One of the highlights at the Renaissance Festival Kerry and I used to go to every year was the glassblowing demonstration. It was done by a married couple – the wife would create a piece from start to finish, while the husband provided commentary. It was fascinating to watch, and the detailed information about the process only made it that much more interesting.
So years later, in Venice for the first time, I was excited to visit Murano to see the best glassblowers in the world at work.
I shouldn’t have been.
See, the glass factories in Murano are very much a product of mass tourism. There are always tonnes of people there, and the factories are set up to get as many of them in and out as fast as possible, preferably with their shopping bags stuffed full of glass tchotchkes.
The glassblowing demonstration Ron and I went to that time was hugely disappointing. A group of tourists was packed in shoulder to shoulder, where we watched four glassmiths working essentially in a production line to make drinking glasses. I don’t remember the exact division of work – one handled the glass in the furnace, one did the colouring, one the blowing, and one the shaping, I think.
Whatever the details, the demonstration was … flat. Yes, we were seeing some of the world’s best glass craftsmen at work, and yes, they were technically making individual pieces of art, but still. They looked bored and unengaged. That, along with the superficial commentary and the fact that we were herded out after only a few minutes – exiting through the gift shop, of course – made the whole experience very underwhelming.
Also, photography wasn’t allowed, so I have no pics to share.
Now, I went to Murano with the full intention of buying a piece of art glass. And even with the disappointment of the demonstration, I did manage to find something I liked. Not in the regular gift shop, of course. That was full of cute little animal figurines, and vases, and drinking glasses. But because I was studying things very closely, Ron and I were still in the shop after the rest of our group had dispersed. I guess that proved we were serious buyers, as we were invited into the private showroom.
The second time I went to Venice, I felt much more prepared. (More fool, me!) I’d go to Murano, head back to the factory, ask to visit the private showroom, find a piece I liked, and buy it. 30 minutes, tops.
Yeah, sometimes I’m an idiot.
See, it was the off-season, so there wasn’t nearly the selection there had been the previous time I’d visited, which had been at the tail end of the high tourist period. This meant that there wasn’t anything – not a single thing – in my price range, which I’d set based on my previous purchase.
Kerry was with me on this trip, and she was an absolute superstar. Not only did she encourage me to keep visiting showroom after showroom in search of the right piece, she was patient as a stone as our 30 minute stop stretched out into hours.
But mostly, it was the conversation. After a couple of hours, I was ready to give up, but Kerry knew just how much I wanted to add another piece of art glass to my collection. So before she’d agree to leave for our next stop, we grabbed a snack and sat by the water, and had the most wonderful conversation about art.
I was getting hung up on the price and struggling to justify spending so much on something that’s only purpose was to sit there and look pretty. That’s when Kerry asked if that was really all it was going to do. Thinking about my answer to that question, I realized that no, it wasn’t. Turns out art, for me, is about lots of things. It’s about memories, taking one back to a moment in time. It’s about capturing the feeling you experience when you first see it, and feeling it again every time you look at it. It’s about getting caught in details and colours and shapes and lines.
It’s about looking at a thousand things until you find the one that speaks to you.
And apparently, it’s also about finding just the right place to look. Because the next shop we went into had a totally different vibe. We were greeted by a debonair gentleman who invited us to watch the glasssblowers at work before we so much as looked at anything to buy.
We were asked to stay behind the line on the floor, encouraged to take photos, and told we could stay for as long as we liked. And we stayed for so long and I took so many photos that eventually the debonair gentleman, who was clearly the owner, told me I could go past the line to take photos of the glass being worked in the kiln.
We were getting used to being invited into the private showroom by this point, but even that was different. There was no hard sell – at one of the other factories, as we left, the salesman tried to get us to stop by literally shouting after us that if we bought the piece we’d been looking at he’d give us a voucher for lunch at The Trattoria al Gatto Nero. Instead, as I slowly browsed the shelves, Kerry went slightly ahead, making mental note of pieces she knew I’d like but might overlook. And the owner, once he realized I had a preferred style and subject matter, started pulling together pieces that met those criteria.
In the end, I did buy something. It was out of the budget, but not unaffordable, and was worth every penny. Because every time I look at it, it makes me think of the value of friendship, and of art. And, out of the dozens of pieces I’d looked at seriously that day, and the thousands in that particular showroom …
… I happened, by random chance, to settle on a piece made by the craftsman I’d photographed working at the kiln. The owner requested a photo, which is something they do whenever a master’s work is sold when they’re in the building, and I was more than happy to pose for one. It was a real joy, as we made our way back to the workshop area, to hear his co-workers congratulating him.
And there was nothing unengaged about his smile.