I thought “no man is an island” rang true, until I woke up one day and realized, I’m totally the Isle of Murano!
In the Fall of 2016, the stars aligned and I got to actually do what I’d always dreamed of doing! I got to study under a Glass Master on the famed glass island of Murano, which lies just across the lagoon from Venice, Italy.
I knew I’d be working hard, fortunate to be taken on as a student of Diego Bottacin, a Glass Master at the Abate Zanetti School of Glass located in the heart of an island steeped in historical glass knowledge and legendary for its generational glass talent. Have I said glass enough? Nothing can compare to the wonderful overwhelming permeance of the glass industry throughout the town, so if it seems a bit meta, then good, I’m describing it well!
Until recently, most Italian glass-makers would never hear of teaching a foreigner, much less a woman, their century’s worth of secrets, but times have changed. Much of the Murano glass industry has dried up, the large glass orders having transferred to their copycats in China who mimic their style and heavily undercut them on price. It’s a weird irony to be saddened by the once thriving town and how it now struggles, but to owe my very thrilling acceptance as a student to that fact. Sad but cyclical, as if their very art of teaching me, of teaching others persistent enough to persuade them to share their wisdom, could eventually help the community as new life is breathed in from more than just tourism!
The town seemed to thrive with that hope, and that pervasive wish mixed with their creative nature, buzzing through the town and into my very lungs. Ha, do I sound as romantic as I feel while I'm remembering it? I probably am, but the very aura of romance permeated every stone of every walkway, and I thrived in it!
I’ll be honest, while imminently wonderful, my intensive time learning lume was hard too, like most things worth accomplishing.
I worked 6 hours a day under Diego, his broken English melding with my broken Italian (and occasionally slipping into Spanish when I got frustrated). We quickly got into a rhythm of instruction, working, critique, instruction, working, critique; followed by more working and more critiquing until I lost all concept of time.
Made right around the corner in Murano, my raw glass was beautiful and sparkly in it’s cold state, and completely mesmerizing in it’s molten state as I worked with it, sculpted it. "Girare, girare." I can still hear my teacher’s soothing voice coaching me to always be turning, turning my punti with one hand while I sculpted and prepped glass with the other hand.
My skills with lume, the italian name for the torch-based glass melting process I learned, started with simple beads, then quickly expanded. Small beads led to big beads to decorated beads to rings... it all went well until I hit hollow beads.
I know how to blow glass already, so I thought blowing hollow beads would be easy, I mean hadn’t I just picked up solid beads like a champ? Exactly, but I was wrong, very wrong. With years of glass blowing skills drummed into my muscle memory, I just couldn’t shrink down the skill to fit the size of the bead. Everything I did was too much or too little: too hot or too cold; too fast or too slow. I just needed to baby bear it, but couldn’t seem to get it “just right.” As bead after bead kept blowing up under my hands, my frustration rolled off me in waves, making everything so much worse!
I finally quit, just up and quit for the day, deciding it would be better tomorrow if I could just walk the streets, clear my head, and hash it out with my friends over cocktails at some cool corner in Murano. It was just the day. Surely, my skills would show up tomorrow.
But they didn’t. I was even worse the second day under the expectation that everything would be magically fixed and I’d walk in and kill it with my sudden hollow bead skills. Nope, bead after bead exploded underneath my hands until I finally huffed out to take a break, walking out to the water, my ultimate happy place.
I told God and the lagoon how frustrated I was, tearing up at my failure and the morning mist. You know what it felt like they did? Shrugged! They effing shrugged! So Italian. And the lagoon kept shrugging, lapping it’s waves as I could feel God saying, “So what? So you can’t blow a hollow bead, so what? Did you actually come here wanting to learn that? Do you actually care if you can blow a hollow bead? No? I didn’t think so. Then who cares? I don’t, and you certainly shouldn’t. Instead of focusing on how terrible you are at something you don’t actually want to learn, why don’t you walk back in there and explain what you actually DO want to learn? And if you’re terrible at that, well then come cry to me and we’ll face that together.”
It was jarring, unexpected, but He had a point.
I walked back in and explained that I didn’t care if I could create a hollow bead, and that what I’d like to focus on instead was creating a waterfall of cages, and small sculptures, and eventually, a cascade of leaves! Diego was excited for me; well I think he was first of all relieved that his usually sunny student was slowly returning, but he was excited too at the ideas I was bringing forward.
That talk with God and the lagoon changed Diego and my relationship and the nature of our schooling in the best way. With so many other skills under my belt, I came in with drawings of what I dreamed of making, and Diego and I worked backward, with him teaching me how to make what I envisioned and pulling other Glass Masters in to share my vision and consult on the best course of action. He loved when I stumped him too and he had to figure out how to make one of my drawings so he could then teach it to me. It was fun, especially when we figured out that playing music increased my relaxation and helped me be patient enough to wait for the glass to be hot enough to move. It wasn’t long until I was singing along as I made my glass, with Diego teasing I could be on "X Factor" if glass didn’t work out.
Our relationship became more of respected artist instructing respected artist rather than just teacher and student, and my own creations seemed to inspire not just his own teaching methods, flexing the "how to" part of his brain, but his own work as well! I loved it, and I was happy.
That was the magic of Murano for me. It wasn't just the wonderful lume expertise I got to walk away with, or even the pieces I made at the time. No, it was also the symbiotic relationship with other artists in my field, a sense of pride in my work and in what I bring to the table as an artist, the resulting joy at the validation that comes from feeling respected in your field, and the overwhelming sense of accomplishment that comes from struggling, but making the right choices for you in the end.
My artwork is a testament to that magic, each piece a not so gentle mesh of love, joy, accomplishment, struggle, determination, and the inspiration to keep going. Sound familiar?
So yes, while it's purely semantics, it's still true: I AM an island; the sparkly island of Murano! (Just don't ask for any hollow beads!)