Netflix’s reality show Blown Away accrued a bit of a cult following after its first season—some followers from the world of gaffers, molten glass, and glory holes (the high-powered furnace glassblowers use to turn vitrescent materials into fragile, opaline sculptures is, in fact, called a “glory hole”) as well as some total glassblowing novices. And who can blame its fanatics, with the show’s menagerie of bright, glassy pop art, montages of glass smashing on the hot room floor, and carefully clipped action shots of glass stretched like 1,000-degree taffy?
After the first season ended on a controversial win, Blown Away is back for seconds. Feel free to have a moment as the feeling of fame grazes our turf: season two stars one of Portland’s own prodigious glassblowers. Meet Andi Kovel, co-owner of Esque Studio in St. Johns.
Kovel has been glassblowing for 20 years, and when she applied to compete on season two, she knew she’d get the gig. “I just knew; they’re going to like my vibe,” she says on a Zoom call from a Chicago hotel room, amid flight transfer mishaps for Netflix-sanctioned travel.
Kovel isn’t fronting. A former Brooklynite trained in fine art and sculpture, she entered the niche world of glassblowing almost by accident. While teaching art classes at the Museum of Modern Art and working on her master’s at Parsons, Kovel took a glassblowing course for kicks. That was in the ’90s; Kovel has established herself as a professional glass artisan since then. Now the co-owner of an elite, high-end glassblowing studio, Kovel says she applied to Blown Away because she was ready for “more.”
“It’s like a war zone in there,” Kovel explains of the show’s production. “There’s fire, yelling, and it’s kind of chaotic, but it’s fun.” The atmosphere in the hot room is equal parts competitive and theatrical, she says. “That’s part of glassblowing; it’s inherently performance-based.”
Kovel’s style is provocative and avant-garde, intertwining a spare style she calls “punk-lux” with functional installation. “[Glassblowing is] about being curious about the material and in awe of the magic and being less married to the techniques of the past,” she explains. “If you’re not doing something to add to the history of it, then you’re just doing craft.”
That’s why in 2001, Kovel and business partner Justin Parker ditched Brooklyn for Portland. While hustling their way up the New York art scene, Kovel and Parker made names for themselves. Fine artists like Kiki Smith contracted with them to create custom pieces, but the two were growing tired of hustling for other artists. “We thought, ‘Why are we making their work? We should be making our own,’” Kovel says.
In a fit of quasi-spontaneity, Kovel and Parker packed up, hightailed it from their “Italian mafia landlord,” and drove west. Seattle, a longtime epicenter for glassblowing and host to Pilchuck Glass School, where glass artisans like Kovel pilgrimage yearly for a salon-style convergence, may have seemed like the obvious choice for their relocation. But “we wanted to have our own little world that we created,” she says, and Portland was plumbed for that, with a “small but awesome” glassblowing community. “I always thought of Portland as the ‘land of opportunity,’” Kovel says. “Everyone is so open, and everyone is so creative, but it’s really undefined. We thought we could be the people that put the bedrocks up for what the art community and craft community looked like in Portland.”
Taking a break from Portland (it’s nothing personal), Kovel took to the Blown Away hot room, and found herself galvanized by the nine other internationally established gaffers (professional glassblowers). “It was hard not to be intimidated at first, and that’s something I kind of battled with the whole time,” Kovel says. A long-ago convert to the craft and a whiz in classic, Italian, Swedish, and Czech styles—to name a few—and a past-life mentee of season one winner Deborah Czeresko, Kovel is no neophyte to technique, something she hopes she proved while on the show.
The second season of Blown Away drops on Netflix Jan. 22, and Kovel assures Portlanders they will find her back in Esque Studio. “Oh yeah, we are not going anywhere,” she says. Kovel anticipates the day when COVID-19 no longer rules the art scene (and every other scene, for that matter), so Portlanders can return to visiting Esque en masse and up-close, because they have big plans. If you are lucky enough, you’ll snag a seat at one of Esque’s wild dinner parties where such chefs as Naomi Pomeroy have been known to cook out of glory holes while Kovel and Parker blow glass between courses, and a local DJ completes the over-the-top atmosphere.
Until that auspicious day arrives, Portlanders can make appointments to watch Kovel and Parker from a distance through Esque’s website, and experience a calmer taste of Blown Away live.