Blown away

“I’m not big on the ‘art’ word. We 

make vessels.”

Every since he was a young boy, Jeff Goodman wanted to be a boat builder. The  ambition, spawned from early years growing up on the West Coast in the 1960s and later summers spent there with his brother Craig, working as a salmon-fishing guide on an eight-ton ocean-going vessel, developed into obsession. (Is it just the salt air out there that gets in one’s blood or was his intense boat-building desire due to race memory – some atavistic Viking legacy? His family, originally named Gudmundsun, had after all been part of the New Iceland diaspora that founded the lakefront community of Gimli, Manitoba, back in the late 19th century.)

After moving to Toronto in the 1970s, Goodman’s parents bought him his own table saw and at age 15 allowed him to set up a workshop in their basement. Building furniture for a neighbourhood clientele gave him spending money throughout his high-school years and Goodman, eyes ever on the boat-building prize, decided to increase his knowledge of fine woodworking through technical training at Ontario’s Sheridan College. Signing up for his first semester, he was surprised by the requirement to study a secondary medium. On the spur of the moment, he chose glass.

Or did glass choose him? A philosopher at heart, Goodman could argue that point. Instead, he credits the late Daniel Chrichton, head of Sheridan’s glass program, for inspiring him to switch his major, saying simply: “He had great reverence for the vessel, which he conveyed to his students.”

Although Goodman revels in rough surfaces and aggressive competitive activities, glass represents the mirror opposite: smooth, fragile, demanding immense delicacy of touch. What was the attraction? 

“I love ellipses, they way they curve in space. And I love how virtually every shape is subtly unique.”

In part, he cites his admiration for Japanese ceremonial tea bowls, mid-century abstract expressionism and Scandinavian ceramics, aesthetics he attempts to reinterpret through his glass work. Then too, the immediacy of the glass-producing process has its appeal.  Each piece is like a gesture drawing to him – a quick sketch rendered with authority. 

He talks of the automatist way a glass artisan must make split-second decisions, reacting to the challenge of the instant like an athlete swinging a bat at a ball. A man who loves pushing himself physically, Goodman also enjoys pushing glassblowing to its limits, comparing the anywhere up to an hour spent in the extreme heat and hazardous intensity of his glassmaking process to playing a strenuous game of squash. “When you come out, you’re sweating, exhausted.”

“My ‘aha’ moment came when I was 14, alone on the ocean with the mountains and sun. I thought, ‘I have to make the most of this life.’ “

Two years studying all aspects of glass craftsmanship and artistry at Sheridan College, another year at the renowned Alfred University in Alfred, New York, and a final year’s BFA from the University of Illinois. A three-year stint as a student resident glassblower at Toronto’s Harbourfront studio, with work thereafter as the centre’s technical advisor. Six years teaching at Sheridan in addition to founding the first of successive Toronto-based studios in 1989. Somewhere along the way, time for marriage to graphic designer Mercedes Rothwell, as well as two children: Zoë, now aged 16, and Dylan, 9. 

Jeff Goodman was and is a busy man – a good thing too for his concentric circle of fans. The artisan’s prodigious output of chandeliers, art glass and sand-cast panels punctuates the upper-crust landscape from Montreal to Los Angeles. In his home-base of Toronto, Goodman’s work forms the focal point of the Royal Ontario Museum’s C5 Restaurant/Lounge, the luxurious Hazelton Residence, and Toronto’s ritzy new Ritz-Carleton Hotel. George Bush, Sr. owns one of his pieces.

“The Jeff Goodman studio isn’t me. It’s the group.”

Crafting art and architectural glass is not a singular occupation. Goodman credits his core staff: David Williamson; Aidan Crichton (son of his former Sheridan teacher); Blaise Campbell, “the best glassblower in Canada,” who provides vital assistance on bigger projects; and especially Sylvia Lee, his workaholic designer and manager.

For someone who faces occupational danger every day, Goodman’s limbs are surprisingly unmarked, save for a slight burn on his inside right forearm. “I was getting pizza out of the oven. My kids laugh at me because I work every day with kilns running at 2,500 degrees Celsius, but I only ever seem to burn myself at home.”

Speaking of home, does he ever envisage returning like a salmon to his original obsession? “Absolutely. I still want to build that boat.”  cI