Meet Deborah Czeresko, the Glass Artist Who Won Netflix’s Reality Show “Blown Away”
Deborah Czeresko during her residency at the Corning Museum of Glass. Photo by Amanda Sterling. Courtesy of The Corning Museum of Glass.
It’s rare for a visual artist to have the sort of celebrity that compels strangers to stop them on the street. Yet the New York–based artist Deborah Czeresko—who you’ve likely not heard of—can hardly leave her Lower East Side apartment without being recognized. Why? Simply put: Netflix. Czeresko was the winner, and runaway star, of the streaming giant’s recent reality competition series Blown Away.
In a similar vein to Project Runway or Top Chef, Blown Away gathers glass artists to compete in creating innovative artworks. And while some contestants in the show’s first season crumbled under challenges that required conceptual depth, Czeresko thrived. Asked to make botanicals, she procured a set of oddly poetic potatoes; summoned to imagine a futuristic robotic device, she fashioned the Man-Bun in the Oven, an external womb for men to wear to gestate; and during a food challenge, she managed to make tacos appear über-elegant through a set of Venetian-style dishes. Her pièce de résistance was an installation for the finale: a feminist take on breakfast, including a fecund fried egg and a chandelier of sausage links.
Debroah Czeresko, Meat Chandelier, Monica Bonvicini, Bonded , and Doris Darling, "Super Stong" Lamp, in “New Glass Now ,” at The Corning Museum of Glass. Photo by Jeffrey Foote. Courtesy of The Corning Museum of Glass.
Some contestants and Twitter users were peeved by Czeresko’s unbridled passion; she could be counted on for candid, frustrated outbursts or gleeful declarations of pride. But a fan base emerged, as well. Viewers were inspired by seeing a strong creative woman dominate the competition while articulating a feminist, inclusive message.
“It’s kind of amazing,” Czeresko said, reflecting on the minor stardom that’s causing New Yorkers to lovingly accost her. She recounted that a large group of women recently stopped her, and one insisted that the artist sign her chest (Czeresko reluctantly agreed).
When we met in early October, the fandom had followed her to the esteemed Corning Museum of Glass (CMoG) in Corning, New York, where she was in the midst of creating new work. A residency at the museum was part of the Blown Away prize package, which was valued at $60,000. Working with Corning’s expert glassmakers in the museum’s Amphitheater Hot Shop, where visitors can watch and ask questions, Czeresko was developing pieces for an automotive-inspired chandelier. As she took breaks from making thick glass hubcaps, admirers huddled around her, singing praises and requesting selfies. One woman loudly announced she’d taken time off of work to spend the day watching the artist in action.
Deborah Czeresko working with CMoG’s master glassmakers during her residency at the museum. Photo by Amanda Sterling. Courtesy of The Corning Museum of Glass.
Czeresko admitted she’s thrilled with the attention that Blown Away has garnered, but she’s focused on the long game. “I need to keep momentum up,” she said. “It can’t just be this one thing.”
Now in her late fifties, Czeresko only started focusing on her art practice over the past five years. She earned her MFA and studied glass under William Gudenrath, as well as Venetian masters including Elio Quarissa, Dino Rosin, Pino Signoretto, and Lino Tagliapietra. But for 15 years, she made a living creating custom lighting designs and fabricating works in glass for fellow artists (she still does the latter, in addition to teaching classes at Brooklyn’s UrbanGlass).
The artist’s current practice revolves around introducing gender into the traditions of glassmaking; she often refers to conceiving her work through the lens of a mythical Venetian glass maestra. An early manifestation of this was a series of oversized glass animal feet, which will be part of an exhibition at Venice’s glass kunsthalle La Stanze del Vetro in 2020. Another example is currently on view at CMoG.
Selected works from Deborah Czeresko's Buffet Series, 2019. Courtesy of The Corning Museum of Glass.
Czeresko is featured in the museum’s survey of contemporary glass “New Glass Now,” which brings together work by 100 living artists at the forefront of the medium. Her piece Meat Chandelier (2018) alludes to traditional Venetian light fixtures that were typically overflowing with intricate glass florals, but in the place of flowers, we see dangling hot dogs, salami, prosciutto, and pork chops.
Susie J. Silbert, CMoG curator of modern and contemporary glass, explained that as an artist who has spent her whole career in glass, Czeresko deeply understands the material and the culture of it, and is critiquing that culture in the piece; it’s a literal “sausage fest.” Silbert added: “It’s such a happy, feminist invitation to rethink the culture and to laugh about it.”
That afternoon, Czeresko was working on a sizeable glass muffler—part of the new automotive work—which is similarly invested in redefining gender norms. According to the artist, the work considers “historically what it has meant being a woman in the field or completely excluded from it, like many other fields.” She sees the techniques of glassmaking as a sort of knowledge that comes through the body, and in her work, “it represents something much greater, about owning your body as a woman, especially in this day and age,” she said.
The automotive series also taps into the artist’s childhood memories of playing sidekick to her brother as he collected old automobile parts and fixed up cars. The thick glass hubcaps are based on auto parts from the 1960s. She’ll add a silver mirrored finish to the hubcaps, before joining them together in a cluster to become a shiny chandelier.
Czeresko has no shortage of ideas, but she is low on time and space to make new work. Between renting out workspace and hiring necessary assistants, it’s extremely expensive to be a glass artist—no less while living in New York City—so she’s currently applying to residency programs.
Blown Away has led to some career-advancing opportunities for Czeresko, including interest from New York’s Heller Gallery—which will show a new, large installation of her potatoes at the art fair SOFA Chicago later this month—and the Chrysler Museum. However, like so many artists, Czeresko is keen to gain gallery representation. Her focus on glass makes that hard, given that artists working in the medium—like other art forms traditionally associated with “craft”—tend to be pigeonholed. “I’d like it to be greater than glass, not just always in a niche market,” she explained. Few artists who work primarily in glass and create their own work, as opposed to relying on fabricators, have gained a footing in the contemporary art world. Czeresko looks to artists working in ceramics—a medium that’s gained greater acceptance in the art world over the past decade—as role models.
Photo by Amanda Sterling. Courtesy of The Corning Museum of Glass.
In the wake of Blown Away, Czeresko is eager to get new work out into the world, before the hype subsides. Yet she’s still mystified by her newfound fans. “I could never impact the world in this way, any other way,” she said. “So many people have written to me and come up to me personally, and reflected how it really struck them in a meaningful way.” People are giving thanks to Czeresko for championing marginalized people, for being a strong female role model, and for giving them hope. “They say they want their children to grow up in a world where someone like me can win,” she offered.
“Sometimes you feel very isolated when you think in a different way than what’s being put out to the world, the predominant voice—and this really made me realize that,” Czeresko continued. “Connecting with people through the show has been awesome. It’s bigger than any art piece.”