By Anya Shukla
Historically, glassblowing has been dominated by European artists. Dan Friday, a member of the Lummi Nation, is working to change that dynamic.
Seattle born, Friday went to the local, arts-focused Northwest School. However, according to Friday, “it didn’t really seem pragmatic as a career, to continue in artwork.” After graduating, he decided to go into the automotive industry. Two years later, at twenty, he walked into a glassblowing studio for the first time and saw a potential career path.
An art form where an artist uses a blowpipe to inflate molten glass, glassblowing requires a fairly unique skill set. Glassblowers must utilize a mix of industrial and artistic knowledge. Nevertheless, Friday’s background gave him the ability to succeed in the discipline. Friday uses his childhood drawing experience and mechanical knowledge from auto work to create his pieces. But the learning curve has been steep: “Glassmaking is a lot like being a musician,” Friday noted. “Anyone can get up there and sing, but when you’re performing at such a high level, it can take two or three or five years to start to feel like you’re producing something you’re happy with.”
Friday cites his relatives, among them a Coast Salish basket weaver and a totem pole carver, as inspiration. Although he initially struggled to form a glassblowing style, a conversation with his aunt gave him permission to draw on his heritage when creating his artwork: “I use my ancestors’ work to inform what I do in this contemporary medium of glass. I’m helping to bring my ancestors and their stories forward,” he said. “And that does seem to resonate with people at some level.” After he started creating pieces that drew on Coast Salish culture, Friday saw remarkable growth: his fifteen years of living in an art studio and showering in the sink gave turn to artistic residencies in New Zealand and the ability to support his family on his work. He soon realized that “we’re in this world where we’re all just humans, and we’re trying to make these connections with each other. Art is a great way to bridge those gaps; for many people, art is part of their cultural heritage.
Outside the studio, Friday also collaborates with his sister, a fellow glassblower, to introduce Native youth to glassblowing by teaching at the Lummi Youth Academy, Pilchuck Glass School, and Native Youth and Glass. They decided to use glassblowing to give back to their community: “I’ve had a lot of mentors who’ve helped me along the way,” Friday noted. Now, he’s working to help others: “I didn’t get where I am without a lot of good people holding the door open for me,” he said. “So I’m trying to hold the door open. It’s what you do.”
Friday has apprenticed with several famous artists, such as Preston Singletary and Dale Chihuly, to learn the craft. Because apprentices can easily break expensive pieces, costing their teachers money, most glassblowing apprenticeships are unpaid. But that isn’t to say that Friday didn’t gain anything from those experiences. His relationships and connections with his mentors are part of what set him on his path to success today: “Just seeing artists who are so mature and their careers allowed me to learn things I didn’t know I needed to learn.” He still takes contract work from some bigger name artists to pay the bills but has transitioned to creating more of his own work during the past several years.
Now, Friday advocates for teen artists to stick with art. “It’s really easy to talk yourself out of being an artist when you’re just starting out,” he said. “It’s not a glamorous life.” Instead, he believes teenagers should just open up their sketchbook and go forward one step at a time: “Take it easy on yourself, especially in the beginning. Artists want to see results immediately, but it’s a long game.”
Art, to Friday, is a platform with which to relate to others: “We’re in this world where we’re all just humans, and we’re trying to make these connections with each other,” he noted. “Art is a great way to bridge those gaps; for many people, art is part of their cultural heritage. It’s a great venue for those who are trying to explore their own culture.” To that end, a large part of his artistic journey was personal. Drawing on his ancestor’s work has been “a really passionate, introspective journey that has helped me solidify my passion in my artwork,” he said. “At this point, glassblowing is a landline.”