A Journey to the Glass Flowers—A Conversation with Jenny Brown

HMSC Connects! Episode 18


Jennifer Berglund, Jenny Brown

Jennifer Berglund  00:04

Welcome to HMSC Connects! where we go behind the scenes of for Harvard museums to explore the connections between us, our big, beautiful world, and even what lies beyond. My name is Jennifer Berglund, part of the exhibits team here at the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture, and I'll be your host. Today, I'm speaking with another dear friend, Jenny Brown. Jenny is the collections manager of perhaps our most famous collection--Harvard's collection of glass flowers, which were made by hand more than 100 years ago by Rudolf and Leopold Blaschka, a father-son duo, and mastercraftsman. I wanted to ask her about her path to the glass flowers, and what these masterpieces of art and science have taught her about the power of objects, and revealed about the hands of their makers. Here she is. Jenny Brown, welcome to the show.


Jenny Brown  01:18

Hi, Jenny.  Thank you so much for inviting me to be on the podcast.


Jennifer Berglund  01:28

Your path to the glass flowers was a winding one. Tell me the story of how you went from a student at Mass Art and ultimately to Harvard.


Jenny Brown  01:38

People are usually interested in my background because the glass flowers are so unique. So I got a BFA from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design and after graduating from mass art, I moved to New York City to start my career in the fashion industry. I worked as a freelance makeup artist before getting hired at an agency that represents photographers, makeup artists, hairstylists, wardrobe stylists, and manicurists. So pretty much everybody that works on a photo shoot that isn't the models. And while I was at the agency, I would manage the artists schedules promote them, I would organize their portfolio materials, and I also helped produce photoshoots and events. I moved to Providence Rhode Island in 2006 because I got an opportunity to a studio assistant for a glass artist named Toots Zynsky.  Toots is actually my godmother.  Toots created this class working technique called filet de verre. She created these machines that pull glass threads, and she arranges these glass threads in all different colors in this very painterly way, and then she fuses the threads to make these sculptural vessels. I highly encourage everyone listening to look up Toots' work. It's so incredible what she does. So while I was working as a studio assistant for Toots, I would help with the production of artworks, and I also ended up maintaining her digital archives and her physical archives as well. So that inspired me to go to library school at the Pratt Institute in New York. I really wanted to work in a museum library and art library.  Work with a collection. When I finished my graduate program, I returned to Boston. When I returned to Boston and I was looking for work. I was freelancing in Toots' studio, and I was actually running her thread polling machines, and looking up jobs to apply to and I saw the glass flowers job, and I, you know, went upstairs and told Toots and my other co workers in the studio, I said, "the glass flowers manager job is open," and Toots said, "stop whatever you're doing right now and apply for that job."  And I did.


Jennifer Berglund  04:24

Obviously the glass flowers meant something to both of you. What do you think they meant to her? And what did they mean for you?


Jenny Brown  04:30

You know, I think people in Massachusetts, people from around Boston, maybe even New England more widely. You know, you just kind of know about the glass flowers. They're this great collection, this great attraction in Boston. And, you know, so many people go to the Harvard Museum of Natural History for school field trips.  I think that there's just this awareness of the collection that you just kind of know being in the area. Toots, you know, as a glass artist, she loves the glass flowers. She's also a very avid gardener. You know, she loves to garden. She loves the natural world. She loves flowers. So I think there's also, you know, that inspiration for her as well. And, you know, for me, I remember going to the Harvard Museum of Natural History as a kid, going there when I was in art school in college, and I think, you know, you just are aware of the glass flowers. You know, when people want your Boston tourist recommendations. It's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, MFA, Harvard Museum of Natural History to see the glass flowers. As far as I'm concerned, those are my favorites.


Jennifer Berglund  05:47

Mine too.  


Jenny Brown  05:47

They're remarkable objects. It's, you know, whether you're an artist, a glass artist.  I think people coming from any background appreciate these objects and are in awe of them when they see them for sure.


Jennifer Berglund  06:07

You're from a lineage of craftspeople. Your father makes a certain kind of basket that is traditionally made in Nantucket. Your dad is one of the only people that makes this particular kind of basket called the Nantucket Lightship Basket. And so tell me about that. And do you feel as if that's given you an enhanced appreciation for the Blaschkas as craftspeople?


Jenny Brown  06:32

As you explained, my family makes Nantucket Lightship Baskets. This is a craft that is unique to Nantucket Island. Sailors on whaling ships in the 1800s made baskets that combined elements of Native American baskets that were being made in Massachusetts with elements of basketry from Southeast Asia.  And starting in the 1850s, lightships were positioned off the coast of Nantucket to warn other ships about the shoals, and crew members made these baskets on the whaling ships and on the light ships to pass time. So these baskets came to be known as Nantucket lightship baskets as they started to be made on the lightships. And through the late 1800s and early 1900s, the baskets were really, you know, utilitarian.  They were used around the home for storage, shopping and other utilitarian purposes. And in the 1940s, a basket maker named Jose Rayes popularized Nantucket lightship baskets as a women's handbag. Today these baskets are in homes, they are carried as purses. They're treasured his family heirlooms. So, my grandparents started visiting Nantucket in the 50s, and they bought a house there in 1964. And my grandfather was a machinist at General Electric, and he was just a very brilliant person, very creative. If he wanted to know how to make something, he worked in all kinds of materials throughout his life, you know, with the basket making, carving, jewelry making.  He was very interested in making things with his hands, and he saw the baskets on Nantucket and wanted to know how to make them, so he got a gentleman who had worked with Jose Reyes to teach him how to make baskets. And my grandfather taught my dad and my uncles, and my dad is the only one who turned basket-making into a full-time occupation. So this has been my dad's full-time occupation since 1976, and I continue the tradition.  I help my dad with his business. When I'm not working with the glass flowers, I help my dad with his basket making I help with weaving, I carve decorations for the tops of the baskets. I send emails because my dad refuses to use a computer. I definitely think that a craft handed down through generations, you know, really resonates with me. You know, I think that adds to my appreciation for the Blaschkas and for the glass flowers.


Jennifer Berglund  09:33

And for the listeners out there who are unfamiliar with the Blaschkas, it was a father and son duo who created these masterpieces, but it was a craft that was passed down through the generations. It's sort of an interesting parallel with your family there. 


Jenny Brown  09:50

Yeah, it's, you know, obviously, what my family does is very different from what the Blaschkas did, but it resonates with me. Absolutely. And I certainly take a lot of pride in continuing my family's craft.


Jennifer Berglund  10:08

So the Blaschkas, it was interesting to learn they never really considered themselves artists in the traditional sense. I mean, they sort of did, but they considered themselves naturalist-artists or naturalist


Jenny Brown  10:20

artists naturalist 


Jennifer Berglund  10:23

Artists naturalist, yes, but never artists in the traditional sense. It was sort of more, there was always, like, a scientific purpose to the creation of these models. What do you consider them? Do you consider them to be artists, or naturalists, or craftsmen, or all of the above?


Jenny Brown  10:42

Oh, definitely all of the above. In producing the glass flowers, it was really a scientific endeavor. You know, they were making this collection for teaching. They didn't consider what they were making to just be artworks, or just beautiful objects to have in your home. They took the science behind this collection very seriously, and they studied biology.  When they were making the glass models of invertebrate animals, the Museum of Comparative Zoology has a great collection of those, and a beautiful display in the Harvard Museum of Natural History. The Blaschkas were really studying biology, they were studying zoology, they were studying botany, and applying that knowledge to making these models.


Jennifer Berglund  11:33

Also, at the time, creating scientific models like this, for these particular kinds of organisms, it was important because at the time, there wasn't photography, really, or photography that you could use in the classroom.  You couldn't really preserve specimens like these in a meaningful way. Like you can't really preserve a real flower in a collection in any way where it's intact as it was, or you can't preserve a jelly or a sea anemone in a jar in a way where it looks like it would in real life. So you kind of have to create models in order to teach about them.


Jenny Brown  12:13

Absolutely. Yeah. So if you think about how a plant is preserved, like the specimens in the Harvard University Herbaria, the plant is collected, it's dried and pressed and attached to an herbarium sheet. And these specimens have tremendous research value, but they just don't preserve the plant to look lifelike. You know, for a museum, for a botany exhibit, you could see how a whole room full of pressed plant specimens wouldn't be the most exciting exhibition for the public. You know, same thing, like you said about preserving a jellyfish, if you think about collecting a jellyfish and preserving it in a jar, you know, it kind of just turns into this colorless blob in the bottom of the jar. So the Blaschka models really solved this problem of providing a way to study a lifelike representation of these organisms that were difficult to preserve to appear like lifelike.


Jennifer Berglund  13:22

A new book on the glass flowers is about to come out. Tell me about that and your role in it. And how do you think it'll help us discover a newfound appreciation of these masterpieces?


Jenny Brown  13:38

Working on this book was such a, such a wonderful project ,and I'm so fortunate that I've been able to work on this book and some other significant projects that have happened since I started working with the collection. The last time any models were professionally photographed was for a book that was published in 1982. It had been quite a while since any models from the collection were photographed. For this new book, 66 objects were photographed, not the entire collection. This was also the case for the previous publication, and we worked with a very talented photographer named Natalia Kent. She has over 17 years of experience in cultural heritage photography.  She also has her own artistic practice. Working with Natalia was really exciting because, as she was photographing the models, we were seeing details that we never noticed before. For example, there was this little model hypoxis.  The common name is Common Goldstar, I believe, off the top of my head. It's like a


Jennifer Berglund  14:49

Yeah, it's like a wildflower.


Jenny Brown  14:50

Yeah. And it's Yeah, the model itself is fairly small, about, I'd say, maybe nine inches in length.  The flowering part only goes up to maybe like six inches tall, so these flowers are fairly small.  I'd say smaller than a quarter in diameter. They're these really bright yellow flowers, and it's a really sweet model. It's not one of the showstoppers in the collection, but when we photographed it, it was just so photogenic. And Natalia had got in to photograph these little yellow flowers, and, you know, we were looking at the screen, and we saw these, you know, flecks of paint that looked like pollen in the flower and, you know, we saw the glass, the stamens kind of twisting over each other, and this furry texture on the stems. It was just these details that we'd never noticed before, because we weren't looking at


Jennifer Berglund  15:46

That's incredible that they were able to make things, like, kind of on a microscopic level.


Jenny Brown  15:52

Yeah, it's incredible. And that's one of many stories that I have of photographing the models and just making these discoveries, and just being just astonished and seeing them in this different way. When we interviewed Natalia for this project, she said that she wanted to expose the hand of the make, and it just, that really resonated with us. And she absolutely achieved that in her photography.  The glass flowers, they're astonishingly realistic. And it almost isn't until you have the opportunity to see these details that you do start to see the artists hand in these objects, you know, in these meticulously crafted pistils and stamens and little details to get the surface texture just right.


Jennifer Berglund  16:47

What do you think it says about the hands of the makers, the Blaschkas?


Jenny Brown  16:53

I feel like even if I look at these objects, and can see those small details, and look at these pieces and, you know, think to myself, okay, they formed this part and they achieved this texture by doing this.  Even though I maybe have a better understanding of their process, it just makes these objects even more incredible to me. It's not like because I know a little more about how they're made, it makes them more magical instead of taking away.


Jennifer Berglund  17:25

It's almost as if the Blaschkas wanted to make their hands invisible. Right?  Their ultimate goal was to be invisible and not be seen as creators. Yeah, they wanted these things to exist on their own.


Jenny Brown  17:42

You know, the Blaschkas were making these scientifically-accurate, highly realistic models. And even if you look at these models under microscopic examination, you know, they're still accurate even in fine details. They're very faithful reproductions, if you will.  There's a great quote where the then, I think Director of the Botanical Museum said something about how the fact that the Blaschkas weren't trained botanists, that a trained botanist might have modeled what they wanted to see, whereas the boss goes modeled exactly what they saw.  But I think 


Jennifer Berglund  18:21

that's really, that's an interesting perspective.


Jenny Brown  18:24

Yeah, so they, you know, the Blaschkas were approaching these models, and the invertebrate animal models too, you know, very much from science.  They were making these faithful reproductions for the study of science. You know, if you're doing these exacting, highly realistic objects, they look like real plants. They don't look like they're handmade. The early models, they're fairly small. You know, the early orchids, they're about eight inches in length, and they're beautiful, but you can really see that they aren't as detailed and refined as later models are.  In the exhibit, I love to point out the early orchid models are right next to the iris. It's a masterpiece. It's one of the masterpieces of the collection. You know, it's about three feet in length. It shows different flowering stages--flowers at full bloom, dehiscent flowers, buds, it has this elaborate root system. You know, you really see the Blaschkas continually challenging themselves and making these larger and more elaborate models, and also incorporating more of the detail models that show magnified plant parts and the anatomical sections. They really just continually challenged themselves, improved on their techniques, changed their techniques, experimented, innovated. You really see that over the 50 years that the glass flowers were made. Rudolf devoted his life to the glass flowers. He was working on it up until he the project up until he died. So it can definitely be considered his life's work.


Jennifer Berglund  20:07

Sometimes you'll get that question if you could travel back in time and meet one of your heroes. I think I might be interested in meeting the Blaschkas.


Jenny Brown  20:15

Oh, definitely, yeah. For me it would be Rudolf. 


Jennifer Berglund  20:18



Jenny Brown  20:19

100% Yeah.


Jennifer Berglund  20:21

Why Rudolf?


Jenny Brown  20:22

I mean, if if, if I get to meet two people, I'd want to meet Leopold and Rudolf, but if I only get to meet one person from the past, it would have to be Rudolf. I feel like the glass flowers really became his collection. You know, I think it was his life work, and I do think that the glass flowers is a little more Rudolf's than it is Leopold's. So if I could meet one of them, it would be Rudolf, I think.


Jennifer Berglund  20:53

Jenny Brown, thank you so much for doing this. This has been really great.


Jenny Brown 20:57

Thank you so much, Jennie. It's been so nice talking to you, and thanks again for interviewing me for the podcast!


Jennifer Berglund  21:11

Today's HMSC Connects! Podcast was produced by me, Jennifer Berglund and the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture. Special thanks to Jenny Brown and the Harvard Herbaria for their wisdom and expertise. By the way, you can purchase a copy of the new glass flowers book, "Glass Flowers:  Marvels of Art and Science at Harvard" online at hmnh.harvard.edu/shop. Thank you so much for listening. If you'd like today's podcast, please subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Podbean, or wherever you get your podcasts. See in a couple of weeks!


Transcribed by https://otter.ai