Playing with Fire
Bryan Randa elevates the art of glassblowing
Glassblowing is a storied tradition in the town of Sandwich, one so treasured that the Sandwich Glass Museum has made it their mission to carry the torch of this spellbinding art. The Sandwich Glass Museum claims to have “relit the fires” of glassblowing in town. Furthermore, it’s fair to say the museum has also, serendipitously, lit quite the fire in Pocasset resident Bryan Randa.
Growing up on a farm in the middle of Iowa, Randa was oblivious to the world of glassblowing. “I grew up outside, running around fields and playing on the rivers and streams – that’s all I did,” he says. “When I was little I loved all animals, and I loved the ocean, but all I would ever see of it was in books and on TV.” As a child Randa also loved to draw, and “As soon as I could,” he says, “I started doing pottery,” which he practiced throughout high school. After high school he studied graphic design, as well as drawing and sculpture, at his local college, and in 2004, at age 19, he moved to Onset, intent on pursuing further study in graphic design at MassArt. One day, as Randa drove around exploring the Cape, his plans suddenly changed. He had come across the Sandwich Glass Museum.
“I was like, ‘Wow! What’s that?’” he recalls. “So I went in, and there was a demo area, and some guy had just finished up doing a demo.” Randa struck up a conversation with the man, learning that he had been giving a demonstration on glassblowing. “That was the first time I ever knew you could actually blow glass,” Randa reveals. “He told me about a couple studios on the Cape, and then he was like, “McDermott, you’d probably get along with McDermott, so call him.’ So I called him. He was working on rebuilding his furnace, so it took, like, a month, almost, of me just calling him – ‘Hey, are you ready yet?’”
When David McDermott finally said yes, he welcomed Randa into his and wife Yukimi’s backyard studio, McDermott Glass Studio in Sandwich, and immediately put Randa to the test. “On the first day he was here, in the first 10 minutes, the air compressor blew up, so I gave him my credit card and I said, ‘Go to Hyannis and get another compressor.’ And he looked at me like, are you out of your mind?” McDermott recalls fondly. Randa proved himself to be reliable, and keen on the craft. “He was here every single day after,” says McDermott, “and I was just impressed by him.”
“I remember realizing how much I loved it,” Randa says of glassblowing, “like the sparks flying off of the pipes as they’re gathering gas out of the furnace, or the smoke everywhere from the tools burning while you’re making something – all these big, crazy tools that look like weapons.”
Randa eventually moved back to Iowa, taking up a glassblowing class. “I was just learning how to blow a bubble, and I could make paperweights and stuff like that. That kept me interested,” he says. After several months in Iowa, he reached out to McDermott about returning to work at his studio. “At the time I said, ‘Alright, but we don’t have any money.’ We had an extra room, so he stayed with us for a few years,” McDermott says. “It was like one little family.”
The close bond they formed would prove key to Randa’s development as a glassblower as well as their success as a team. “There’s not really much verbal communication going on when you’re in the studio working,” McDermott says. Randa explains: “A lot of it is silent communication – you’re trying to read each other’s minds to be there before they need something. That was a really important thing at McDermott that I learned. It’s a glass language, basically.”
For over a decade Randa honed his “fast, efficient glassblowing” skills with McDermott. “And then I got more into doing sculpture,” Randa says, “and that took over,” so he set his sights on going solo. “We were really sad to see him go, but we’re really happy for him,” says McDermott. “He’s a glass artist to be reckoned with, for sure.”
Inside the newly expanded studio behind his Pocasset home – the carefree sounds of The Beach Boys juxtaposing the intensity of the flames blazing from a torch – Randa demonstrates, with an ease that is seemingly second nature, the lampworking process, which he employs to make his popular small-scale pieces. “I have to focus on keeping this base warm – that’s the biggest thing. If that cracks, it’s pretty much over,” he noted as he sculpted a piece featuring a sea horse. But how exactly does Randa know the base is warm enough not to crack? “Experience, I suppose,” he says. “It’s knowing how long you have with your internal clock. There’s an internal timer that you get when you’re making glass – you get a window of what you can get away with – and you get used to it. The crazier it gets – the more stuff, the bigger it is – the harder it is to control that timer and be in tune with it.”
What’s striking about Randa’s work, especially his sea creatures, is the life-like detail achieved – how every piece appears to be in motion, full of spirit. “That’s my main goal with glass – that when you look at it, it makes you move with it,” Randa says. In addition to his nautical-themed creations, Randa also has a series of contemporary, vibrant vases and bowls that feature tiny figural men positioned on them in various scenes. “A lot of glassblowers are conceptual… I’m not really like that,” he says, explaining, “I’m more factual with what the piece is and what it’s doing,” though he recognizes that subjective interpretations will naturally occur anyway. Take, for instance, his bowl design that includes two figurines reaching out to each other – their action is literal, but the viewer could imagine a conversation between the male figures.
“It’s unbelievable,” McDermott says of Randa’s work. “The thing that separates excellent glassmakers from good glassmakers is an eye – knowing exactly what the glass is going to do. A lot of people just don’t get that or develop it,” but to McDermott, Randa no doubt has that eye for such detail. Plus, “He’s just a great kid,” McDermott says, “respectful, honest, hardworking, talented – every positive superlative that you could possibly think of, that’s Bryan.”
Another positive superlative to add to that list: humble. “My detail and proportion – I feel like I’m decent at that,” Randa admits bashfully. “It’s hard,” he says of glassblowing. “You can’t just half do it. For me personally, it makes you want to come back and try it again and get better at it.” Also what keeps him coming back: “It’s fire – playing with fire, that’s really cool.”
To learn more about Bryan Randa and his work, visit randaglass.com.