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Kids and adults work on various tables in a workshop room. One table is lined with bins of colored glass pieces.

Photo by Solmaz Karabaşa

  • The Pleasures of Producing Glass Art Together—in Bloomington and Beyond

    As a craft enthusiast, Abby Gitlitz likes to work with her hands, and she likes work that isn’t easy. That’s what drew her to the mesmerizing art of glassblowing—a traditional technique that has remained unchanged for thousands of years, and one inscribed in 2023 to the UNESCO representative list of intangible culture of humanity.

    Her nonprofit organization, the Bloomington Creative Glass Center (BCGC) in Bloomington, Indiana, contributes to the preservation of this cultural heritage, but her primary motivation is to provide space where others can experience this delight. It gives visitors the opportunity to rediscover the joy of making things with their hands, especially for people who are alienated from their labor in the industrial age.

    “I love doing that,” Gitlitz says. “But in America, craft is seen as a hobby—not something you can do as a job.”

    Even though glassmaking is known as “America’s first industry,” with the studio glass movement that developed in the 1960s, the glassblowing tradition continued in two separate branches: artistic or hobby production in small workshops and production of utility items in factories. At BCGC, Gitlitz shifts the perspective on glasswork from “hobby field” back to professional pursuit.

    While glassblowing once primarily produced functional items such as drinking glasses and jugs, today it has evolved into the creation of decorative objects, or glass art, but it continues a lineage of cultural tradition. According to folklorist Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, heritage “is the transvaluation of the obsolete, the mistaken, the outmoded, the dead, and defunct.” As an element of heritage, glass art lives its second life today.

    A display of colorful glass objects on a table, including fanciful flower shapes, insects, and shells.
    Glass art for sale in the Bloomington Creative Glass Center’s shop
    Photo by Solmaz Karabaşa

    A Journey into Glass

    Gitlitz’s glass journey started in high school in Bloomington. Her school offered a stained-glass class, and it was love at first sight. She liked the colors, but, she says, “I loved it because it was dangerous, and I have always been a little bit of a thrill seeker.”

    After that year in school, she bought her own equipment and started to make glass for fun. Then, “the day before I graduated college, my friends and I went to an amusement park in Toledo, Ohio. At Cedar Point, they have a glassblowing pavilion where you can watch people blow glass.” The first time she saw glassblowing there, Gitlitz was absolutely transfixed.

    It is not possible to practice glassblowing at home as a personal hobby, because it requires large, costly furnaces and great physical strength. It is primarily practiced in industrial settings. Of course, that didn’t deter Gitlitz. She wanted to work with glass the hard way.

    A person wearing a silver protective jacket, a face shielf, and a gas mask pushed a large black tube into a glowing furnace.
    Photo by Solmaz Karabaşa

    In 1997, she began attending glassblowing classes at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She also took classes at the Corning Museum of Glass in 2002, with acclaimed artist Fritz Dreisbach. That same summer, she took a class with Pamina Traylor at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts.

    At the end of that class, Gitlitz had learned of a new glass school in Türkiye, Cam Ocağı Vakfı (Glass Furnace Foundation). She proposed that Traylor and her assistant Eddie Bernard teach a course there and bring her along as their teaching assistant—one who could translate for them into Turkish. A previous craft obsession with Turkish traditional weaving had led Gitlitz to explore the country with her father and learn the language. Her proposal was accepted, and they traveled to Türkiye together. “That was how I really started getting more into teaching,” Gitlitz recalls.

    She attended the Glass Art Society’s Annual Conference in 2004, which was held in New Orleans. There, Eddie Bernard, the founder of Wet Dog Glass, offered her a job; she worked at his glassblowing studio for a little over a year. During that period, she took a class with Richard Marquis at Haystack Mountain. By the end of the course, Hurricane Katrina had hit New Orleans, and Gitlitz wasn’t able to return. Marquis offered her a home and a job.

    “All of this happened while I was working with one of the best glassblowers in the country,” she reflected. “He had a lot of friends. He farmed me out. He told all of his friends to hire me, but he did not tell them about my previous experience. So, I got to work with the best glassblowers in the country for a year because everybody assumed I did not have the skills and felt sorry for me.”   

    Because of their competitive rivalry, the artists did not share their professional secrets. Many artisans will not teach their work verbally; apprentices must learn by watching the master. Over the years, Gitlitz felt she finally mastered the art form. She wouldn’t have been able to show this patience if she didn’t have such a love for this craft.

    Changes to Tradition

    After completing a master of fine arts degree in 2009, Gitlitz moved back to Bloomington and decided to develop a glass-art community there. She founded BCGC in 2012.

    “When we got the building in 2018, we had about thirty people involved who were doing glass, who were learning beginning stuff,” she said. “Now we have almost 3,000 people involved who come and do things with us”—whether it’s attending events, taking courses, or just lending a hand.

    Although BCGC teaches traditional techniques, Gitlitz wants to disrupt traditions of the industry. “Glassblowing was very male-dominated,” she pointed out. “In the 1980s and ’90s, the culture was very toxic and very masculine—not a nice place to be a woman, glassblowing.” This dynamic started to change later, when glass departments opened in a few universities.

    A woman wearing safety glasses and a pink T-shirt holds up a metal rod with a glowing red glass blog at the end.
    Abby Gitlitz leads a glassblowing demonstration at BCGC
    Photo courtesy of Abby Gitlitz
    Two women wearing safety glasses and T-shirts manipulate a glass sculpture using the ends of two metal rods.
    Abby Gitlitz leads a glassblowing demonstration at BCGC
    Photo courtesy of Abby Gitlitz

    Gitlitz’s dream for BCGC was that “glassblowing would be this thing where everybody—both men and women, both amateur and professional—could work together to build a community of glass artists. We are all learning together. There are no secrets. I will teach you what I know because you are there to learn.”

    One of BCGC’s most popular beginning workshops is making blown-glass pumpkins. “We had a hundred people come and make pumpkins. They’d never touched glass before we taught them how. That did not exist fifteen years ago.” For them, glass art is not only creative production but also the joy of producing together. Today, there are more places where anybody can take a glassblowing class.

    Gitlitz’s passion for glass began as something purely personal: she wanted to work with her hands on something that was difficult. But her personal curiosity has created a wide social network related to glass. In addition to the courses and workshops at BCGC, Gitlitz organizes events in collaboration with the Lotus World Music and Art Festival, various units of Indiana University, and high schools in the area. Thus, she brings glass to everyone who wants to produce, watch, or buy—and even beyond Bloomington, thanks to international students at the university and the festival.

    Although some of the traditions and functions of glassblowing may have changed, the pleasures of producing remain much the same for Gitlitz, her mentors, and her students.

    A display of dozens of translucent glass pumpkins, in the full spectrum of color, on a table in front of a metal furance.
    Photo by Solmaz Karabaşa

    Solmaz Karabaşa is a folklorist working at the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of the Republic of Türkiye. Her interest in reading biographies, combined with performer-based approaches in folklore, turned to studies aimed at understanding culture through performer stories.

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