Madeline Rile Smith
CONNECTED BREATH: Glass Wind Instruments for Intimacy and Vulnerability
Growing up, I never imagined I would become a visual artist, let alone an artist working in hot glass. In high school, I was required to take an art class, so I signed up for a glass elective, with no idea what I was getting into. At first, I was terrified of burning my fingers, but after a few sessions, the hypnotic presence of melting glass in a flame lured me in. Hot glass is always moving; it has rhythm. The artist must respond with her own movements. You cannot control glass on your own terms; the glass will always be the one to set the terms of engagement. When you work with glass you must be humble and accept that you will fail over and over. A day’s work might shatter into a hundred pieces if you get cocky or overconfident. Glass demands a zen mind. When your piece is destroyed in an instant, you accept it and keep working.
I’ve been playing violin and viola since I was a toddler. By the time I was in high school I was prepared to have a professional career in music but was sidetracked due to a serious chronic pain condition. When I began working with glass, I realized it was like playing an instrument: your body and hands work together to produce something delicate and ethereal—and often ephemeral.
Like music, glassblowing is a collaborative art form.
Like music, glassblowing is a collaborative art form. In the hot shop, artists need a partner to breathe air into the blowpipe as they manipulate the 2300-degree blob of molten glass. The collaborative nature of glassmaking is similar to that of chamber music, where bodies are coordinated and orchestrated in space toward the group effort of a shared goal. My strongest memories from childhood involve practicing with my classical string quartet—with me on viola, two violinists, and a cellist. We spent untold hours in collaborative rehearsal, detailing the minutiae of musical expression in order to create a unified sound that would transcend the sum of each of our solo instruments. In an ideal ensemble, each member approaches the group with a sense of generosity, putting forth an effort that extends beyond each individual, toward the shared goal of collective expression. The tender and dynamic tension of music can be broken at any moment if one member of the group falters. The act relies on a delicate state of interdependence. The music is not complete when a member of the group is missing, and a single person cannot carry the experience alone, much like the communal act of creation in the glass studio.
To me, the communal aspects of glass and chamber music require the kind of trust that is necessary for strong collaboration. Music and glass both rely on mutual understanding of subtle, non-verbal gestures—a moment’s eye contact or a punctuated breath can be used to synchronize coordinated movement or a pause.
This spring, I began a series called “Instruments of Connection and Compromise,” a collection of glass wind instruments that require multiple players. There is something squeamishly intimate about sharing a mouth-activated instrument with another person. You and your partner must stand shoulder to shoulder, simultaneously blowing into a hollow vessel to create a tone. As you exhale, you can feel the back pressure of your partner’s breath on yours, like your mouths are touching, but from a distance. Your breaths intermingle, creating a sound while simultaneously knocking one another off the note as soon as you establish it. Blowing into a glass trumpet makes the entire instrument buzz. When your partner buzzes into their mouthpiece, it causes your lips to tingle, as if you were kissing, by proxy, through a curving glass tube.
There is a humorous absurdity that I love about the glass trumpets. I craft them through a meticulous flameworking process, using techniques similar to scientific glassblowing. The end result is a long winding trumpet, like a device from a Dr. Seuss story.
The charge of my work has changed, eliciting visceral reactions of repulsion, echoed by a longing for the connection we were once allowed. In the age of Covid-19, the act of breathing can no longer be taken for granted; a healthy unencumbered breath is revealed to be a gift.
As the instruments are played, the performers’ bodies awkwardly huddle around one another. Spittle accumulates inside the trumpet body, while shrill honking noises are produced. To me, the ridiculousness of the performance creates friction against the precise technique required to create the glass trumpet.
These instruments were conceived and created only weeks before the Covid-19 pandemic spread to the United States. A week after this series was completed for my MFA show, my studio was padlocked by the university, all thesis shows were canceled, and the meaning of my work changed overnight. What began as a humorous and awkward gesture became terrifying. The thought of standing close to someone, let alone breathing into the same glass tube while swapping saliva, was horrifying. The charge of my work has changed, eliciting visceral reactions of repulsion, echoed by a longing for the connection we were once allowed. In the age of Covid-19, the act of breathing can no longer be taken for granted; a healthy unencumbered breath is revealed to be a gift.
Madeline Rile Smith is an American artist working in glass. She earned an MFA in glass at Rochester Institute of Technology and a BFA in glass from Tyler School of Art. Madeline draws upon her musical background to create glass musical instruments that explore the physical connection between players. She utilizes hot glass as a performative medium to consider notions of intimacy and compromise. Madeline’s sculptural glasswork has been exhibited in venues throughout the US and featured in New Glass Review 41 and 35. She has instructed glassworking in schools and institutions throughout the East Coast, including UrbanGlass in Brooklyn, Salem Community College, and Rochester Institute of Technology. More at her website, MadHotGlass.com or follow her on Instagram @MadHotGlass.
Performance photos by Elizabeth Lamark. Gallery photos by Scott Semler. Special thanks to Ethan Townsend, Ying Chiun Lee, and Jensen McConnell for performing on these instruments with me.