Katherine Gray

Glass Artist and Professor, California State University, San Bernardino

Conducted by Julia Carabatsos on April 19, 2021 at Los Angeles, California and New York, New York via Zoom

Artist portrait with As Clear As The Experience, Redux. Photo by Fredrick Nilsen; Courtesy of Katherine Gray.

Katherine Gray (b. 1965) is a glass artist based in Los Angeles, California. She earned her undergraduate degree from Ontario College of Art in 1989 and her Master of Fine Arts from Rhode Island School of Design in 1991. Katherine is a professor at California State University, San Bernardino and has held numerous teaching roles throughout her career. Recent solo exhibitions include Radiant Mirage (2020) at the Heller Gallery in New York, New York, (Being) in a Hot Shop (2019) at the Toledo Museum of Art in Toledo, Ohio, and As Clear As The Experience (2018) at the Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles, California. Her work appeared in the 2019 group exhibition New Glass Now at The Corning Museum of Glass and its accompanying catalogue. Gray has also served as an evaluator on Blown Away, a Netflix glassblowing competition series.

In this interview, Gray describes her training in design and glassblowing and her early work. She also discusses work and solo exhibitions from recent years, such as Forest Glass, A Rainbow Like You and This Makes Me Think of That. Through these examples, Katherine demonstrates her interest in working with glass’ inherent properties, such as its potential for transparency and colorlessness, its ability to split light into a spectrum, and its role as a mediator. She speaks about her use of sculptural as well as functional domestic glassware forms. She also addresses her roles as an educator and an evaluator on the Netflix glassblowing competition series Blown Away.

Interview duration: 55 minutes.

Julia Carabatsos (JC): I’m Julia Carabatsos, I’m in New York City, and I’m speaking to Katherine Gray via Zoom. Kathy, you are in Los Angeles, correct?

Katherine Gray (KG): That’s right.

JC: I’d like to start by talking about how you began working with glass. What drew you to the material?

KG: Well, I started when I was an undergraduate student at Ontario College of Art. I had a very vague idea that I wanted to design furniture and lighting. I remember walking into the glassblowing studio on a tour of the facilities. I wasn’t really sure what classes I wanted to sign up for, but seeing some people blow glass I thought, “Wow, that looks pretty cool.” And I thought it would be really handy to know about working with glass if I wanted to design lighting fixtures. So, I decided to take the class and then I was kind of pretty much hooked.

JC: Definitely. Can you describe the training that you received at Ontario College of Art and at the Rhode Island School of Design?

KG: Yeah. They were both great, but in different ways. Even though I was working mostly in glass, I wouldn’t say either program really focused—or at least at the graduate level when I was at RISD—on developing technique necessarily. It’s different I think for undergrads. We were really left to our own devices in a way to figure out our own direction and to figure out how we liked working or approaching the material and trying to use it to our own expressive ends. In undergrad, I think I was really heavily inspired and influenced by a lot of the older students and the more advanced students that were around in the studio. Some of them were pretty amazing and also just really hardworking and devoted, so they were great role models for me. That stuck with me.

JC: What drew you to RISD? How did your education there shape your practice?

KG: I was drawn to RISD because it does have an amazing reputation. I had applied to two schools, one on the West Coast and one on the East Coast. Ultimately, I decided to go to RISD because it was just going to be easier for me to get there and get home on breaks. I would be able to drive rather than take a flight, which in retrospect now seems like a crazy reason, but I’m so glad that I went to RISD because it has been really formative. It was very rigorous. I learned a ton while I was there. And even though I just said that it wasn’t necessarily really technique-oriented as at the graduate level, I did work with a lot of the professors and lecturers who taught there. And I learned from them sort of extra-curricularly. There’s a great visiting artists program and great facilities. I felt like it really opened my eyes to a lot of the possibilities of working with the material—and even to a career as an artist.

JC: When you were there, were you taking classes on only glass or was it more of a variety?

KG: You have to take like some graduate seminar classes with all the other grad students in lots of other disciplines. So that part was pretty multidisciplinary. I do remember taking a music appreciation class and a foundry class or something like that, like metalworking. But most of my time was spent definitely in the glass area.

JC: What made you decide to pursue a career in working with glass?

KG: I took a year off after my junior year at undergrad and traveled. I actually took about six months and rode my bike through part of Europe. That was really great and I saw some amazing stuff. When I came back, I had renewed purpose in getting back to school. I think if I hadn’t taken that year off, I might not have gone to graduate school. I think part of the reason I took the year off was that I was just a little tired of being in school. And then I realized school was pretty awesome. When I went back, I realized I really wanted to dedicate myself to learning as much as I could. I felt like I just needed to really hone in on something. Even though I had wanted to have this broad base of a design education, I was mostly making artwork and decided that’s the path I was going to follow. I had a few opportunities immediately after school to keep blowing glass, so I just dove in. I took a few people up on offers and I had a couple of different residencies. I think that kind of set my course. I just felt like “Why would I walk away from this?” I was totally happy and loving it, so I kept with it.

JC: Can you speak more about some of your early exhibitions?

KG: Oh, they were pretty haphazard, honestly. I exhibited a little bit; I had moved back to Toronto for a residency at the Harbourfront Centre. I remember having an exhibition with my boyfriend at the time. It was sort of a big involved installation kind of exhibition, as well as some other blown glass things in a different space. That was really fun. It didn’t really go anywhere or get any press or anything like that. But I really loved making work like that. So, I just tried to set myself up so I could keep doing that. I would do some sort of gallery show or showroom store kind of exhibition of functional work or sort of functional work. That functional work would fund me being able to make other stuff that was a little bit more difficult to sell. I moved to Seattle in the fall of ’96 and maybe a year or two after that, I had my first solo exhibition at Elliott Brown Gallery in Seattle. That to me was a huge deal. I had always really looked up to the artists that gallery showed. And I was always really intimidated by the woman that ran the gallery, but she ended up being super nice and is still super supportive. I was able to sell a few pieces over the years. I was really, really happy with that. I worked with her until she eventually she closed the gallery.

JC: Why did you end up moving to Seattle in the first place?

KG: That was a little bit on a lark and I thought it was only going to be for three months. My boyfriend was going to have a residency at the Pilchuck Glass School in the fall. And a roommate of a good friend of mine was also going to have the same residency. It was going to be really easy for me to just sublet her room. I could hang out with my friend and see my boyfriend and then get a taste of the Seattle scene, which was a pretty big glass or glass arts scene. It had loomed large in my psyche. So, I thought this would be a nice way to kind of dip my toes in the water. I ended up staying there for about five years.

JC: I was wondering if it had to do with Pilchuck at all.

KG: Right.

JC: How would you would characterize the glass that you made at the beginning of your career?

KG: For a lot of the sculptural stuff I really concentrated on just using clear glass as much as possible. I still think, although I deviated from that a little bit in terms of my current work, that the clearness, and the colorlessness potentially, of glass is one of its most unique and striking characteristics. I really wanted to draw attention to that and exploit it in lots of ways. I used to incorporate text a lot more, usually found texts—not anything I would write, but snippets of things I found here and there, bits of poetry or something like that, into the glass in some fashion. There are bodies of work, but I wouldn’t really say I worked in series at all at that point—most glass artists, I feel, do that. I felt like I was kind of running against the tide a little bit on that, but eventually I think it worked out. It just felt like it took a lot longer for people to kind of get a sense of what my work looked like, because they would see lots of different pieces and not necessarily realize they were all by me.

JC: I see. You talked about this a bit in your last response, but I was wondering how would you say your practice has changed over time.

KG: I did at some point start to use color a little bit more, but I still kept to transparent glass as I mentioned. I sort of had both kind of a functional direction of blown glass things, in a more conventional sense, and then sort of sculptural work. For a long time, they were two different trajectories. And then eventually they kind of came together—I was hoping they would at some point, but it seemed like it took a long time. I started to use the more functional forms in sculptural work and tying the things I was thinking about in both of those spheres together.

JC: Was there some sort of moment of discovery that you made that led you to bring those two parts of your practice together? Or was it over time? 

Forest Glass (detail). Found glass, acrylic and steel shelving. Photo by Joshua White; Courtesy of Katherine Gray 

KG: It happened pretty quickly. A lot of it actually came together with a piece called Forest Glass. It’s now at the Corning Museum of Glass. That was developed out of an opportunity to be part of an exhibition at the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Virginia. The reason they invited me was because the curator had seen another piece of mine elsewhere that included some found ice buckets. One of those ice buckets was a collectible ice bucket that they actually had in their collection at the Chrysler Museum as a historical artifact. That got me thinking about making a piece using preexisting glass. I wanted to make something on a large scale, so I realized I was not going to be able to make all of the glassware myself. The premise of the piece was not about me necessarily making the glassware. Even though they weren’t handmade glass objects, that sort of started me on this path of using the form of domestic glassware, almost like a pixel—or even think of it as a point, as in pointillism. You put all these things together and in the aggregate, they make an image. That started me on that path—I think that was the gestation of that particular piece. 

JC: What kind of an ice bucket was it? Was it made out of glass?

KG: It was glass. It was a buttons and bows or daisies and buttons pattern. It was an ice bucket in the shape of a top hat in clear glass with a pattern on the surface. I can’t remember who the maker is. Maybe it’s Libbey or Fenton, but I think it’s from the 1920s maybe. I had probably just bought it at a thrift store and had no idea about its historical significance until a curator mentioned it to me.

JC: What is your process for kind of coming up with a finished exhibition?

KG: I feel like I kind of labor over things quite a bit in my head for a long time. I’ll do some sketches and think about things. Maybe make some slight attempts at making some things or putting some things together. But it takes a while for it to clarify in my head before I really commit to making something. I find it really helpful to know what I want the piece to say and do before I start making it, because then that makes a bunch of decisions for me of what direction to go. I also feel like it just makes me more efficient, especially if I have to go into the hot shop to make things. I’ve become more and more aware of the environmental impact of blowing glass, so I want to be as efficient and productive as possible when I go in there. There are definitely still times where I’ll just think, “let’s just see what happens today.” And I’ll try and experiment with a few things. Usually I’ve got a few ideas—it’s not just totally random. But I spend a lot of time modeling and thinking about making before actually making.

JC: And so what are the kinds of things that you can experiment with only after you enter the hot shop?

KG: Sometimes it’s optical effects—I like the glass for like the way it changes what you’re looking at when you’re looking through it. And sometimes it’s just figuring out what kind of shapes will really work and capitalizing on that. Or if I do this and this and this, how will that look in the end? So trying to figure out how to exploit some of the physical properties has to happen in the studio to see if what I think is going to work actually works.

JC: I’d love to hear more about some of your more recent solo exhibitions. Are there any that you’d like to highlight?

KG: Sure. This isn’t the most recent solo exhibition I had, but I think it was definitely one of the ones I was super excited about. This body of work was shown twice, once at the Heller Gallery in New York and then again at the Toledo Museum of Art. It was called This Makes Me Think of That at the Heller Gallery. It was a bunch of pieces that really had to do with trying to replicate aspects of the experience of being a glassblower or being in a hot shop, a glassblowing studio. There was less emphasis on actual glass objects on pedestals and more on how glassblowing engages a lot of your senses. So there was a piece with smells—I worked with a perfumist to recreate four different scents that are really prevalent in the hot shop. There was a piece with sound where I had put contact mics on different tools as I was making a drinking glass. Then the actual piece was the same drinking glass, up against a platform on a wall. It’s like you’re eavesdropping and hearing the soundtrack of the conversation between the tools and the glass. Some other things just replicated some of the things in the studio, like some iridescent panels that look like the opening of the furnace and the glory hole. That was really a lot of fun for me to think about—the experience of being a glassblower. I feel like it has been such a privilege and I have loved every minute of it. The initial inspiration was just thinking about the day when I wouldn’t be blowing glass anymore because I’ll just have gotten too old or whatever. So, it was a way to kind of savor some of those aspects and hopefully bring you back, but also to try to share it with other people, because it is this amazing thing. My most recent solo exhibition was at the Heller Gallery last year, called Radiant Mirage. It was actually much different. I was just making these discreet objects. Some of that came out of work that I did for the other show, where I discovered the process of applying this iridescent coating to glass that really makes the color kind of shift in different ways and luminesce in a really interesting way. I felt like I had just scratched the surface on the first show, so I just kind of wanted to explore that a lot more. And that’s where that body of work came from, came out of.

Oil Slick Iridescent Entity. Blown glass, sandblasted, iridescent coating. 2017. 17x 17x 6”. Photo by Andrew K. Thompson; Courtesy of Katherine Gray.

JC: I was really interested in that iridescent effect that you created. Was it a technique that you were familiar with?

KG: Yes and no. It’s actually a step or a process that I don’t do. I actually have to take the glass somewhere and they apply this coating. I usually have been doing it on sandblasted glass and it looks much different than if it were on just regular glossy glass. It’s basically a dichroic coating. This is actually something here just that I’m working on—it’s a commissioned piece, but you can kind of see the iridescence on there. That’s what it looks like just on regular glass. But then on sandblasted glass, it is kind of different and much more transformative, and most people don't even guess or recognize that that’s what it is. It was kind of a surprise. I just happened to go to a glass supplier that I go to pretty regularly. They mentioned that they were going to start doing this process and I was always kind of curious about it. I mean, I think it’s beautiful, but I could never just sort of figure out how to, I don’t know, tone it down a little bit. It’s a little too blingy for me in some ways. So, I asked him if he could do it on blown glass. And he said, “Yeah, I think we could figure that out.” I just made a little sphere and sandblasted half of it, just for comparing and contrasting. When I pulled it out of the box, after they coated it, I thought “Oh my God, this is kind of crazy.” Then, I was really all about trying to figure out what to make that would really showcase this process. 

JC: And that’s how you settled on those more organic forms. 

KG: Yeah, the funny thing is the way I initially conceptualized using that process because, like I said, I like the dichroic, but I don’t love it. There’s something that’s a little bit too over the top about it. But at the same time, it’s an amazing process. Some of the forms that I make to highlight it usually don’t require like a lot of skill or intentionality. It’s almost doing something wrong—like just turning one direction when you’re blowing glass when most of the time you want to try to turn both directions to keep everything even and straight. In some ways it was sort of me thinking about two wrongs making a right and figuring out what those other wrongs would be. Some of the more organic forms start out as regular cylinders or crisp shapes but I let them just get too hot and they slump or twist or whatever. So, I’m kind of working with what I get from that process. I’m trying to control it a little bit, but at the same time, just leaving it to happenstance and what too much heat will do to the material.

JC: I’d love to hear more also the why you use forms that could be functional, like glasses or pitchers in some cases, and then why you’ve moved away from them at other times.

KG: That is a really great question. It made me kind of think about that a little bit more because I had been using pitchers as a form for a couple of reasons—as a stand in for me, I feel like. So many people have showed me things about blowing glass, techniques and whatnot, that I just have felt like this kind of receptacle. Now as an educator, I feel like I’m pouring that all back out and disseminating it. I have always really loved that idea of just being a conduit—that all of that knowledge doesn’t just rest with me. That seems like an obvious connection to the pitcher. But with some of the other domestic glassware, I realize most craft materials seemed kind of like women’s work a little bit, or get kind of lumped in as the domain of the female. Even domestic glassware I think is often the domain of the female, but glass blowing as a craft is a very male-dominated field. So, I think it was kind of a little backdoor to kind of get in to a very male-dominated field, but still preserve an aspect of being a female in it. 

JC: Another show I wanted to talk about was A Tree Grows. And I can’t help but notice that maybe the title is a reference to the Betty Smith novel? 

KG: Yeah, that was at UrbanGlass in Brooklyn, New York. And yes, you’re right about that connection to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I actually haven’t read the book. I read about the book when I was working on the piece. That piece was actually commissioned for the reopening of UrbanGlass. It had been closed for a few years for major renovation and a lot of people thought they wouldn’t ever reopen because it was a very ambitious and expensive renovation that they had planned. Since it’s a nonprofit organization it just seemed like a lot could go wrong, but they did eventually reopen. And so a lot of the glasses [in A Tree Grows] were collected and culled from a lot of the stakeholders and the local community that work out of UrbanGlass or support UrbanGlass in some way. It was a tribute and thank you to all the people that have stuck by them. Each glass in that particular installation is very similar to Forest Glass in that it was green glasses making the foliage of the trees and brown glasses making the trunk. But every glass actually had an engraved tile inside with the name of the donor of that particular glass. Some were thrift store glasses or glasses that people had at home, if they weren’t a maker, for instance, and others were glasses that people made and sent me for that exhibition. It was super rewarding and touching to do that. I hadn’t really ever done a piece that was sort of dependent or reliant on others contributing before. I didn’t really know what to expect, like how many glasses people would send in or if there’d be enough to fulfill all the tree parts, but it was really great.

JC: Why did you settle on the tree form? 

KG: They asked me to basically—they had seen Forest Glass and thought that that would make a lot of sense. It’s really hard to tell what kinds of trees they are, but I actually designed the shelving armature to reflect trees that are native to Brooklyn. That institution, UrbanGlass was formerly called the New York Experimental Glass Workshop and it started on Mulberry Street in Little Italy, in Manhattan. One of the shapes is actually a mulberry tree.

JC: When you were just talking about the shelves I was wondering what those are made of and if you designed them and also made them. 

KG: Yeah, I designed them and did most of the metal fabrication. They’re clear acrylic for the shelves and powder-coated steel for the armature that supports them. But yes, I did all that fabricating.

JC: You touched a bit on your process for creating the title for A Tree Grows.

KG: Yes, it seemed pretty easy and I think it works.

JC: How do you think about your titles in general?

KG: That’s another thing I labor over as well. Sometimes they just come to me—I love when that happens. But other times I feel like it takes a while. Most of the time it’s when I’m reading things or listening to things—if I hear an interesting turn of phrase or read a paragraph that seems really compelling I’ll copy it all down into my sketchbook. A lot of times it’s actually just looking back and seeing if I’ve written something before that might be appropriate for something that I’m working on now. I feel like there are times where I haven’t had a great title at the time when I needed it so I’ll fudge it with something, but then once I do land on the right title, I’ll just go back and change it.

JC: What are your thoughts on the way that titles may shape a viewer’s experience of your work? 

KG: I hope it helps them understand the work. I know sometimes maybe my titles are a little bit abstract, but I do hope that they provide another layer of meaning or kind of an entry point into the piece. I don’t necessarily think they’re super poetic. But I’d like to think that they add something to the piece rather than take away or make it harder to understand. 

JC: I noticed that in several of your recent solo exhibitions, you've worked with color and especially rainbows.

KG: Yes.

JC: I’d love to hear more. 

KG: Some of that comes out of the properties of glass and how it can split white light into a prism of colors. It’s like the album cover of “Dark Side of the Moon” by Pink Floyd. I’ve always loved that image. I also love rainbows. I feel like there are a couple reasons why and one is, to me, it’s an analogy of this really specific set of conditions coming together to create this really beautiful, but totally ephemeral phenomenon. Part of me feels like that’s kind of like our conditions on earth. They have to be a really, really particular—and we’re kind of screwing with them right now. So what we have now, like natural wonder and beauty, or even just our livelihoods, are threatened because we’re screwing around with these conditions that allow for us to thrive. That’s one aspect of it. Also, when I lived in Seattle, I became really, really good friends—my best friend now is Nancy Callan and she’s gay. The rainbow certainly is well known for being an icon of gay rights. At that time gays couldn’t marry and there’s all kinds of discrimination that was not addressed in the legal world at all. So, in some way it was a subversive or not so subversive way of showing my support for gay rights. And also trying to embrace the multiplicity of ways people live or how they conduct themselves—there’s no one, right way. 

JC: Definitely. On the topic of color and the properties of glass—you’ve also created multiple installations that kind of made use of the transparency of glass. I’m thinking of the displays that have a doubling effect with the glass objects by projecting their form and color onto the gallery space using light. Can you talk more about that choice?

A Rainbow Like You (overall). Blown glass, acrylic table, lighting. 2015. 33x 54x 45" tall. Photo by Fredrick Nilsen; Courtesy of Katherine Gray.

KG: Yes. Two pieces in particular fall into that—A Rainbow Like You is one and Light Wave is the other. Part of A Rainbow Like You was actually thinking about stained glass in a way. I’ve never done stained glass and I’m no authority on stained glass at all, but my exposure to it is always in church settings and that its role basically was to illuminate the congregation with the sunlight or light of God coming through and educating the congregation. I think that’s great, but I feel like the light also comes from within us. So, I wanted to reverse that premise and have the light coming from below and passing through the scrim of multicolored domestic glassware forms. Again, I sort of think of all those things as representative of individuals and making this really watery rainbow projection on the wall behind it. Part of it was just making something that seems kind of innocuous, like the little drinking glasses that, if they were just clear glass, you probably wouldn’t even pay attention to them. You kind of don’t even see them on some level, but I wanted to really highlight them by making them a different color and making this projection that makes it much larger than the individual objects. That was one thing that I was thinking about with [A Rainbow Like You]. [For Light Wave] I was looking at the spout and the kind of wave form it makes. I was talking before about using pitchers in thinking about that energy and knowledge dispensing from a pitcher. I was also thinking about learning to surf when I moved to Los Angeles and oftentimes being a little bit terrified by being in waves that were too big and seeing this wave start to crest and how that sort of looks like the way a spout forms and doubles over on itself a little bit. And then that wave breaks and dispenses and disperses all of its energy. I was trying to capitalize on that little silhouette of a cresting wave. But at the same time, even though it’s transparent glass, it’s kind of opaque even with like light passing through. So, it really makes these obvious kinds of silhouettes on the wall behind it. The glass is an imperfect mediator of our experiences. We like to think we’re seeing through it, but transparency is really in the eye of the beholder.

JC: We’ve now talked a bit about some of your solo work. But you’ve also been in a number of group exhibitions, and one that I’m particularly interested in is New Glass Now at the Corning Museum of Glass. Can you talk about that experience?

KG: Yes. I was super thrilled to be part of that exhibition. It was a big survey exhibition, I think they’ve started on a tradition of doing it every twenty years. I was really, really thrilled to be included. At a certain point in your career, you don’t necessarily feel like you’re emerging anymore, but at the same time, maybe you’re past your prime. To still be considered influential, or inspiring—I was really thrilled about that acknowledgement. I think it was a really great show. The Corning Museum built this beautiful new wing for their contemporary collection. The show was situated in that building and I thought it looked great. They also published a catalogue. I feel like it’s now part of the glass history canon, so I’m just super psyched to be part of that.

JC: Was the work that was featured in that exhibition something you made specially for the show or was it something that you already had? 

KG: That show was a call for entry. You had to send in photographs of existing work. So, I had already made that piece. I think I sent a few different options, but that was the one they picked.

JC: What did it mean to you to be included in the show?

KG: It’s just very validating. It really made me proud and I remember being able to go and see the show. I think I was teaching a workshop at Corning one summer while the show was up. I went on a tour with one of the other artists who was in the show. I remember hearing the docents talk about the pieces, the impact the show was having, and what a landmark exhibition it was. It was just really, really validating.

JC: It seems that teaching has always been a part of your career.

KG: Yeah.

JC: I was wondering how you would describe your pedagogical approach.

KG: I try to show my students as much as I can, technique-wise. Obviously now there are a lot more resources for people—we see all kinds of stuff on YouTube or various websites—so I feel like some of the onus is off for me to throw everything at them. But I basically try to lay the groundwork. Then they can kind of figure out what their interests are and what technique, or material, or approach is the most appropriate. And we look at glass a lot and all its different properties. I feel like there has to be a connection between what they want to say and how they’re saying it and with what material they’re saying it. Sometimes that might not mean working with glass. I feel like that’s the same for me—maybe less so lately, but definitely in the past, I wouldn’t always work exclusively in glass. I want them to be really confident in their choice of material and technique and make sure that it underlines what they’re trying to say.

JC: Does you teaching inform your work in any way?

KG: Yes, it definitely does. I love trying to troubleshoot projects or ideas with students and figuring out how to make whatever it is they want to make. That gets me thinking about the material in different ways. I’ve definitely discovered some new things that I probably wouldn’t have gotten to on my own, or maybe looked at something differently. I also just love that energy of people coming new to the material and being really excited about it. That really keeps me excited, more so than if it was just me working away alone without that kind of input. I think after a certain point, I’d just think “All right, what now?” I feel like teaching really does help keep me energized at a level that I probably wouldn’t be able to maintain just on my own.

JC: It reminds me of what you were saying about the pitcher idea—you’ve had your training, and now you’re giving back.

KG: Yes, definitely. It is so rewarding to show somebody how to do something that somebody else took the time to show me. It just feels like really good karma, if nothing else.

JC: You’ve said that you see your role on Blown Away as an extension of your work as a professor. Can you talk more about why you decided to participate in the series?

KG: I really wanted to make sure that the show portrayed our field in a positive light. I was really nervous about the premise of a reality show, because a lot of reality shows don’t portray people in a good light—they draw out or exaggerate the less palatable qualities in people. I felt like the glass community is too small to have that kind of acrimony or insidiousness penetrate into it. I wanted to be mindful of that. Not that we all had to get along, but that we wouldn’t be portrayed as petty or vile or anything like that. Also, there are a lot of glass artists beside Dale Chihuly and I really had this bad feeling that people would be asked to make work that looked like Dale Chihuly’s—or knockoffs of somebody else’s. I wanted to make sure that that wasn’t the case either. Not that I felt like my role was to be a watchdog, but I thought I’m a good person, with my skillset and my background, to do a decent job. I thought it may as well be me rather than somebody else, I guess.

JC: Something I really enjoy about Blown Away is the way that it makes information about glassblowing available to a wider audience. And was this one of the goals of the program?

KG: You know, I guess so. But you’ve got to remember, they’re making a TV show and they just want to make a good show that people will watch. So, to a certain extent, sure, they want to explain things so people aren’t in the dark. But they don’t think of their mission as being educational necessarily. I feel like we think it has been incredibly educational, but I don’t think that they think that the production company thinks of that as their role—only up until the point so that people can kind of get invested in the show, in the process, and in the contestants and artists. But I think that’s where it ends. That’s not meant to be disparaging in any way. They do a great job and they’re super supportive.

JC: I’ve also kind of noticed that the show offers a really particular view of the hot shop. There are very elegant, slow-motion sequences of the contestants handling the molten glass and very dramatic shots of sparks and fire.

KG: [laughs.] Yes.

JC:  You’ve spoken in the past about the idea of mediation and how glass mediates daily life through its prevalence in iPhones and windows and glasses. I’m wondering how you understand Blown Away to mediate the viewer’s experience of blowing glass. 

KG: It definitely presents a skewed picture. I think of what it takes just to make one artwork out of glass—it’s not that often that you are just going to have four hours to make one thing and then that’s it, that’s how it’s going to exist for forever. And then even that four hours is kind of sliced and diced to just show highlights of the process. So, it definitely doesn’t give a full picture in that way, but I feel like the trade-off is that millions more people see what we do and how we do it, or get a sense of it and form an incredible appreciation for it. And I think that is a more than fair trade-off to have that kind of exposure to the field. I’m actually giving a TED talk in a couple of weeks about this. From what I hear from feedback and apocryphal stories, or when I bump into people, there are a lot of artists who used to really scrape to get by and now are doing well or reasonably well. They’re selling work—and not even necessarily people who were on the show, but just because there’s this sort of elevated awareness of glassmaking and glass art. People are seeking it out and wanting to have their little piece of it in their home and supporting local artists. That to me has been hugely gratifying. And not something that I ever expected—that I could have that kind of reach. I know that it’s not just me personally, but as a cog in this Blown Away machine, I feel really, really great about that.

JC: Definitely. You touched on this a little bit before when you were talking about domestic glassware forms, but a recurring theme in the show is the theme of gender and kind of how societal expectations have excluded women from the hot shop and probably still do. I’m wondering how your experience has been as a woman working with blown glass.

KG: I always kind of have to cringe a little bit when people ask me this question, because I know I have a lot of friends, female friends, who have definitely experienced sexist attitudes and discrimination because of their gender. I personally don’t feel I have as much or at all. It isn’t that it doesn’t exist, but I just feel like I’m not the person talk about it. I don’t know if you know or can tell, but I’m a six-foot-tall woman. I feel like that has inoculated me from a lot of sexism, especially when I’m taller than a lot of men, that somehow I just have more of a physical presence, that maybe I’m harder to dismiss or disparage the way a regular height female might experience. I don’t know if that’s the only reason. I doubt it is. But I’m also just really cautious because I have worked with a lot of really great male artists who have shown me tons of things. I don’t want to throw them under the bus. But there are some really crappy guys to work with in the hot shop. I’ve just tried to, once I kind of get a whiff of that kind of situation, really just avoid it. I feel like I’ve been lucky enough to have that as an option. Not everybody does, unfortunately. Things are changing a little bit, but I still think it’s hard—for years now, I feel like most glass programs have been predominantly populated by female students. And yet there hasn’t been quite the same sort of elevation of female artists in the field as professionals. Something is happening after they leave school where they’re just not pursuing or getting the same kinds of opportunities that a lot of their male counterparts do.

JC: Lastly, I wanted to ask you about how you see yourself in relation to the work you do. Do you consider yourself a glass artist or an artist or something else?

KG: That has changed over time, honestly. I feel like at the beginning of my career, I really just thought of myself as an artist who works with glass, sometimes, or most of the time, but maybe not all the time. But I’ve developed or matured or realized that so much of my artwork and even my success as an artist has to do with working with glass. Now I definitely refer to myself as a glass artist or sometimes artist slash glassblower because I mostly just blow glass. I don’t really do a lot of other techniques in glass. It definitely has changed. I’m much more comfortable with that now. I think when I was younger—I don’t know, maybe it was just being a snob, but I just would’ve felt like, “Oh, I’m an artist,” you know, not a glass artist, just an artist. And maybe that snobbiness is finally falling away a little bit. [laughs.]

JC: [laughs.] Definitely. Well, thank you so much for talking with me.

KG: Thank you.
 
[End of interview]

katherine-gray.com/home.html
Artist portrait with As Clear As The Experience, Redux. Photo by Fredrik Nilsen; courtesy of Katherine Gray
Oil Slick Iridescent Entity.
A Rainbow Like You(overall).
Forest Glass (detail).