Whether you are local to Corning, New York, or a glass enthusiast anywhere around the globe, chances are you have heard the name William Gudenrath. You might avidly follow his work and have attended his classes and lectures, or you might have stumbled upon the viral video of Bill making a dragon stem goblet, which is at 1.4 million YouTube views and counting; various shortened and sped up versions have accumulated over 50 million viewings!
Bill’s first visit to The Corning Museum of Glass took place in 1965, when he made the pilgrimage to New York from his hometown of Houston, Texas. Bill had initially experimented with flameworking by way of a chemistry set at age 11 and, not long after, he acquired his first glass history book, Glass, Pleasures and Treasures by George Savage. Bill poured over the pages, eager to discover how the objects were created. The boyhood obsession became life-long; Bill has pioneered research in historic glassmaking from the approach of reverse engineering. He is famous today for his ability to exactly replicate historic glassworking processes.
Bill’s formal education and glass career are an unexpected combination: he earned his bachelor’s degree in organ performance from North Texas State University, and then a Master of Music degree in harpsicord from The Julliard School. He played his New York debut at Carnegie Recital Hall in 1975. Bill’s relationships with music and glass performance are beautifully entwined and are both very much part of his practice today. He describes both individual pieces of classical music and individual blown glass objects as each having a, more or less, natural tempo. (Read Bill’s blog post on the golden ages of Venetian music and Venetian glass.)
Bill is specifically fascinated by Bach organ works and performed an all-Bach organ recital at the Glass Art Society conference in Murano, Italy in May 2018. He describes Bach as the standard for difficulty, making it easy to draw comparisons between his pursuit of perfection in music and his mastery of Venetian glass techniques. When asked about performance anxiety in a concert hall as opposed to a glass studio, he smiles and says:
“For me, glassblowing is completely effortless. Nothing at the furnace makes me uncomfortable, but everything about performing music in front of an audience—even one person—makes me uncomfortable!”
(As a glassblower in awe of Bill’s ability, there’s some comfort in knowing that at least Bach exists to humble him.)
Most glassblowers have experienced and are propelled by the a-ha moments, moments where previously unattainable skills are unveiled or realized for the first time, and Bill is no exception. While working at UrbanGlass in 1980, as he was impatiently awaiting the arrival of his glassblowing assistant, Bill proceeded alone and discovered that he was able to gather molten glass out of the furnace to bring his own bit for a merese, all while managing the temperature and shape of the glass on his blowpipe. This accomplishment was the beginning of his unusual practice of working alone at the furnace, one that he continues today. A great deal of Bill’s notoriety in the glassmaking community comes not only from the exquisitely crafted finished work, but from the awareness that he is able to achieve such technical feats without the help of an assistant.
Another notable a-ha moment Bill described took place more recently, when he solved a technical problem that had challenged him for well over 20 years. Bill had engaged in a decades-long debate with Venetian glass Maestro Lino Tagliapietra about a particular chain and scroll ornamentation that can be found on Venetian and Venetian-style glass, often decorating goblet stems. This bit work is so dainty that Lino believed it could only be made using a flameworking torch, and Bill was of the opinion that Lino “just didn’t believe how dainty furnace glassblowers could be in the distant past!”
When Bill finally unlocked the mystery of how to make the chain and scroll at the furnace—an accomplishment he describes as the most technically difficult bit work that exists—he express-shipped the chain and scroll to Lino in Murano as soon as the glass was annealed. In the following months, anytime Bill encountered a friend who would be visiting Lino, he sent that friend with another chain and scroll to present to him. Lino now has a bowl full of the dainty, furnace-blown glass treasures, and the debate is decidedly settled.
Bill’s insight into glassmaking techniques were first widely published in 1991 in the book Glass, 5000 Years, where he illustrated the processes with sequences of still black and white photographs. February 4, 2019, marked the launch of his most recent digital publication, The Techniques of Renaissance Venetian-Style Glassworking. Using complete video reconstructions of Venetian glassworking processes, Bill sheds new light on 20 Venetian-style glass objects, many from The Museum’s collection. Bill says that, “If a photograph is worth ten thousand words, then a single, well-made video is worth ten thousand photographs.”
This free electronic resource features detailed 360° photography, high-definition video, text, and related images. This eBook is a follow-up to The Techniques of Renaissance Venetian Glassworking (2016) and tells the story of 17th-century Venetian glassmakers who escaped Murano and took their trade secrets to other countries throughout Europe. As they established new studios, their work evolved with unique, local idiosyncrasies, both in technique and in appearance.
Bill dedicated decades of research to Venetian-style glass in tandem with countess sessions in the hot shop learning how to make the objects. When it came time to produce the second eBook, due to scheduling complications, the filming of all 20 replicas took place within one week; filming for the first eBook (49 videos) took place over two years! Bill described the experience as being similar to preparing to perform and entire concert opposed to a single piece of music, and his countless of hours practicing the pieces payed off. Most glassmakers will be shocked to learn that all the filmed demonstrations were completed without any outtakes.
Bill’s dedication to unveiling historic glassmaking mysteries continues, and his curiosity and perseverance distinguish him in this field. His expertise ranges from ancient glass through the 18th century, and he is already carrying out research in anticipation of his next project. Stay tuned!