What I learned from Blown Away about my own learning communities

three people stand around a glass installation. there are two men next to each other on the right and a very tall woman on the left. There are glass bell jars over glass objects on the table

I love the show, Blown Away. When a friend told me season 3 was up on Netflix, I devoured those new episodes in about three days. It’s an elimination competition show where artist-glassblowers create pieces and installations based on a theme. They compete for residencies at glass studios and schools. There’s fire, sweat, heavy objects, sharp tools, strained breath, exhaustion, strength, fragility, breakage, collaboration, technique, form, color, texture, concept, execution, critique. 

In the penultimate episode of the season, three glassblowers are given a theme about fears. This episode hit me in the feels. The pieces they created were so personal and heartbreaking. They represented their internal tensions of life and death, hopes and disappointments, suffering and desires. These glass pieces were intentionally raw forms of loss, unresolved and desperate grief, disconnection from self and others, uncertainty, prolonged distress, traumatic ruptures, and sheared relationships. 

I’m in love when I hear the artists work out their creative processes. I literally feel stunned every time in awe, wonder, and reflection. Side note: I am taking 12 hours of glassblowing classes in September (yay!). With this particular episode, I was deeply moved by their artistic pieces. My experience of empathy and compassion with the artists was so honest, and it was quite different from the “triumph over adversity” stories in American Ninja Warrior (which I also love). I could see, understand, resonate with, and feel my own version of the artists’ inner turmoil represented in their pieces. I felt like they were communicating through their art a level of heartache that is tangible and visceral to me. 

The pieces were then critiqued by three judges. It felt off to me, like Reviewer 2, “this isn’t the way I would have represented your fear and distress.” I know it was to be expected for the context – art critique, a competition, a Netflix show with an anonymous, unseen audience. They’ve consented to layers of power over. But that episode told me a lot about my own community facilitation practice of emotional safety with graduate students. I’m like Reviewer 2: that isn’t the container for expressing and witnessing fears that I would make for grad students.

A twitter screen capture by Jessica Dore: "Today's card: Secrets are often thought of as deceptive but they're also protective. Disclosing somethign private can be a whistle to the hellhounds of shame, rejection & more. It's hard to share things we'd rather hide so I wonder: What are the best conditions for safe telling?" Below the text is the tarot card for the High Priestess

Learning communities I facilitate are grounded in power with and draw upon concepts like transgression, disruption, non-normative, testimonias, praxis, politics of consent, and right of refusal. Grad students share their fears and distress with similar layers of heartache and darkness: teaching worries, academic progress, public speaking anxieties, advisor woes, failed experiments, marked up manuscripts, making ends meet, job prospects, mental health concerns, microaggressions, taking care of family. In our communities, we often make our fears and grief tangible through expression in artistic forms like clay, drawings, collages of images from the web. We’re not doing therapy and I’m not a counselor or psychologist. But we are building therapeutic relationships in those graduate student learning communities. 

We co-create containers that allow for safe-telling of private stories among people who can witness, hold, and protect the stories properly. Sometimes those stories are heartbreaking. But lots of times you’ll find us meditating, reflecting, writing, cheering, encouraging, doing wiggle dances of joy, laughing, and playing. We love out loud. I want the graduate students to feel like they are with others who get it, believe, affirm, honor, redeem, protect, nurture, and encourage the next phase of the journey. In our graduate student communities, with the expressions of pain, fear, and breakage also come senses of love, wholeness, growth, belonging, and connection.

A screen shot of a Twitter post by Emilia Keh: "it's a big deal to admit to love out loud, to allow others to be affected by one's own vulnerability & to be the object of witness, to seek safety and authenticity within the gaze of others, to be embraced in self-trust, affirmed in sanity. This is not about romance, this is about what it means to be safe in communion and community. Love is allowance. Love is a survival need, and survival is meant to be a shared burden, not an individual obligation.

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