Battling addiction with flames and fly fishing: Martin Gerdin
It's easy to see how Martin Gerdin's creations could be mistaken for magic. Since the pandemic began, he has hand-blown dozens of meticulously detailed wild fish recreations from his glassblowing studio in Colorado. Social media users may have seen videos of Martin at work, seemingly defying all odds as he carefully manipulates a 2,000-degree, semi-viscous slurry of molten minerals into trout, salmon, redfish, and other revered gamefish. These scenes capture a craft that few people get to see first-hand, and many more should. The dangers, volatility, and physical labor of glasswork make it a less common artistic medium, but then again, little about Martin's art or angling journey is commonplace. In fact, Martin's affinity for crafting his glass creatures evolved from a journey in the face of adversity that is nothing short of inspirational.
Martin was raised high in the Rockies, some 8,500 feet above sea level. His father, a professional skier for most of his career, decided to raise his family as far away from civilization as possible. “Our community was built around skiing, conventional fishing, and dirt bikes,” Martin explains. “We didn’t have a TV, so young me would ride my dirt bike up to lakes around the ski mountain and local creeks to catch stocked trout on my spinning rod.” Martin’s mother played a central role in his early angling and artistic exploits. “There were two archetypes in my home growing up — the super athletes and the artist fishermen, and nothing in between,” Martin states. He and his mother connected through time spent fishing their local waterways while other members of the family were focused on more physically demanding recreation on the mountain. When not on the water, his mother would create complex beaded and woven patterns in her home art studio.
Martin’s first exposure to the art of glass blowing came at age 13, when he stumbled upon the glass studio on the outskirts of his high school campus in Carbondale, Colorado.
“I was skipping class and looking for a place to hide when I found the hotshop. I had never seen anything like it before. It was this little shack beyond the sports fields with a chimney and a big sliding door. There was classical music drifting out and this older gentleman working inside. He was blowing these clear flowers. When he pulled the glass out of the furnace it was so hot that it put out its own light.”
Martin remembers watching the man use a pair of metal tweezers to carefully pull petals from the glowing, fluid orb, before breaking his floral creation off into an oven and starting a new one. The whole process took about twenty seconds, but left a lasting impression. After discovering he could take classes in the hotshop at school to learn the basics, Martin made his first fish out of hand-blown glass. “It was this clear catfish, no color, which was probably about six inches long. And then somebody bought it for around fifty dollars, which to a fifteen-year-old is not insignificant.” By no decision of his own, Martin’s repertoire quickly turned away from fish, as he would not discover his angling niche until much later in life. “Glassblowing requires an incredible amount of training, to become proficient,” he explains. “To get to a baseline when I was studying it in school, I had to stick to what the instructors were telling me to make.” In college, Martin continued to focus on glasswork. Although his high school foundation gave him a huge leg up in the fundamentals, he was intent on mastering all the basics before letting his creativity fly.
Martin eventually found his niche in glass fish art after his discovery of fly fishing, but not before addressing a lifelong struggle with addiction and mental health. “Fly fishing and fish art didn't really come into the picture until I had gotten sober — about three years ago,” he points out. “For a long time, I was just making production work because that’s all I was capable of. I was really sick.” During the peak of his substance abuse, Martin experienced seizures on a daily basis. He admits to drinking close to a gallon of whiskey a day, spending most days locked in his office behind blackout curtains, dodging phone calls and knocks on his door. “A couple times a week, I’d go into the studio and maybe make some cups — because that’s all I could muster,” he says.
“I had completely lost sight of everything — lost my vision, my passion. That all seemed like a distraction to perpetuating my substance use. The only time I left the house on my own accord was to go to the liquor store or weed store, or to meet a drug dealer.”
Martin barely remembers hitting rock bottom after a week straight of Xanax and whiskey and blackouts, during which he experienced a horrific injury which left him skinless from his shoulder blades to his hips. “I'm a true drug addict and alcoholic,” he explains. “So as bad as it sounds, it was simply an inconvenience that made it more painful to go out and get more liquor.” A few days later, Martin was stopped by the police for an expired tag while driving to buy booze. “I didn’t have a license because of two prior DUIs. I was a mess. I was crying because my wounds from my accident had leaked and my back was stuck to the seat of my car. The officer could have arrested me, but instead he took me to a place called A Way Out, where the people got me plugged into an inpatient treatment center.”
It was here that Martin was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, after detox pulled back the curtains on his underlying mental health condition. “I learned my brain chemistry is dysfunctional on its own,” he states. “I’d been using drugs and alcohol to feel what I thought was normal for the last decade. I got on medication and for the first time in my life I had functional brain chemistry, and that was pretty strange. It had been so long since I’d had a lucid thought.”
At this point, Martin faced a pivotal decision. The doctors told him he could find a sober living program, or go back home, relapse, and die. Not soon after, Martin moved into a sober living facility in Carbondale, Colorado — a town on the Roaring Fork River, halfway between its confluence with the Colorado and the Frying Pan. Stripped of substances and his social circles, Martin describes himself as an open book, ready to turn over a new leaf. As fate would have it, he met his fly fishing mentor, Justin, in sober living. The two were “littermates,” as Martin puts it — beginning their sober journeys together and learning how to live again. “It was this frigid day in January,” recounts Martin. “Justin was putting on waders and rigging up a fly rod. When he told me he was going fishing I thought, ‘you're crazy.’ But he dragged me out to the Frying Pan with him.” This marked the beginning of Martin’s sober life outdoors. He recalls this trip feeling so different; not only was there novelty in the fly fishing gear and tactics, but virtually all of his prior fishing was done under the influence. “To this day, it's a real juxtaposition because throughout my entire fly fishing career, I have never been intoxicated,” he notes. During this fateful outing, his friend landed a rainbow trout unlike any Martin had seen before — kyped up and full of color and energy, nothing like the stubby, cookie-cutter stockies he remembers from his youth. Looking back, Martin attributes his renewed vision for blown glass fish art to the striking appearance of this trout:
“For the first time, I felt like things were beginning to come together — the recovery from addiction, the ability to make meaningful connections with the people in my life, fly fishing, making trout, it's all one bundle of recovery.”
Martin believes he may have unexpectedly lucked out with his situation — given the unforeseen coincidence of his journey to recovery with the onslaught of COVID-19. Along with all its destruction, the pandemic caused many people to resort or revert to substances to escape the painful realities of difficult times. “Lots of folks who were already sober relapsed during COVID,” Martin acknowledges. “But from my perspective, the bars weren't open and I was living in a sober living house with eight other sober guys my age. There was nothing for us to do but hang out with each other. We would watch the news and it seemed like the world was burning down around our town, but at the same time, I felt better than I had my entire adult life.”
So there was Martin, stuck with eight sober, obsessive anglers dead set on dragging him to the river in the middle of the Colorado winter. “I wanted to play Nintendo and stay inside, because it was February. They would literally pick me up off my ass and drag me to the river. It only took a couple months before I was doing the same thing to them.”
Martin is very forthcoming about the details of his journey to recovery. Creating spaces for conversation is invaluable, as he acknowledges that “most people in the general public would rather not think about addiction.” The societal taboos around substance abuse and mental health are likely reinforced by the prevalence of these issues, and Martin is well-versed in the national statistics:
“One in ten people is an addict or an alcoholic, and only four percent of those folks enter recovery. It’s definitely uncomfortable to think that two houses down, there might be someone dying of alcoholism in their bedroom, but a lot of my friends have died from it. And I’m one of the four percent that get to say I recovered. So if folks don’t hear stories from people like me, the situation can seem really, really hopeless.”
It’s easy to imagine why there might be a higher instance of substance abuse within outdoor communities. While Martin agrees activities like fishing, hunting, skiing, and rafting do nothing inherently to perpetuate addiction, substance use within these spheres is often part of the culture. “As just one example, I’ve seen groups on multi-day rafting trips that go out with the goal of getting fucked up every single day,” Martin notes. “Some of them probably wouldn’t be on the trip without the booze. They may all drink like alcoholics for those eight days, but most of them go home and drink like normal people. But not everyone can make that adjustment back to healthy habits.” Outdoor pursuits attract many folks who enjoy the rush of a good dopamine hit. But as Martin points out, dopamine derived from substance use often has decreasing marginal returns on the brain. He also mentions the role of state-dependent learning in complicating his sobriety on the water. “During my youth, I was a raft guide for the summers,” he remembers. “I was conditioned to drink whenever I floated because of the culture in my circles, so floating has always been a part of fly fishing that’s been more difficult for me to dissociate from drinking.”
Martin’s deep-dive into both glassblowing and understanding the underpinnings of his addiction translated well to his fly fishing journey. On the water, his quest for knowledge and mastery of craft fostered an intense appreciation for biology, entomology, and the history of native fish ecosystems. After he began to catch fish unlike any he had seen during his conventional fishing days, Martin soon learned why certain fish appear so unique. “I discovered that fish forms are determined by where they live, how they live, what they eat, and even seasonality,” he states. As he began to understand the beautiful heterogeneity in wild trout, he realized that he could represent that through his craft in a very unique way:
“Glass is perhaps the perfect medium for representing fish. When I’m sculpting, the material is fluid and always moving, and so are the fish. The glossiness gives off a sheen much like a fish in water. It’s imperfect, dynamic, and alive.”
Martin’s years of technical background in glasswork set him up well for the complexity of fish art. His process often requires creating the work in pieces with custom tooling, before assembling the finished product. When melding glass components, temperature management is key. A temperature discrepancy of only 50 degrees can have explosive results and risk compromising an entire piece of work. Despite the stresses of assembly days, these are Martin’s favorite part of the entire creative process. “So much of running my business is just me doing my own thing,” he explains. “But when we actually assemble the fish, I bring in a team. We’re all glassblowers of varying experience levels, but we all learn a lot together and the camaraderie is awesome.”
Of course, this excitement and team spirit all stems from the beauty of his artistic subjects. “People idolize these creatures,” Martin notes, “and not many people have giant trout in their backyard.” Martin’s work attempts to bring the powerful aura of wild creatures into domesticated living spaces, allowing people to sit with them and absorb their energy. Ever since his first experience fly fishing for those exquisite trout on the Frying Pan, he realized the magnitude of this undertaking. “Being in the presence of fish like that is really powerful. At least, it was for me. I’m trying to solidify a memory, a feeling, or a dream that will last a lifetime.”
More broadly, Martin’s story has shown him the importance of mentorship, in glassblowing, fishing, and finding peace through his harrowing journey to sobriety. Without the proper support system, recovery is near impossible. “If you have a friend or a family member who is ailing, buy an Alcoholics Anonymous book or a Narcotics Anonymous book. Just give it to them and say, ‘I would like you to read this. You might learn something about yourself.’ If you go and try to take their drugs and shit, it's probably gonna turn out badly. And if you yourself are suffering, look for people like me who’ve successfully beaten this. Because we do exist, and we know your story because we’ve lived it. We'll show you our new lives. And if you want your life to look like ours, we’ll do everything we can to help you do what we did.”
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