This week’s blog post comes to us from guest contributor Olivia Wolfgang-Smith, a Brooklyn-based author of fiction and non-fiction. Wolfgang-Smith’s debut novel, Glassworks, was published today, May 16, 2023, by Bloomsbury.
Glassworks, nominated a Buzziest Debut Novel of 2023 by Goodreads, tells a story that followers of The Corning Museum of Glass may well be familiar with, a story of passion and glass. Inspired by the intricate glass models of flowers and marine invertebrates created by Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka over 150 years ago, Glassworks is a sumptuously told tale of familial connections and finding one’s place in the world.
Told like four novellas, each exploring the trials and tribulations of a new generation of a family bonded by blood or companionship, and how their ties to the past both hold them back and set them free. Through each section creeps a fragile glass thread, sometimes revealed explicitly, as in part one where the homage to the Blaschkas is forefront, but also just as frequently delicately protected close to the chest like a small glass bee pendant lost and found again.
Wolfgang-Smith discusses her introduction to the Blaschkas right here in Corning and how her epic saga blossomed from there like a glass bubble inflated by the breath of her imagination. Pick up your copy of Glassworks and find out what all the buzz is about.
Probably the most famous display of Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka’s work in America—at least if you’re operating with a New Englander’s bias, which I always am—is the Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants (more familiarly, “the Glass Flowers”) at the Harvard Natural History Museum. But I first encountered the Blaschkas’ work farther from home, at the excellent Corning Museum of Glass in upstate New York.
On a trip in 2018, after absorbing galleries of modern art, a live glassblowing demonstration (which triggered such vivid Proustian flashbacks that I realized midway through that I’d visited the Museum before as a child), and a working model of a Fresnel lens, I stumbled without ceremony on a case featuring eerily lifelike glass models of flowers and marine invertebrates: a stand of three hyacinths; a time-lapse display of a plum rotting in five stages; deep-sea worms and jellyfish arranged on stands, mid-undulation. At the time, I couldn’t have known that in the years to come I’d be writing a novel about a fictionalized version of these artists’ work. Still, even with no idea yet what I was looking at, I yielded immediately to our age’s universal impulse when confronted with something awe-inspiring: I tried in vain to capture it with my phone’s terrible camera. I still have the pictures, blurred and museum-dim and barely legible, my distorted reflection on the glass case obscuring everything.
I’ve seen The Blaschkas’ work plenty of places since—including that Harvard collection, where informational plaques explain that throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the university commissioned father and son Czech artisans Leopold (1822-1895) and Rudolf Blaschka (1857-1939) to create a collection of 4,300 glass botanical models, for use as teaching tools where specimens were inaccessible for reasons of season, climate, or geography. As museum pieces, the models are now displayed with “state-of-the-art lighting” (an arresting concept in itself), in handsome cases of historic wood. Visitors often remark on how uncannily “real” the flowers are, down to their grains of pollen, their asymmetry, and their flaws. They are almost so successful at imitating life that they turn a corner past expertise into quotidian acceptance (yes, that is a daisy), and the viewer has to remind herself to be impressed—that it is not a daisy but a glass model of a daisy, made by hand with iron tools over a century ago.
Many mentions of the Blaschkas’ work include some claim to the effect that the secret of their expertise has been lost to time—that we citizens of the twenty-first century, even with our 3-D printing and our AI art, have lost access to whatever well-guarded technique or apparatus made these models possible. The Blaschka family equivalent of 11 secret herbs and spices. For an instant rebuttal, watch the Corning Museum’s lampworking demo (below), which establishes in under two minutes that this work, though certainly astonishing, is clearly not impossible. Harvard too insists (though not, it must be said, with particular fervor) that these claims are apocryphal, that Leopold and Rudolf had no unique and miraculous methods—that they were using the same tools and techniques as everyone else, and were simply much, much better at them. “An artistic marvel in the field of science,” the Harvard museum’s copy calls the collection, “and a scientific marvel in the field of art.”
All of this is true. And I’ve noticed something else about how the Blaschkas’ work works on us. Now that my novel Glassworks has started to make its way into people’s hands, I’ve found myself hearing many versions of the same testimony, one that chimes against my own experience: I’ve seen those flowers, people say. Or, pointing to the CMoG sticker on my water bottle: We used to go, when I was a kid. Always, some version of: I remember.
There’s nothing particularly unusual about this—of course, many people have been to these public and world-renowned museums. We don’t pass in front of Washington Crossing the Delaware at the Met and exclaim to our fellow tourists, “What?! You too?!” But there’s something special about the Blaschka glass models, something that stays with you. Perhaps the visitor can somehow tell that a father and son labored over them for half a century. Or perhaps they are only impossibly beautiful, and uncanny, and suggestive of entire worlds. Either way, it’s undeniable: these flowers are alive.
Once the models themselves have sucked you in, it’s a matter of time before you start to wonder more about the hands that made them. As I started to learn more about the Blaschkas the details felt first endearing, then increasingly important. Leopold and Rudolf’s ancestors had worked with glass for centuries; they made costume jewelry, laboratory equipment, glass eyes for medical use as well as taxidermy. (How that interchange has haunted me!) Leopold first began modeling flowers for his own amusement; then for the amusement of a prince who displayed them in his palace in Prague; then, as Darwin published On the Origin of Species and the mid-nineteenth century developed a fad for aquariums, for public museums that were suddenly springing up everywhere. Leopold and Rudolf established themselves as the preeminent artisans of scientific glass models; from there, perhaps it was only a matter of time before Harvard signed them to an exclusive contract.
To me at least, there are splinters of information here that glint brighter than glass. Everywhere in the Blaschkas’ story one encounters the beautiful, messy interplay between art and craft—decorative brooches and laboratory beakers; models fashioned for scientific study, ending up in art museums. Equally resonant is the family business of it all, the lifelong professional partnership of a parent and child. (“The only way to become a glass modeler of skill,” Leopold once joked, “is to get a good great-grandfather who loved glass.”) And, perhaps most compelling to me, the Blaschkas’ story often juxtaposes the scientifically, even medically serious and the downright goofy—besides costume jewelry and princely bouquets, the Harvard museum includes a display dedicated to “Lotte,” a snail Rudolf found in his garden with a shell that spiraled to the left rather than the right. He kept Lotte for eight years until she “died a natural death” in 1922.
There are, of course, experts on the Blaschkas in many fields—archivists; biologists; art conservators; historians on multiple continents. There has been at least one international conference devoted to their work. The Corning Museum’s resources and programs are bottomless. My knowledge of the Blaschkas is something far lesser, a collage of gift-shop details. I can tell you hardly anything of substance about the education, the career, or the Wares’ brass-tacks funding of these artists and their work—but I know by heart, think often and fondly, of Rudolf’s careful field note upon trying his first banana. (“They taste good, and I like eating them.”) The museums’ gestures toward more thorough explanation—like Harvard’s display of a glass bouquet presented by Leopold to Elizabeth C. and Mary Lee Ware, who financed the collection—have always felt to me like charismatic but cryptic artifacts that I lack the context to interpret. (This is, no doubt, largely due to my own eccentric attention span whenever I find myself in dimly lit rooms full of fascinating objects.)
Even as I strove to learn more about Leopold and Rudolf, the inherent mystery surrounding their work persisted. The most resonant detail I uncovered—even better than Rudolf’s banana review—was a photograph of him visiting the glass flowers at Harvard in 1892. I call it a photo of Rudolf, but the viewer would be forgiven for missing him entirely: across an echoing room full of glass-topped display cases, with a balcony tier above, he is a vanishingly small, featureless figure shrinking against the far wall. He seems to be intentionally trying to disappear into the background. And yet the caption accompanying the image, from his letter home about the visit, reads: “With delight and emotion, I saw all the old friends united here.” I’ve come back to this juxtaposition often, for what it says to me about creative work: overwhelming emotion meeting the urge to fade into the wallpaper.
Retracing all this, the road I took to writing Glassworks feels all but inevitable. My novel ended up being a fictional biography, not of the Blaschkas, but of the glass models themselves—and, in a way, of their descendants. The gap between the vague figure in the background and the glittering immortal display cases began to feel, to me, like the most interesting part—almost more compelling even than the glass flowers themselves, the mystique surrounding the “secret” methods of their creation. (And our collective reluctance to believe, even as we watch a modern demo unfold on YouTube before our eyes, that there is no secret method; that perhaps what we are missing is only talent and patience and a benevolent family legacy.)
There are so many mysteries in life, so many lost or repackaged secrets, so many obfuscating reliquaries. Things unknowable; things we might have known if we had asked the right people; things we try to tell each other and fail; things we must relearn over and over. Things we stumble into again and again in the dim halls of life’s museums, but which every time seem too amazing to be real. I felt profoundly lucky, that day a few years back, watching the glassblowers at work in Corning and realizing with a start that I had been in that room before—that something was right in front of me, demanding to be recognized.