Glass Art, March/April 2000, "Sonja Blomdahl: Queen of Symmetry," by Shawn Waggoner.
Strong. Calm. Serene. So are the vessels of Sonja Blomdahl. In an industrial neighborhood near Seattle's Lake Union, Blomdahl turns loose her vivid colors into the unsuspecting gray of her cinderblock and cement studio. If a Scandinavian flavor is detected in the simple, clean shapes and colors of her celestial orbs, it is by chance as the artist credits rainy Seattle as her primary inspiration.
Blomdahl is in fact of Swedish and Scandinavian descent, leaving some collectors of her work to conjecture the sense of style and design is in her blood. Also, after graduating from Massachusetts College of Art with the BFA and ceramics, she studied at Orrefors Glass School in Sweden for six months, providing her with a solid background in efficiently handling her material.
Blomdahl is no stranger to hard work. When she arrived at Orrefors in 1976, she had $300 in her pocket, and after her apprenticeship was over, she was out of cash. So she went to work as a cleaning woman in a Swedish hospital to finance trips to Italy and the British Isles. She returned to Massachusetts and worked in a factory cleaning brushes from microwave ovens. When she was laid off, she blew glass in a New Hampshire glass studio for nine months until Dan Dailey, a former teacher at Mass art, invited her to be his teaching assistant at Pilchuck.
Her three weeks at Pilchuck in the summer of 1978 proved to be a pivotal time in her career for it was here that she viewed the Italian master Checco Ongaro demonstrate the double bubble or incalmo technique. She honed this process over the next two years while working in the Glass Eye Studio in Seattle and teaching glassblowing at Pratt Fine Arts Center.
In 1981, she had her first solo show at Traver Sutton Gallery in Seattle and two years later, opened her own studio. She started out pricing her work at the same rate a trip to the dentist would cost, rationalizing, "I had just been to the dentist, and that cost me $300. I'm a professional, too, and I thought that seemed a fair price". Today she shows around the country and commands between $4,000 to $8,000 per bowl.
In the following conversation with Glass Art magazine, Blomdahl discusses how she executes the incalmo technique and her attitudes toward form and color.
GA: How did it feel the first time you blew glass?
SB: It was the early '70s, and I was at Massachusetts College of Art studying in a life-drawing class when I heard all this noise below in the old foundry. I couldn't just sit there quietly drawing anymore. I had to go down and see what all the excitement was about. It was love at first sight. I was immediately attracted to the process and material. The fire, the heat and activity felt almost familiar. As it turned out, I have a knack for it. You can almost see that in the work of a beginner. Not that somebody who doesn't have a knack can't continue, but it's like playing piano, where either you're going to have to struggle to master it or it just happens naturally.
GA: Can you describe your Orrefors experience? What was your role there? What was the attitude toward glassmaking? What is the primary way in which that experience shaped you as a glass artist?
SB: When I finished at Mass art, I built a little studio in the Berkshires with two other students. A couple came in to the studio and said their son was blowing glass Orrefors. I'd never heard of it, but being of Swedish background with relatives there and having visited there many times, I thought it sounded interesting. I wrote to the factory a few days before Christmas and they had an opening in the school January. I dropped everything and went to study there. And is very excited.
At the time, it was a vocational training program, very structured production blowing. Coming from Mass Art where both students and teachers were still in and experimental stage, it was a stark contrast. It was good training in that I learned how to handle the glass efficiently based on tradition hundreds of years old.
GA: How much did Pilchuck influence your direction? What was it like there in the '70s? Was your desire to blow glass taken seriously?
SB: Dan Dailey had come to Mass Art when I was a senior, before there was a glass program there; I graduated with a degree in ceramics. He showed slides of Pilchuck with people building their own tents and blowing glass in the woods. I thought that sounded like me. A few of years later, I thought of Pilchuck, wrote Dan, and he invited me to be a TA.
Even more than Mass Art or Orrefors, Pilchuck was male dominated at the time. There were women there, but they served more of a helper role. A ploughed through that and maybe had a bad attitude at times, but it was also wonderful being there-a furnace roaring 24 hours a day, people doing wacky things, the sky was the limit. It was there that I realized that that wasn't me. I started getting behind the fact that like things round and symmetrical and beautiful. That wasn't even a credible notion at the time.
That first summer there I saw the Italian masters work. One of the techniques they demonstrated was incalmo or the double bubble. It appealed to me because it's fairly difficult to master.
GA: What are the important aspects of your "double-bubble" process? Types of glasses used? Assistants' role?
SB: It is a difficult technique and a good way to get larger pieces without having to take one enormous gather. I like the crispness of these pieces, the banding and the reflections. Layers of color can be seen through the clear bands. I also like how the colors change in reflected or transmitted light.
We use color rods-Friedrich and Scheibel, Zimmerman, Reichenbach from Germany and Gaffer, a new company from New Zealand. I have one furnace in which I melt clear glass, Spruce Pine batch. We chunk off color rod that is put on the blowpipe first. When clear glass is gathered over that, I blow into the pipe, and the color coats the inside surface of the bubble.
With any glassblowing you have to concentrate the whole way through and focus on what your doing. I try to make the two or three bubbles that will be joined the same size. I want the piece to be crisp, clear and on center. Maintaining those qualities throughout the process is a delicate balancing act.
After 18 years of working with one assistant, I've added a second. They bring the color, keep the piece warm, open the doors, etc. I have struggled with letting go of being the main hands-on person in the creation of my work. There's a part of me that still loves blowing glass. I realized a long time ago that there's a balance of how much I can go on the road and teach or do other things and how much work I can produce. Currently, I sign about 120 pieces a year. That's comfortable.
GA: How did you settle on the bowl form? How do feel about the comments that they have "no content" or that "you are not an innovator"? To what do you attribute the popularity of your work? The fact that the vessels communicate serenity and strength-intentional or instinctive?
SB: The bowl, round and symmetrical, lends itself to glassblowing. I'm a practical person, and I like vessels. They're archetypal, beautiful, soft shapes.
I have never followed trends in glass or art. But I feel my work has content that is communicated through color, light, reflection and the vessel form itself. The response I get from galleries and collectors is that in a room full of glassworks, these pieces have their own voice. And people respond to them. You don't have to understand art to appreciate their beauty.
The serenity and strength, in the beginning, was instinctive. As I became stronger and more comfortable in my artistic goals and style, it became intentional through my manipulations of color and form.
GA: Can you talk about your attitudes toward form and color?
SB: I took a personal growth workshop at one point, and people talked about mandalas, which I had never heard of. My mandalas were strength, quiet, symmetry. And the circles that naturally result from the blowing process are like mandalas. The symmetry is an essential part of the effect. In a sphere, there are no surprises or secrets. I want my forms to be full and neither too opaque and nor too translucent. Form supports color and vice versa.
My technique allows for rich, brilliant colors-joining two colors, mixing two colors inside and out, making three bubbles so that an inside color is revealed on top, pulling up the mouth to give a greater access to that color.
Color for me is a matter of mood rather than meaning. My colors have become stronger over the years as I have gained confidence.
GA: Have you achieved artistic maturity?
SB: I think I have achieved personal maturity and the artistic side of me follows. I feel more together as a person approaching 50 than I did when I was 25. It's not the kind of maturity where I feel I can just hang out there for the next 20 years, but I'm comfortable with my work and where I'm at artistically, financially and personally. Now that I have a four year-old son, glass is no longer my life. I shut the door at the end of the day and go home.