Bracebridge artist Kathy Ashby spent nearly four decades blowing glass and breaking barriers for women in a male-dominated industry. Though her days of glassblowing are behind her, she continues to inspire women, young and old, through her writing.
Ashby’s experiences forging a path for women in glassblowing is what inspired her piece “A Man’s Profession” in Be You, a new installment of Chicken Soup for the Soul released last month. She talks about her career and how her experiences in glassblowing help show her granddaughter the many possibilities that lie before her. Ashby was first introduced to glassblowing at Sheridan College in the early 70s. Throughout her studies, she learned about all kinds of materials from fabrics and clay to wood and metal, but the excitement of glassblowing captured her interest. Her class only studied glass for a couple of weeks, but two weeks was all she needed to be hooked, leading her to major in glassblowing in her second year.
“It’s very spontaneous, it’s intense. You can’t go away and have a coffee and come back, it’ll break,” Ashby said. “You make your decisions then and there, and sometimes you think you’re making a swan, but it turns into something else because something happens with the glass. It’s a moving material, and so it’s never boring.”
At Sheridan, Ashby learned how to make furnaces and glass from scratch as well as how to use 14th century tools to do hand glassblowing, also known as furnace work. She became adept at using a blow pipe and pontil rod to make all kinds of pieces, and soon she expanded her skills by learning lampworking.
Ashby quickly took to lampworking, also called flameworking, because she appreciated the intensity of having the flame right in front of her. It also allowed her to get pinpoint accuracy and create tiny details on her pieces, such as zippers, buttons and snaps.
“I wanted to explain to the public what glass is to a glass blower,” Ashby said. “It’s constantly moving, so I tried to make it look like even though it was cold and hard, you could still zip it up again or button it up or lace it up.”
She dabbled in stained glass for a while before creating miniature glass pieces, but regardless of the method she used, she was breaking ground as a woman in the industry.
“Both areas of glassblowing were for years traditionally male dominated,” she said. “I was with a group of artists that it didn’t matter what area of the medium you wanted to work with, it was accepted. But then in the real world, people did a double take because they saw a woman working the glass and it was different.”
Early on in her career, she worked alongside her husband Brian, who was also a glassblower, but wanting to gain respect for her work on her own, she later started doing glassblowing demonstrations at the theme park Santa’s Village.
“I wanted especially the little girls to see me working the glass,” she said. “It imparted the idea that, ‘Oh, maybe I can do this and maybe you can too,’ and there was also a message to the older women. See? A woman can do this and do a good job of it and get respect and make a business out of it.”
Ashby was very aware that people hadn’t seen a woman blowing glass and it was a point of pride to just be there demonstrating her craft. Santa’s Village gave her the chance to be in the public eye and challenge expectations of what women could do. She got side glances and snide comments from time to time, but to her, it was more important to be who she wanted to be and to show young girls they could do the same.
“I didn’t care about any frustration,” she said. “I was just really proud of doing what I thought I could do. Never mind the traditions and never mind somebody looking at me. To me, I was fine.”
After lightning hit their studio, Ashby and her husband could no longer afford the insurance to continue their craft. That along with the limitations of old age mean that Ashby is unable to blow glass anymore.
“I miss working the hot glass, so I started writing about 20 years ago, and I love writing,” Ashby said. “It saved me basically.”
Ashby continues to create by painting, sculpting and making music, but one of her favourite creative outlets is writing, building stories “almost three dimensionally” by adding layers of complexity and detail. She’s had about 10 of her poems published and has been featured in various anthologies, including three Chicken Soup for the Soul books. She even penned her own novel called Carol ‘A Woman’s Way’.
It’s sad to see the art of glassblowing fading as costs for materials continue to grow, Ashby said, so she’s hopeful that modern technology and a newfound appreciation for handmade goods could help offset the cost and reinvigorate the art.
Ashby is also hopeful that she can someday teach her granddaughter the art of glassblowing, but whether or not she takes to it, the biggest lesson she’s learned from her grandmother is that she can be whatever she wants to be.