Anyone who has practiced glassblowing knows it can be fraught with mishaps, but also a largely egoless and performative medium rooted in the wondrous potential of molten material. This is exactly what attracted Zesty Meyers, founder of New York design gallery R & Company, to pursue glassblowing at Massachusetts College of the Arts and Pilchuck Glass School in the late 1980s. He was enamored with the adrenaline rush brought on by the craft’s unpredictable twists and turns—and how split-second decisions could make or break the entire end result.
Meyers soon became disillusioned with how structural forces within the art industry relegated glassblowing to a seemingly endless cycle of churning out delicate, high-value objects while reinforcing substantial barriers to entry for up-and-comers. He teamed up with his friends and fellow glass artists Evan Snyderman and Jeff Zimmerman in 1991 to found the B Team, a traveling troupe intent on proving the staying power of glassblowing as a performative artistic medium. As a collective, they conducted zany, mind-blowing experiments on stage—incinerating glass “fear jars,” pouring molten glass over a steel umbrella, and even using it to fill tooth cavities. They initially brought their performances to universities across the country, hoping to recapture that magic they all experienced when first experiencing the magic of glassblowing. The performances soon became large-scale affairs and were attracting substantial crowds by 1996, when the group became a nonprofit to focus more on demonstrations and exhibitions.
Though the B Team disbanded in 1998, the core members haven’t quite gone their separate ways. Meyers and Snyderman founded R & Company, one of New York City’s foremost design galleries, which represents blue-chip talent such as Katie Stout, Pierre Yovanovitch, and Zimmerman himself, now an accomplished glass artist. The B Team, meanwhile, has remained relatively obscure—little information about the collective is readily available. That will soon change, however, now that the collective’s archives have been handed over to the Rakow Library of the Corning Museum of Glass, which is screening one of the B Team’s performances at SOFA Chicago. Surface chatted with Meyers about the B Team’s origins—and how it may have unintentionally inspired a generation.
First thing’s first: How did the B Team begin?
I’m dyslexic, so I went to a specialized boarding school starting in 11th grade. I had this one-on-one tutor who sat me down and started to figure out exactly how I learned, which felt really powerful. Ever since then, I knew I wanted to help and give back. That’s where the idea of the B Team comes from.
I started making glass at Massachusetts College of the Arts and landed a summer job at Dale Chihuly’s Pilchuck Glass School in Washington. I had a free place to stay, free food, a salary, no bills, and a studio. Every three weeks, a new group of 100 people came for fellowships. It was totally global—the world’s best fine artists and craftspeople were there. One night, I drove my professor’s wife to the airport and we talked about my aspirations. She told my professor, who invited me to give a lecture at Kent State, where he taught. In the fall, my friends and I decided that if we could go to one school, why not try going to more? We asked a bunch of Midwestern universities, and before we knew it, 12 or 13 schools were paying us to visit.
Were you planning performances at this point?
We were simply trying to figure out what was happening in the glass-blowing community. There was no internet—even getting a VHS tape was difficult. In making glass, we always worked as a team. We weren’t proficient yet.
Because you were still students?
We must have been 19 or 20 years old. Mass Art let us take a couple weeks off from school, sponsored by student government, and the B Team finally came together. We traveled around, trying to inspire people and ask questions about different wants and desires.
What were some of the wants and desires?
Everyone has dreams, but how to actually accomplish them isn’t part of the thought process. We tend to take our strengths for granted, so we tried to drive them out of the audience. We’d play Dada games like Exquisite Corpse and do icebreakers with odd humor to help everyone feel equal. People became much more comfortable with their gender, personality, and so on. Remember, it was the ‘90s—different times! Once we broke through, this centralism would come out and we’d go on the attack, creating something relevant and fun in that moment.
Something purely ephemeral?
We had to push ourselves to create both technically and conceptually. We weren’t just making glass objects—we told stories about life, drugs, sexuality, and so on. I didn’t even know we had that ability, but that’s what it grew into. Then we asked: if glass is limitless as a material, why aren’t more people doing interesting things with it? Why do people get so stuck?
We tend to pigeonhole ourselves without realizing it.
The goal became, simply, how do you bridge craft and fine art? How do you bridge the gap between craft and performance art? Why is there a difference?
Molten glass is a performance—a choreographed dance.
Even if you’re making something technical, if no one has seen it before, they’re seduced by your movements and the material itself. We weren’t looking for the end result to be a commodifiable object. It was never about money, rather how to grow ideas, express things, and most importantly, have fun. Intellectualize the process and get people to think, then no one is wrong.
Was it difficult getting people to embrace the mindset that something can be unconventional, and not wrong?
Totally. Our challenge became herding the audience into engaging and getting turned on, if you will. All of a sudden, everyone’s talking, someone’s doing this… Things are being invented, created, and the experience moves toward that crescendo until we leave. I think it stems from punk rock.
Punk rock doesn’t immediately come to mind when I think about glassblowing.
We were bored. Punks wanted to do something and created a community. They did it themselves and bucked standards. They didn’t follow the herd. That carried on in both good and bad ways, but they did what they wanted and it inspired them to become better people.
Were you also bored with the art industrial complex?
Why do what everyone else is doing but use a different color? Maybe we could’ve been more widely accepted or made more money, but would I be happy? Probably not.
Were any other artists using molten glass in performance?
No, and the A-rate glass artists feared us to no end. Most thought we’d steal their collectors, but we didn’t have anything to sell. They couldn’t figure that out because they were object makers. We were destroyers to them.
You describe them as “A-rate.” Does that inform the B Team’s name?
We realized that it was virtually impossible to join those ranks. The craft world in America had already solidified “the best” and weren’t letting young people in, except one out of every couple of thousand. A woman from the Seattle Times reviewed a Pilchuck show while I was there. She wrote “these are the up-and-comers, this is the b-team.” We never thought of a better name.
I hate to ask, but did you ever screw up or get hurt while performing?
Our public performances were rehearsed multiple times. Molten glass is an unforgiving material—you have split-second timing to get the right temperature and achieve the intended outcome. Sometimes there’d be 40 choreographers, engineers, and lighting designers behind the scenes for five of us to be on stage. It’s hard work to pull off a 20-minute performance. When we screwed up, we were good enough to hide it, though one time a big blob of hot glass landed in the cuff of Evan’s jumpsuit, and he kept trying to shake it out. Things like that would happen occasionally, but no one noticed because of the chaos on stage. Planned chaos!
In terms of manpower, it almost seems on par with executing a Broadway show.
If we kept growing, we would’ve needed a more permanent residency like the Blue Man Group. Reaching that level was never our goal. We all had other careers, but did this to push ourselves forward as humans. More people wanted to see our performances, yet fire departments forbade us from certain places for risk of burning the city down.
Some of the world’s biggest artists, curators, and collectors were sponsoring us, though I can’t reveal who. We needed to raise significant cash—it cost $10,000 per night to put on a performance in 1995. I was very against money. I wanted to prove that through kindness, we could accomplish anything. I knew what I wanted, but knowing that others want is completely different. To this day, people thank us and say we influenced their life, which I never expected.
In what ways did you influence viewers in the long term?
We started using a fear jar, in which the audience writes their fears on paper and seals it away in a jar that we’d ignite and incinerate. Our version was more of a test tube with a traditional Venetian cap. At first it felt innocent, but we realized people were sharing their deepest fears—cancer, AIDS, abuse, everything on that spectrum—which sparked catharsis.
You also toured Japan.
Some educators invited us to help open a school that was attached to a museum in the Japanese countryside, where all the young people were leaving. They hoped that building museums and craft centers would attract more kids, who were fleeing for cities. And every day we performed there, it grew. More and more kids—even media!—started showing up. By the time we left for Tokyo, there were hundreds more. I’m pretty sure that school still exists, but I haven’t been back out there.
Eventually, the B Team started superseding your day job.
It started taking six to eight months per year instead of two months. We reached our goals and started getting Tiffany Grants, Bessie Awards… We just wanted to create a word-of-mouth epidemic. You only live once—why not die trying instead of not trying?
Do you keep in touch with any audience members?
No, our travel schedule was so intense, but we keep in touch with each other. Evan Snyderman and I founded R & Company in 1997, and I recently went to Alaska with James Mongrain, who was in the first performance. We’re all on social media, which wasn’t the case ten years ago.
Have you worked with glass since founding R & Company?
Not really, but I’d love to. It’s mesmerizing, and I like the difficulty. It’s great therapy, but so is running the gallery. This is more of a circus!
The performances seemed rooted in empowerment. Has that mission carried on in the gallery?
This is our version of why we care about New York City. We want to push the idea of retail in the 21st century. We came here because food, fashion, art, design, and music culturally drove us to be here. If those things left, we would leave. I want to raise the bar on how to showcase design. Our goal is to provide the question—we all start to answer, and no answers are wrong.
You recently gave the B Team archives to the Corning Museum.
You know, people approach me and say that we inspired a generation. I recently did an interview with a college senior who read all of our literature at Corning. He begged the gallery’s archivist to interview me. It’s mind-blowing that he was asking me all these questions.
I assume that college senior is 22, which means he was born in 1997. The B Team had almost ended by then, so you very well may be inspiring the next generation already.
It’s great that we created something with so much staying power, which is the hardest thing to do. I never expected this to happen. It made a bigger impact than I realized.
Will ever be a B Team reunion?
You’re not the only one to ask! Maybe one day, when I have more time.
Bands go on reunion tours, and you were basically a band.
The energy is so infectious—that high, that natural endorphin from performing on stage. When you get it right, nothing’s better than the rush.