The Flylords had the pleasure of meeting Martin Gerdin, an incredible glass blower, passionate angler, and Colorado native. Martin taught us about his glass blowing techniques and artistic inspiration and shared about the intersection of glass blowing, fly fishing, and recovery in his life. Read more about Martin and his work below!
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in the iconic Roaring Fork Valley. My childhood home was high in the peaks, nestled between Snowmass Mountain and Capitol Peak. Instead of a TV we had walkie talkies, dirt bikes, ski gear, and conventional fishing tackle. My father was a professional skier, so my older sister and I were practically born on skis. My mother grew up surrounded by lakes in Minnesota, so she was the fisherman of the family. It was an idyllic childhood. We spent winters on the slopes and summers at alpine lakes catching trout and on raft trips on the lower Colorado catching catfish and carp. In my formative years, fishing was about the fish. I had tried fly fishing, but found it a bit silly when I could catch a greater quantity of stocked rainbows using a power bait.
What drew you to glass blowing?
Throughout school I faced a host of issues like poor social skills, inability to complete tasks and assignments, and emotional outbursts. I knew there was something wrong in my brain, I just didn’t know what it was. Toward the end of middle school I started exploring alternatives to public high school. That is when Colorado Rocky Mountain School (CRMS) came into the picture.
CRMS is a truly remarkable place. It has one of the best outdoor programs of any high school in the country, offering mountain biking, downhill skiing, rock climbing, canyoneering, nordic skiing, etc. It also had silver and gold smithing, a full blacksmith forge, a building dedicated to 2D art, drama, music, and a fully functional professional glass studio. I had always been good with my hands, and I had found that creating things calmed my head.
I stumbled into the glass studio one day when I was skipping a class as a freshman. I peeked through the door and saw an older man making flowers out of clear glass. The transformation from a molten ball into a final piece astounded me. Molten glass is a mystical material. It is liquid yet stable and so hot that it puts off a soft orange glow. I watched the man dance with the material for hours. This man would become my mentor, and took me under his wing.
Once I began working with glass that year, I finally found my peace. It gave me something to strive for and look forward to in the turmoil that was my mental health. By the time I was a junior, I was my mentor’s teaching assistant and worked for him during the summers. My grades were not good, but between fishing and glassblowing I had enough to keep me going. Toward the end of high school I made my first glass fish, which opened a rabbit hole I’m still falling down to this day. As I was looking at universities, I knew I wanted to find one with a good glass program. Making glass fish had me more excited than I had ever been about the future.
When and how did you learn to fly fish?
I decided to go to college in Florida. There was plenty of warm water fishing in the rivers, and the concept of surf fishing only a mile from campus was very exciting. I wanted to delve into tropical species in my artwork, and Florida seemed like a good fit all around.
However, in college I was introduced to drugs and alcohol. I believe that I was a drug addict and alcoholic as soon as I had my first drink. Drugs and alcohol released me from the manic episodes that had plagued me for years. Classes fell by the wayside and I quickly lost sight of my passions and goals. Fishing became an excuse to drink, and I was often so high or hung over that I couldn’t work in the studio. By the time my sophomore year rolled around, I had a fully fledged alcohol and drug abuse problem. I soon dropped out and fled back to Colorado, attempting to escape the newly released demons.
My problems followed me home. I worked in restaurants in Aspen to support my habits and bounced from apartment to apartment. Although the alcohol reduced the mania I had experienced for so long, my quality of life was pitiful. I began having frequent blackouts and seizures from alcohol withdrawal. The housing market was the lowest it had been in my lifetime, but rent prices were still sky high. I realized that if I could save up enough money for a down payment on a house, I could rent out the bedrooms and my renters could finance my self-destruction. In 2015 I purchased a small home on the banks of the roaring fork river, and that is when things became truly dire. I had not blown glass in years and fishing was merely an excuse to go camping by a lake so I could be drunk alone away from prying eyes.
It was obvious to everyone that I was going to die if left to proceed on my current path, but I did not care. Then, my mentor from my formative years reached out to me. He sparked my passion for glass again, but the extent of my alcoholism and addictions rendered me barely able to pursue it. He encouraged me to sculpt some of the local species, which to me meant stocked rainbows. For the next few years I could get out of bed to make a glass rainbow, but little else.
By 2019 I had daily seizures, ending up in the hospital with no recollection on how I got there and staying in my bedroom except to buy more alcohol. One night I ended up in the hospital with no skin on my back due to a mysterious burn. I still don’t know how it happened. The police tried to reconstruct my activity that night, but only able found me disappearing into the dark on an Aspen security camera and reappearing hours later. I had known that I needed help for a long time, but that night I realized I would either get sober or die sick.
I reached out to the only people I could think of. A Way Out is a nonprofit in Aspen that sponsors addiction treatment for those who can’t afford it. After meeting with the clinical director, I headed to a rehab in Utah the next day. During my 40 days of inpatient treatment there, I was finally diagnosed with bi-polar 1. Suddenly my entire life experience made sense—my brain had not been functioning normally for my entire life. There was a team of doctors at the facility who helped me get on the right medication to balance my brain chemistry, and I felt like I was emerging from a fog that had clouded my thoughts for years. All I wanted to do was get back to the studio and begin a new way of life. Stripped of substances and with a new lease on life, I returned to Colorado and started treatment at the Jaywalker Lodge.
This is when fly fishing came into the picture. At a Jaywalker function, I met a young man recovering from addiction. He is an avid fly fisher and, after seeing my glass, couldn’t believe that I did not know how to fly fish. He took me to the infamous ‘flats’ section of the frying pan, and we hooked into one of the gigantic rainbows that river is known for. This was the final piece that the puzzle of my mental health was missing.
My newfound friend and I fished every day during COVID lockdown, and he eventually gifted me an old sage rod and ross reel. The mania of my bi-polar disorder was mostly gone due to proper medication, but what remained was channeled into honing and perfecting new and old skills. I fell in love with the rivers. I fell in love with wild trout. I spent up to eight hours a day exploring every mile of the four world-class rivers we have in our valley.
How have you developed your artistic style?
After learning how to fly fish, I realized that the trout I had been making didn’t capture the essence of wild trout. Going forward, I spent long nights in the studio experimenting with colors and referring to the memories and sketches of trout that I had netted just hours ago.
The healing powers of rivers and alpine lakes cannot be understated. Sometimes I wouldn’t bring my rod and would meditate on a rock and observe the complex ecosystem I felt so closely linked to. I now take Jaywalker Lodge patients fishing regularly. Seeing young men find a passion and new lease on life with fly rods in hand is the most rewarding experience I could ask for. The kind soul who showed me the way saved my life, and I want to share that experience with my fellows in hopes to help save theirs.
What is your favorite fish to catch and sculpt?
The brown trout is easily my favorite species to target and create. Their iconic spot pattern, the smokey honey color, and the piscivorous jaw make them very interesting to recreate in glass. During my first year on the fly, I was streamer fishing near carbondale. I was wading down the center of the fork, casting to a rock outcropping that ran down the river’s edge. Suddenly, a huge golden flash caught my eye. A massive brown had left its crevice in the rocks and was aggressively chasing down my streamer. It struck and I strip set the hook home.
The fish ran into the current and down the rapids below me. My drag was too tight and my rod snapped cleanly in two with the fish still on. Scrambling down the rocks and under a bridge, I managed to get the fish into some calmer water. Since the rod was in pieces, I grabbed the fly line and pulled the fish to me and into the net. I marveled at the 33″ male brown before me. I had never seen a trout like it and was having a hard time believing what had just happened. The tail was like a small shovel and the jaw was longer than my hand. The next day I made my first brown trout, trying to capture the essence of that majestic creature. Brown trout have become my signature piece, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
What glass blowing techniques do you use?
Molten glass is a very bizarre substance. Unlike most other materials, it does not have a set melting point, so it becomes less viscous with heat but never truly turns into a liquid. This makes it challenging and magical to work with. After 17 years of practice, I have a very deep understanding on how to use its seemingly unpredictable nature to my advantage. One of the most fascinating properties of glass is the way it will fuse to itself. When hot glass touches hot glass, the once separate pieces are instantly fused into a solid object. I use this property to adhere the fins onto the bodies of the fishes.
I was trained as a youngster and in College in traditional Italian glass techniques, and that is how I create the body of a trout. It is essentially a bubble. I use glass that has a high metal content to introduce the colors in layers. These metals often react with each other unpredictably under the intense heat of the furnaces, so I separate them with layers of clear glass to more accurately control the colors. Once I form and fully color the bubble, I switch to modern American sculpting techniques that I have mostly learned from my current mentor, Jose Chardiet. Due to the surface tension of glass, I have to be careful not to overheat what I have sculpted. If I do, details fade, shapes round out, and the result is a little cartoonish.
How have you continued to grow as an artist?
I work at CMRS under an incredibly skilled glass master Jose Chardiet. While I was in rehab, my original mentor retired and the school was going to shut down the program until Jose stepped in. I had been assisting Jose with his work for a couple years before that, and he decided to keep me on as studio assistant. He urged me to pay more attention to the small details in my work and continue to push the limits of what I was capable of. Jose’s advice, guidance, and support have shaped my current work.
What do you hope people take away from your story?
Trout tie the whole picture together for me. I firmly believe that I wouldn’t be here today if glass and trout hadn’t come together when and how they did. Without others’ kindness, acceptance, help in hopeless times, and support as I grew and matured, I wouldn’t have made it either. We are social creatures, and owe it to others to share strength when we have a surplus and accept help at our weakest. Sharing my knowledge of rivers and their ecosystems with young men fighting the same battles that I did and seeing them light up with passion makes it all worth it.
I want to share my story because it can give others hope. Everyone knows someone who is struggling with addiction or mental health and we need to quash the stigma underlying mental health treatment. Too many people die because they can’t see the way out or find those who have trodden the path before them. As I approach two years in recovery, I am still astounded by connections I’ve made, the skills I’ve learned, the people I’ve helped, the woman I’ve fallen in love with, the truck I’ve built, and so many other things that seem too good to be true. I have to remind myself that it’s all thanks to recovery, glass, and the beauty of trout.
Since 2012, Flylords has been a proud leader in telling the stories of anglers and guides from around the world. Through film, photography, and journalism we strive to make each story as unique as the person or place it’s based off. Our goal is simple: inspire the next generation to get outdoors and hit the water!