Il Maestro Mio
Ethan “Eta” Bond-Watts
Elio on The Allegory of the Animals
“Proud, very proud,” Elio pulls back his shoulders and puffs up his chest. He lowers his chin, “but humble, always humble.” He is modeling the “drago,” the dragon that carries the cup on so many of his goblets. “For the swan,” he continues, “multo delicato,” this time it's in the hands and wrists. He makes two dainty A-OK’s, and tilts them up as he lowers his arms, forming two tiny winglets at his waist. I am amazed at how convincingly a muscular 70-year-old Italian man can go into character as the mythological archetype of femininity and grace. “Please... I show you,” he silently whips an iron out of the pipe warmer. He takes his gather, the light and heat of the furnace make his face glow.
Elio on Glass for Everyone
“Too expensive,” he looks over the price list accompanying his stunning collection of goblets, candelabra, and sculpture displayed on top of the CMOG Studio’s big belly toploader in HotShop A. “Today... more small, less decoration.” For Elio, that means only one creature, four flowers, and two frilly bits on the decanter. It means a two handle optic stem on his mezzo-stampo goblet. It means only a six-bar cage entrapping the swan on his hipped chalice. As the students, both his and those of his colleagues, quietly buy up his pieces over the next few days, they find that there is a gorgeous piece they can afford, whatever their budget. Even more quietly, he slowly gives away all the little animals he’s made before class, during lunch, whenever there’s a free moment on a bench, to the kids sitting in the bleachers. “It’s nice for everyone to have glass,” he explains to me, “for beauty, for inspiration.” He hands a little snail to a young man who has been hovering over the annealer display for half an hour. “Don’t tell,” he says to the young man, “please, enjoy.”
Elio on Seizing Opportunity
“For six weeks I watch him make the piece,” Elio remembers, of his experience as a young assistant at Barovier & Toso. “One day, my maestro no show up for work. The boss at the fornace look at the bench and he scratch his head,” Elio shows us what he means. “I go to him and I say, ‘I am young, but I have been assistant on this piece for six weeks. Let me show you how I can make it.’ When my maestro show up the next day for work, the boss say, ‘Elio is making this piece now, this is his bench, now you have a bench over there.’” Elio recounts the story with pride. “I was very nervous, but I showed very relaxed. You must show relaxed, and focus very hard.”
Elio on Mistakes and Personal Integrity
“You will be in charge of the garage,” Elio’s hand is on my shoulder, his face is uncomfortably close to mine. I don’t know whether it is an Italian difference in the size of the personal bubble, or if he means to convey the importance and intimacy of the critical and unglamorous post he is assigning me.
“I’ll do a good job,” I say with a hard swallow.
“Don’t let anybody else touch it,” he continues, “it is your responsibility alone.” I nod affirmative. He nods too, and whips around to attend to the day’s preparations. I walk a slow circle around the massive and elaborate annealing garage that Harry Seaman, CMOG’s prodigious shop manager, has recently fabricated to Elio’s specifications. Venturi burner, check, dual chimneys, check, two sets of doors within doors within doors, a chain driven turntable, thermocouples all over the place, check, check, check. “Okay,” I think, “show relaxed and focus very hard.”
The obsessive compulsive brain circuitry kicks in, and for the next few days, every thirty seconds I think of the annealer. I wake up under the threadbare sheets of the Days Inn, “drago... what’s the garage temp? Oh yeah, it’s the middle of the night.”
At the end of the week, just as I think I have gotten the hang of the garage, I return from dinner to find every door completely closed, my elaborate system of radiation and drafts is undermined. The sailor in my mind’s ear lets loose the worst of his four letter assessments as I run up to check the temperature. *!?#, 1,300 degrees ;*%@, =^&$!!!!!!!! I throw open the doors, and the worst is confirmed. A long day of the maestro’s brilliant work is reduced to a single fused slumber party of birds, dragons, and horses on a bed of wilting flowers.
My first reaction is the classic American reaction. “There must be someone I can blame for this!” I race around the studio, “who closed the doors?... Who closed them?...” Luckily no one owns up to it, and I am forced to deal with the situation for what it is, an honest mistake that led to lost glass, with my hand on the tiller. I find the TA, Matt Urban, and bring him up to speed. With Elio gone for the evening, we decide to consult with his dear friends and colleagues Shin-ichi and Kimiake Higuchi, who are teaching pate-de-verre down the hall.
“It is just too bad,” Kimiake says. “But someone must take full responsibility this. And you should tell Elio as soon as you can.”
“Classic Japanese response,” I think, “funny, my first reaction was just the opposite. Defer, deflect, deny: the three D’s of personal responsibility.” “Of course, you’re right,” I say to Kimiake, “Thank you.” We exchange a little bow, and Matt Urban and I walk back to the hot shop to strategize how we will break the news to our Maestro.
We knock on the door of Elio’s hotel room. “Mattyu, Eta,” he greets us with a smile. His room is warm and humid from a hot shower. It smells of European cologne. Elio looks good enough to hop on a private jet. College basketball is humming on the TV, “Please, what’s wrong,” he can read it on our faces right away.
“Drago, sleeping,” Matt says.
Elio knows what he means right away. For a moment, his head falls with a sigh... Just as quickly, he picks it back up. “Okay, it’s okay. Please, not this long face,” he says to me as he pulls his own face into a frown with his hand. “When I was assistant in Murano, my maestro had thirty goblets in garage, my responsibility, all slump. I look like this,” he grabs my face with both hands. “Tomorrow I tell Harry and tell the class, ‘no one touch the garage but Eta.’ Okay? Okay.”
Elio on Confronting Fear
“When I was very young in Murano, I would help to prepare the fornace very early in the morning. It was the war, and sometimes the lights would be dark so the airplanes could not see the city.” As Elio recounts his earliest memories, I can’t believe my ignorance of the history.
“It was very scary for me,” he continues. “Everything was dark, and there were big shadows from the fornace. But the people around me were very brave, so I was brave too.”
Elio on Innovation in Glass
“The piece was very beautiful, but it took a very long time,” Elio is describing a giant luminaire he used to make at Barovier & Toso. “One day, I say to the designer, ‘Look, we open from the bottom, and no need to punty. We blow it thin here and no need to trim.’ The designer say ‘fine,’ and now we make three or four more pieces in a day. The boss was very happy.
“The glassblower who makes the piece always knows the better way to make the piece. He makes the work, he wants to make it better, faster.”
Elio on Travel and Home
Elio speaks four languages. Italian, English, French, and Spanish. He can use them all in the same conversation, in the same sentence. “You should travel the world,” he says, “but you should live where you are from. That is your home, your culture. You will never be at home in the same way anywhere else.”
Elio on Learning Glass
“You learn from your maestros,” Elio says. “You should have many maestros. You take a little bit from here, and a little bit from here, and a little bit from here.” He is picking imaginary berries with his right hand and placing them into his left hand. “And you have all of this, and you have something that is you and your own. That is your style.”
Elio on Courtship
Elio and I are walking west on Market Street in downtown Corning, toward the setting sun. He is incredulous that I don’t have a girlfriend. “Eta, please. You are young, you should have a girlfriend.” He continues, “when I was young in Venice, the boys, my friends and I, we walk the promenade along the canal like this.” He casually strolls, chest out, hands in his pockets, eyes relaxed. “The girls would walk like this.” He walks the other direction, hands folded in front of him, a little sway in his hips, “and we would pass. If you saw someone you liked, you smile at them. They smile back. The next day, your friend talks to their friend and says, ‘my friend likes your friend. Maybe she likes him too.’ And then you meet, and you walk the canals, and then she is your girlfriend.”
“I guess I’m a little shy,” I half laugh, remembering the cool bravado, tight jeans, and slick hair of the gangs of Venetian boys I had seen during my month in Venice the previous winter.
“Please, I show you.” He turns toward the window of a little boutique, “You see her? Very beautiful, right?” A gorgeous young woman is cleaning glass on the shelf in the store.
“Of course,” not knowing what I am getting into.
“Please,” he says, as he opens the door for me. Despite full cardiac arrest, I slink into the store with the Maestro right behind me. We browse for less than a minute before he engages her. “Good afternoon, the glass is very beautiful. I am a glass blower from Italy, this is my assistant, Eta.” He turns to me.
“How’ya’doin, good’to’meetchya, beautiful stuff,” I manage to squeak out.
Elio continues, “Eta told me the glass is very beautiful, but you are more beautiful. Eta?” looking back to me.
“Heh...” I smile awkwardly, I can hear my heart pound in my forehead, “everything is beautiful here,” my face fire engine red at this point. She smiles, and blushes a little too.
“Thank you very much,” Elio breaks the silence, “I hope we will see you soon.”
“Hopefully,” she says. Elio leads me out the door, my ears ringing.
Back on Market Street, I am grateful for the cool air and open sky. I have barely caught my breath when we see three young women approaching from the other direction. Elio nudges me on the arm in a way that I am sure they notice, and know involves them. He tucks his left arm casually into the small of his back, lifting his chest at the same time. It sets him up for a graceful little bow as we move into conversational distance with the young women.
“Escus’e me’e,” he says, Italian accent extra thick for the special occasion, “please, do you have the time? Eta, please translate.”
“Your speaking english,” I laugh, and turn to our new friends, “do you know what time it is?”
“Almost five,” one says. “You guys aren’t from around here, are you.”
“I am from Venezia,” Elio’s english back up to speed, “and my friend is from Vermont. We are visitors, glass blowers. Please, what is fun for young people to do in the evening here? For my friend Eta.”
The chat is under way. We end up exchanging phone numbers and promises of meeting up later in the week. Elio never lets his posture or smile fade. He says “farewell,” with another little bow, and as we continue past them, strolling west down the promenade, he pulls that left arm out from the small of his back and lets it drop to his side, his watch hanging gracefully from his wrist.
Elio on The Future of Glass
Elio is like a proud uncle, leafing through the pictures. “Ah,” he says, “very beautiful.” He is flipping through my portfolio and stops on a big, colorful installation of glass swooshes hanging on stainless wires. “The history of glass is Venice,” he says, “but the future of glass... I think it is America.” He continues through the images, “and this one,” he has stopped on filigrana goblets, “just like Murano.” I know he is flattering me and I don’t care.
“You are my maestro,” I throw it right back at him. “Just like you taught me.”
He hands the folder back to me. “You are my student. And now you will make the glass. And in the future, you will be the teacher and you will have students. You will teach for them like I teach for you. This is how we learn glass in Venice for a thousand years.” He pauses to let it sink in. “Now, it is your turn, in America.” He smiles, with pride, with humility.