Peter West is an award winning filmmaker known for his documentaries about artists and their projects. His films have been broadcast nationally on PBS, and screened at museums, universities, and film festivals world wide. For the past 20 years he has followed the work of the artist Dale Chihuly, and has directed fourteen feature documentaries about his work. He has also made films about the artists Martin Kersels, Takashi Murakami, Italo Scanga, Richard Jackson, Martin Janecký, and Martin Blank.
Over the last twenty years or so I have become extremely interested in glassblowers and their lives. I have developed a deep reverence for what they do. I imagine the things that go on in their heads as they blow glass – things that I have no evidence of actually happening in there at all. And in my reverence I am dangerously close to romanticizing them. Hell, I have romanticized them all out of proportion. I have romanticized them into a world of unreality. And now I have a hard time really seeing them.
I have access to a hot shop and the enthusiastic support of a group of fantastic glassblowers and have been conceiving of short scenes to for them to act out, and for the last ten years I have been filming those as they come to me. I have edited a non-linear short film with a number of these ideas, woven together by a narration that begins to lay the ground work for a glassblowing mythology that is sloshing around unformed in my skull. So much of my time is spent behind the camera filming these artists that I found my imagination and their realities were quite different. Surreal ideas I had about glassblowers blowing bubbles at dawn just to see the glow at the end of the pipe turned out to be the last thing a working glassblowers was going to want to do at the start of the day. But my friends did it anyway for me. They came in an hour early, and gathered glass, and went out onto the bank of the lake outside the studio and blew bubbles in the fog. The footage looked beautiful, and the story felt real – the way a fictional story can, even if reality doesn’t back it up. One of the most skeptical of the crew, the guy who keeps my most outlandish fantasies in check, had to admit that some glassblower somewhere would maybe want to do this kind of thing for the poetry of it. I was getting my reality, but not theirs. Being safely behind the camera all the time was not the place really understand the risks and demands of a glassblowing career.
I went so far as to start a glass manufacturing company that makes Imperial pint glasses and tumblers. I called it American Blown – Artist Engineered because the glasses were hand made by American glassblowers who were also artists. The idea was to provide another source of freelance income for glass artists during the 2008 recession when many glassblowing shops were struggling and some glassblowers were forced to find another way to make a living. These are my favorite people, the glassblowers, and it seemed terrible to me that all of the years of training and commitment to the craft could be lost by some these gifted artists during a time of economic stress. It turned out that the community survived quite well, but I had a great time putting together a design for the glasses, collaborating with the glass community to make the glasses and found that the American Blown idea resonated with the public enough that we were able to sell out or first run of pints and tumblers. The project was never financially viable and some technical problems became insurmountable and I needed to return to my profession as a filmmaker anyway, so American Blown went into hibernation. I recently re-designed the glasses to be easier to make, and am tentatively beginning the process of getting back into the manufacturing game.
I have a scatter shot process when it comes to the glass story. I am immersed in a rarified word of Dale Chihuy’s studio, where massive sculptures made up of thousands of brilliantly colored glass parts are blown and built, transported and installed in museums and gardens around the world. It is a world where new ideas are pursued in the hot shop, with Chihuly drawing and discussing the possibilities with his glassblowers, and then turning to another team of artist, engineers and exhibit designers to discuss how to install the work that has just been made. These are huge undertakings and they seem so effortless because the artists at work are so good at what they do. Even when they don’t succeed, when the glass hits the floor in a sparkling boom, the recovery is effortless. The costs are incidental. The audience is pre-loaded and waiting. The drive to make this impossibly ambitious work succeed is shared by the entire team. And they do succeed show after show, exhibition after exhibition, installation after installation. Filming it is a pleasure and editing stories out of it comes very naturally to me.
So when I think about glassblowing stories I try to forget the perfection I see everyday. I go into strange places where the work is not going to be in a museum, it is not going to be sold to a collector. A place where everyone is not working together so well. Where there is conflict and artists are antagonists as much as collaborators. Where craft is not central – a place where an artist can melt beer bottles in his backyard fire pit, reach into the flames with heat proof gloves and twist the molten glass into a shape that means nothing and won’t survive the next day because of the thermal shock and chaotic surface tension that happens to glass when it is cool unevenly in the coals of a campfire. What drives a glass maker like that? Only one way to find out. I melt bottles in my fire pit. I melt bottle with friends on camping trips. I buy expensive heat proof gloves and grab the bottle glass once it has melted into the coals, and I drag it out and twist it up. I can do it because I’ve seen it done so well and so controlled by real skilled professionals. I have filmed them for decades now. The danger is that I begin thinking with my eye. Like so many glass artists think with their hands. We train our brains to use our hands, or our eyes, to exercise our imaginations. Eyes and hands don’t have words. Eyes and hands don’t follow trains of thought. They work with what they see, what they feel. They learn technique, hands do. They learn to see, to follow an action, eyes do. So I melt bottles in my back yard, with my friends and family, and I twist the glass and think about the character that is doing it, and why, why, why. Who is he? Who does he love? What does he want? Who is trying to stop him? Judge a person’s character by the strength of their enemies. I love that quote. Actually I just love quotes. I collect them, and I make them up. One I collected is: If someone says something is important, it is important to them. One I made up is: empty that vessel into your vessel. Another one is:
The first bubble. It’s my favorite part. After that it’s all downhill.