Glass artist Foster Holcombe of Art of Fire shares his stunning blown glass portfolio, and talks about running a successful crafts business.
ABI: You have extensive experience running a studio business. What’s been key to your success?
FH: First, you have to put yourself out there. My philosophy has always been that “the customer is always right.” You build a successful business and reputation by standing by your product. And, I learned early on that if I make functional pieces of glass, I could make a living.
You have to be flexible, resourceful, keep your head above water and roll with the punches.
ABI: How did you get started, and how did you build business?
FH: I worked in niche markets. Our first studio was at Savage Mill in Maryland, and during the course of our time there (1986-1997) we had a lot of antique dealers at the same location approach us for work.
We also made contacts with glass cutters and picked up that aspect of the business too. We’ve developed lots of clients over the years. Some have been one-time customers, and others have repeatedly bought from us.
ABI: You offer classes at your studio. Is this a big part of your business?
FH: Years ago it was a bigger part of our business, and it is slowly coming back. We have about 75 – 100 people who come to the beginner classes in glassblowing. We teach with two people per instructor, starting with the basics and building on that.
About 12-15% of our students go to the next level of instruction, and 20% of those people turn into renters – they begin to rent furnace time at the studio, work on their own and get further instruction.
We’ve helped change some people’s lives. At least three students have gone on to run their own successful studios, and that is very humbling.
ABI: You often sell at Renaissance fairs. How has that worked out?
FH: We have a thirty year history at the Maryland Renaissance Festival, where we do demonstrations starting each morning and running all day. It’s educational and entertainment for the visitors.
We take custom orders from the public and sell from our booth there, which is next to the furnace where we work. When someone makes a purchase, we hold their item while they enjoy the day. They pick it up on their way out.
At the festival, we sell lots of stemware, flutes and goblets. Many people come back and add to their collections of our work, and we have found that customers can become your friends over the years.