Shawn Messenger reminisces about her beginnings as a glass artist, and how her business has grown in a community which embraces her craft.
ABI: You started blowing glass back in the 1970’s. What changes have you seen in the medium since then?
SM: When I started blowing glass in the mid 70ʼs it was a very new medium that was not well known. I remember going to the Ann Arbor Street fair to help my professor, Brent Young, with his booth and everyone thought his pieces were stone. They had no idea what glass was or how it was made. It was a much simpler time with lots of experimentation. We made our own colored glass which was basically blue, green, black and brown.
We also melted white glass made from Fenton glass scraps that we got from a distributor of cullet from the West Virginia glass factories. The greatest part of melting those few colors was that we could add copper and silver nitrates to it and then reduce it by changing the atmosphere in the glory hole (re-heating chamber) to bring it to the surface. This made a lot of wonderful extra colors.
Today we have color bars imported from Germany that give me my giant crayola crayon box to create my pieces. I believe these colors have given glass the notoriety and desire it has attained in the craft world. Also, students now have so much more sophistication and ability to blow glass. We were learning techniques from each other and the pool was small. Today we have lots of influences from Europe and Asia and just a whole lot more people involved in creating glass. That has only helped the medium grow to itʼs present stature.
ABI: You and your husband Jack Schmidt have a glass studio in Toledo, Ohio. What part will you be playing in the upcoming Glass Art Society conference?
SM: Jack is one of the co-chairs of the event so we have been in on the planning for over a year already. Our studio was filmed for the initial video that kicked off the announcement for the conference. We will be hosting a visiting artist for the Day of Glass which is the beginning of the conference.The Day of Glass will focus on all of the studios and galleries in Toledo. We will also have what we are calling “The Old Timerʼs Blow” on Friday of the conference during the Gallery Hop.
We have invited as many of the original glass artists that helped to start the Glass Art Society that are still with us. We plan to have everyone help blow a crazy piece or two with the help of some of the “young timers”. On Saturday morning of the conference we will also host the Glass Collectors Group for a breakfast. We will also have a prominent glass artist demonstrate during this time. We are still working on who all of these artist will be and if we can get some funding to help them come.
ABI: Could you explain the “murrini/millefiore” technique that you use?
SM: Millifiore is Italian for “a thousand flowers” and that certainly describes my work! This is a very old Italian technique that dates back centuries. I start with the center color and shape it. I then put a hot layer of another color over the center and shape it to envelope it completely. I then get the entire piece hot and plunge it into a metal mold to give it the shape like a flower. I let the piece cool a bit and then cover it in clear glass. I get the whole piece hot again and attach the end of it to a punty (metal pipe) with some glass on it. My assistant and I pull the hot glass into a long cane, maybe 10-12 feet long.
After the cane is cool, we cut it into small pieces with a tile nipper. This is the murrini, the individual pieces that are the flowers of the millifiore. The murrini is a slice or cross section of the cane. The clear glass that is on the outside of the murrini helps separate it from the piece next to it and also helps give my vases their depth when you look at them.
ABI: Given the current economic climate, what adjustments have you made in your business?
SM: I have chosen only to do one art fair and have focused more on my wholesale accounts.I have tried to come up designs that are more high end and lower end because the middle seems to have dropped off a bit. I have replaced the art fairs basically by selling some of my pieces in the Artful Home catalog. We also have a small gallery at our studio that has helped greatly with sales and I have done more award creations for local companies.
One of the greatest places to sell is the Toledo Museum of Art Collectorʼs Corner. This is a gallery within the Museum along with the Museum Store that sells local artistʼs work. The Toledo Museum is world renowned and the Glass Pavilion which houses the glass collection and a state of the art glass studio draws visitors from all over the world. I get great exposure from this little gem and sell to more than just Toledo buyers. This lets me stay in my studio and continue creating which is where I am happiest.