaborative piece with Elliot Walker, in which they combined their most popular works – Elliot’s ‘Unbroken Back’ that he produced at Corning Museum of Glass in the US, was mixed with John Moran’s signature Mickey Mouse motif.
Working with John is important, as it is vital to collaborate across borders, to keep our international glass community thriving. Madeleine Hughes, made famous by her appearance on ‘Blown Away’ series 3, produced an exciting second instalment of her ‘Nostalgia’ range, which she produced for the programme’s ‘philosophy for life’ challenge. Madeleine demonstrated the making of her Liquorice Allsorts bags, which evoke feelings of longing for the past, and call us to appreciate the small things in life. Working with Madeleine also strengthens the connectivity with glass we have in the area – one we feel very privileged to be working in.
When a young glassmaking apprentice drove a whopping 175 miles to come to our latest exhibition, we realised the impact that that opportunity and ‘Blown Away’ can have on people. She was so excited to be there and to be around other makers. Her experience was made even more exciting when she was introduced to ‘Blown Away’ idol, Madeleine Hughes. To be able to facilitate the sheer joy that young glassmakers experience when meeting people that were so important for them during the COVID-19 lockdown is pure magic.
With glass courses and facilities in the UK closing or contracting, how do you see the future for contemporary glass?
The future of contemporary glass remains bright, despite challenges in the UK. Blowfish Glass’ strategic location in the historic Stourbridge Glass Quarter reflects our commitment to preserving glass as an art form. We’re enthusiastic about educating the UK audience on the remarkable possibilities of glass, while also maintaining a strong presence in the thriving US market. Everyone at Blowfish believes in the power of working across borders.
Blowfish Glass is also excited to support interdisciplinary practitioners to use the material more, which we are exploring with Blowfish Bespoke, where we work with prestigious models and designers. For example, we recently finished a project with Home in Heven and heritage lighting brand Louis Poulsen. This example of collaborative working shows that glass can move from the front cover of craft magazines to fashion, design and beyond.
What is your vision for Blowfish in the future?
Blowfish Glass’ vision encompasses nationwide touring exhibitions, supporting emerging glass artists and continuing our mission to diversify and promote glass art across various disciplines. We’re excited about the journey ahead, navigating the ever-expanding horizons of contemporary glass.
Part of this journey will see us exhibiting as part of Craftworks 2024 – our first touring show in London – during London Craft Week 2024. This three-day, free-to-attend, live event will host the very best of arts, crafts and design from all corners of the craft sector and will celebrate niche craftsmanship that is in danger of being lost to time. The below video showcases some of the exhibitors at Craftworks 2024. Credit: Craftworks.
With a strong focus on British craftsmanship, the exhibition hopes to generate business for craftspeople whose skills are little known and attract the next generation to help future-proof some of the world’s oldest practices.
Blowfish is also developing a glassblowing learning programme with partners at E+M Glass, working with students and graduates to help them with essential skills to become part of the hot studio glass industry.
Blowfish Glass is located at Unit 15, Red House Glass Cone, High Street, Wordsley, Stourbridge DY8 4AZ. Find out more via the website.
Main image: Elliot Walker and Bethany Wood demonstrating their skills at the ‘Process’ event. Photo: Andrew Fox.