WARREN COUNTY — In the parking lot of a Lebanon middle school, local glassblower Darren Goodman set up his small, mobile furnace, a propane tank and a trunk to sit on, along with an amplifier, a guitar, a prop sarcophagus, and minimal tools to help his demonstration.
Goodman, a graduate of Kings High School, is there to show glassblowing to sixth graders in a way not many people can. His mobile furnace, which is maybe three feet tall and one foot wide, allows him to blow glass just about anywhere. And, he has — he’s taken it from Paris to Hawaii — but the furnace and Goodman have been recurring characters at Berry Intermediate School.
“I remember you from last year,” a student said as his class sat down behind the chalk semicircle that sequestered Goodman and the 2,000 degree furnace from the students.
Goodman does this with schools all over, and he calls it the “Darren Goodman Glass Experience.” He’s been bringing it to Berry Intermediate every year since 2014, when art teacher Abby Hanser first reached out and asked him to bring his routine to Lebanon.
“There are a lot of kids who notice how unique and special he is,” Hanser said. “They’re really interested in the glass blowing and also the message of his presentation.”
Goodman has over two decades of glassblowing experience, and has worked out of a Waynesville home studio for the past 18 years.
Goodman himself is a bit of a mix between a historian, a performer, a glassblower, a motivational speaker, and a storyteller; and he has a firm interest in using glass as a way to tell those stories, and a matching tendency to understand life through the glass’ lens.
The traveling “Glass Experience” — at least when he performs it for students — mixes all of those personality traits in a way that his other avenues of glassblowing practice cannot.
Its core message, in so many words, is that, “Life’s not easy, but it can be beautiful, even when it breaks,” Goodman said.
“I’m trying to connect children to ideas that are a little maybe beyond their life experiences, as far as embracing that struggle,” Goodman said. “That’s what turns you into who you are, who you become.”
For Goodman, commodified pieces like bowls and vases sold to art-loving folks with the means to buy them are the way he makes his living.
But that’s just one outlet, and it’s just one type of person he can connect with via glass. He uses those pieces to challenge his own artisanship, he said, but it doesn’t tell stories in the way that he wants.
Museum installations, of which he’s done several, are a way he can tell stories through glass, but it’s a bit more latent. Museum-goers see a final product, but they have to actively engage with the piece in order to get the final message.
These demonstrations, for Goodman, are the most hands-on way to tell a story and connect people to glass, even if they aren’t searching for it.
Getting just one message out of Goodman’s Glass Experience is tricky, given the variables at play: his own mood, his audience’s attention levels, and what he needs to do to get them engaged.
Generally, though, Goodman promotes messages of positivity in a way he believes young kids aren’t often told. He highlights the strength, beauty and resourcefulness of blown glass and stretches those similarities to humans.
Separately, he talks about the positive impacts failing can have, and how people shouldn’t be afraid of failing or breaking, because, as with glass, people can use the fractures in a new way or put themselves back together beautifully.
“We were always trying to instill that growth mindset in the kids, because so many kids are so afraid to do anything,” Hanser said. “They’re afraid they’re going to make a mistake, but mistakes are what make us grow.”
As always with kids, sometimes they get it and sometimes they don’t. Goodman has about 45 minutes with his captive audience, and just one chance to get his point across. And, as with all art, the message can be subjective.
“Just today, a kid kind of hung back as the rest of the class was leaving, and was like, ‘So, today’s message was: You can do whatever you want as long as you put your mind to it?’ And we were like, ‘Yes!’” Hanser said.
“The longer I have been at doing it, the better I am at accepting when things go completely opposite from what I want,” Goodman said. “It’s really beneficial, sometimes, when things don’t go how I want. They take me to a better place than where I was planning on going.”
This, too, is a lesson he learned through glass. For Goodman, finding an interest in glass blowing helped him mellow as a young adult.
“Glass requires you to go with the flow, that’s one thing for sure, and as a child I had a problem with that,” Goodman said. “To the point where I got kicked out of two schools.”
Goodman said he ran into trouble with the law, substances, and struggled to find his place in the world as a late adolescent. “It wasn’t really until I found glass that I narrowed and focused my energy,” Goodman said. Through working with glass, he learned lessons that helped him achieve contentment.
“It took me a while to realize that sometimes glass could take me and teach me something more than what I was trying to get out of it, and also glass was teaching me to be more patient with where I wanted to go,” Goodman said.
“The fact of glass being able to break apart but then being able to melt back together, put back together, not necessarily in the same configuration, but turned into something meaningful and beautiful and reborn,” Goodman said, “is something that I can see in my own life.”
“My biggest thing is trying to get them to understand this,” Goodman said. “Sometimes, I don’t know if any of it does any good, but sometimes I am shown that it does, and that makes me feel like it’s worth it,” Goodman said.
Goodman said sharing these lessons through glass is what most often makes him feel like he’s making a difference.
“It really makes me feel like I’ve got a purpose when I’m sharing these messages of working through struggle despite it not feeling good, despite it not seeming like what you want, but eventually believing and knowing your work will pay off and get you the life that you dream of.”
While that’s the gist of his message, Goodman explained that it’s a bit more complex than that. He knows that dreaming and working toward a goal won’t guarantee the wildest of successes, but, the way he sees it, a person’s objectives can shift through that perseverance.
“That dream continues to shift. Sometimes I look at my life and I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, how’d I manage to get here?’ And, ‘Is this really what I wanted? Is this really success?’ And, at the end of the day I say, ‘Of course. I’m doing everything I wanted to do,’” Goodman said. “Who can ask for more?”