View Full Version : At a Crossroads

Ben David
04-23-2012, 02:41 AM
So far:
Artistic kid who fell in love with glass during a childhood trip to Corning.... Was accepted to both design and engineering schools, took the "safe" route of engineering with a load of electives in art&design... and wound up sitting across the table from graphic artists and product designers for much of my professional life... the art has been "leaking out" in drawing, fiber, pottery, metalwork, printmaking....

Finally got a chance to learn glass when the studio opened in Tel-Aviv a few years ago... now have a modest enamel/lampwork setup at home.

Now I'm turning 50... Was let go from my hi-tech job last year - and the economic clouds over Europe and North America do not bode well. This is the longest I've been unemployed.

So: is this the time to shift gears? How do you make that work?

(Note: please don't read "hi-tech" and slot me in with the Silicon Valley "artists" who plunk down $$$ for an "instant studio" - I certainly don't have that kind of money, or attitude...)

I remember someone here is a bus driver - and a local bus company is recruiting new drivers. It's also been suggested to me that I could become an English teacher (I'm overseas). I'm open to any of these options... I have a modest mortgage for another 12 years, and it's common (and necessary) here to help kids buy their first home.

My "day job" (amazingly I still think of it that way 20-odd years on!) has given me experience and understanding useful for the business/marketing side of running a studio business.

So: How did you get at your mix of art and making a stable income?
How do you make it work?

Thanks for your input -
Ben David

Dave Bross
04-23-2012, 05:38 AM
I'm the bus driver. As in school bus driver.

The school bus gig is great because it gives you the middle of the day off and summers, all holidays, etc.

I don't know how that works there.

I wrote a book on it (look in seeds & cords) but no need to buy it if you're short on funds. I'll gladly answer any questions...or if you would review it for me I'll send you a free review copy. That helps both of us.

I've always done something part time that covers the bills so I can play or work on "plan B" otherwise. I've lived like a king on 20K or less for years. There are tricks to this.

Some of the other good gigs from the past were scrap metal, newspaper routes (big disadvantage here, you're on duty 7 days a week), assembling/repairing pool tables and many others I can't recall at the moment:


I hear you on the college education not pulling the weight anymore. I talk to a lot of kids about to graduate high school and advise them against college except for certain circumstances:


all that money would start a hell of a business if you're game for the risk.

I've got to head out for my morning bus run. More later?

Pete VanderLaan
04-23-2012, 07:40 AM
I find myself now being diverse. For a long time, I just made glass and learned everything that was going to get learned about it over forty plus years. When it occurred to me to make color rods, I actually thought it would be fun which was a serious misjudgement on my part. It turned in to nothing more than adding value to materials coming in one end of the building and pushing them out the other end at a profit with a fairly miserable employee thrown in for good measure. Making the color required clean new crucibles and lots of them and that led to my relationship with EC which went well for a long time. As John Bartell from LaClede said, I put EC on the map. While doing the rod company did cost me a ton of my capital, it led me to something that did the opposite. Not only could I do well on crucibles, both designing and selling them, it led me to realize that what I knew about the chemistry of glass and coloring it was a valued item as well. So we offered the first course about the garbage in my head around ten years ago. Steve Stadelman and I connected with each other over moly furnaces and that in turn led to Steve building furnaces and me supplying the pots. That in turn led to working with High Temp out of Portland making pots that EC just couldn't do. That in turn led to leaving EC behind over quality control and ISO9000 issues and committing to working with High Temp. Once Steve stopped making furnaces, the need for supplying parts became an obvious issue and opportunity. I was willing to make the first huge payment in China to get a boatload of elements and it was a very scary thing to do. I literally sent all of my cash off in the night on a handshake. It worked however and I keep getting big crates of elements every 8 weeks or so. We supply all the castings for Steve's furnaces. Once I was in Istanbul, we bought a lot of Scarves in the Spice bazaar as well as vacuum packed spices and brought them home for our funny little gallery to sell. That gives my daughter who is attached to the US Embassy in Athens her own opportunity to use her language skills and her love of the southern part of Europe and to turn a profit visiting Turkey, a country she loves.

My point here is diversity. What I say to my daughter is that doors open and doors close. Walk through the doors I say to her. Your life will never be neatly planned. You are not a kid cut out to grow up in a three bedroom house in the suburbs. Standing still makes you an easy target for stagnation. You have language skills so use them. I have hopes that she will start up a business on one of the Islands with a cafe, renting bicycles and touring people from the States. She and her friend speak perfect Greek at this point and her Turkish is good. They can use their passion to live their lives. At some point the direction in her life will change yet again and there will be new doors.

For me, making glass only accounts for about 20-25 percent of my income at this stage in my life. I am 12 years older than you and I couldn't ever have the energy to make glass my only source of income. My crucible business and element business and knowledge of and experience with the material does the rest. I share that knowledge in the business constantly and any business is really based on service to the customer. I just try to make my customers lives easier. I did not plan that really, I just followed my nose and stayed really curious all my life. Maybe I got lucky, I don't know. I prefer to think that I just walked through doors when they seemed open.

It sounds to me like doors in your life have been closing so you have to ask yourself which doors appear open. Making glass for sale is certainly do-able, it's more a question of discovering that getting what you thought you wanted is different that getting something that satisfies you. You will need to take positive steps soon or your capital will run out. I do believe that life is pretty short and that rather than just getting by it's worth doing something that would make your mother really proud of you.


Dave Bross
04-23-2012, 09:54 AM
Amen Pete. Stay curious....follow what REALLY interests you...be ready for surprises.

an old post of mine along the same lines from a while back:


As devil's advocate...any interest in freelancing your engineering work or are you done there?

Got some ideas if yes.

I suspect most of that sort of work will shift over to contracting freelancers in the near future anyway.

There's a fairly famous bulding engineer here that saved Sky's ass a few years back.

Seems there was a massive party (or was it the threat of a massive party?) that triggered some of those people who really need to get a hobby (life). They complained to every government agency they could think of with all the usual made up stories of the horrors of sex, drugs and rock and roll that they were absolutely sure were going down.

As we got the story later, all the officials in the county were falling over each other to be the first to get out there. I guess the lies were mighty good ones and they wanted to be the first to see the orgy.

Of course, when they got there it wasn't what it was thought to be at all.


Stir an enforcer from their cozy office and someone is going to get it. Particularly if they expected to be entertained...

All they could think of was to bust Sky for building violations on his hot shop. The way the violation paperwork was done would require an engineers seal to make all the trouble go away.

Sky's shop is going to still be here when we're all dead and gone. It's essentially a cathedral made with concrete, phone poles and large timbers.
With pews!
Pray for inspiration!

The requirement for an engineers seal is usually the death toll for your home building project as the average cost is many, many thousands.

Maybe there should have been an orgy and they would of been happier????

Probably not.

Our local engineer guy saved the day. He signed off on it for what I remember to be very little if any in compensation. It didn't hurt that this particular engineer is one of the leading voices in alternative housing.

Now that was the art of engineering...or was it engineering art?

David Patchen
04-23-2012, 11:43 AM
Great discussion.

Doing what you're passionate about is great, but it it's not differentiated it probably won't be financially rewarding. Doing what you are specifically experienced in professionally may be financially rewarding, but it might not be fulfilling or differentiated.

However, I think finding the intersection of what you're passionate about with what you're professionally skilled at and combining these in a way that makes what you offer distinctive and unique is likely to result in something that is more likely to work on a number of levels.

This is a tough and continual challenge to figure out, but is one of the greatest of life's opportunities.

Barb Sanderson
04-23-2012, 07:15 PM
This is such an inspirational discussion and brings many memories back to me. I echo Pete in following the open doors but you also have to have an open mind to SEE the open doors. So many people don't even see or acknowledge the opportunities that are right in front of their face.
I don't feel confident giving you any specific advice since you are in Israel and I know nothing about your economy and marketplace there. But I would encourage you to find employment that you can tolerate and perhaps enjoy most of the time to cover your modest needs and then you are free to explore other opportunities in the art world. But also beware that sometimes if you are successful in the art world you may end up having to do/make things that drive you crazy - try to keep the art part of your life a hobby instead of a need for income - it will make a world of difference in the end,

Pete VanderLaan
04-23-2012, 08:27 PM
I have long thought that making glass pieces that look like they are really ancient and then salting archaeological sites with them and showing tourists where the sites are could be lucrative...

Barb Sanderson
04-23-2012, 10:45 PM
Well he's in the right part of the world to try that out!

Mike Hanson
04-23-2012, 11:39 PM
I have long thought that making glass pieces that look like they are really ancient and then salting archaeological sites with them and showing tourists where the sites are could be lucrative...

New Relics...

Scott Dunahee
04-24-2012, 07:35 AM
As someone who went through this in the last decade, let me be a voice of caution.

I started my own studio, with one partner, because I loved to blow glass. Fair enough. I was sure I'd have tons of time to blow what I needed to make as well as have time for my own artistic explorations.

This turned out to be the opposite. I spent all of my studio time making increasingly less expensive work to keep the wheels turning. If I did find myself with a large commission, it usually meant a ton of extra work without any real significant extra compensation when the big job was done.

What I really spent my time doing was book keeping, ordering, maintenance, designing at a price point where I could actually sell the stuff, cranking out seemingly endless pumpkins and ornaments, repairing the continually breaking infrastructure and trying to find a few minutes to be creative filled most of my time. My time in the shop was not really a joy as it always felt like I was behind. When I did get into the studio with nothing I HAD to make, I was usually exhausted.

Be careful what you wish for, or you may get it. Try to know what it is you're actually wishing for, though.

I love my current life. I'm a pretty successful home brewer in my more relaxed life as a stay at home dad for my newly adopted kids now. MANY people who taste my beer say I should go into business. I have a hard time not laughing in their faces. I've done a craft based business, thank you, and was most happy to be able to sell it this year. The freedom I have in brewing is awesome and I'm really enjoying being to explore any aspect of it I choose without all the "have to's" associated with running a business. If I were trying to make a living doing it, I'm sure it would get to be a lot less fun in a hurry.

This is a tough economy to try to make a buck selling something NO ONE NEEDS. Especially if your proposed business has high overhead and continual high infrastructure and energy costs.

That's my $.02 and certainly not the only story out there.

Good luck in whatever you choose to do.


Doug Chaussee
04-24-2012, 07:45 AM
"What I really spent my time doing was book keeping, ordering, maintenance, designing at a price point where I could actually sell the stuff, cranking out seemingly endless pumpkins and ornaments, repairing the continually breaking infrastructure and trying to find a few minutes to be creative filled most of my time. My time in the shop was not really a joy as it always felt like I was behind. When I did get into the studio with nothing I HAD to make, I was usually exhausted."

That pretty much sums up everything IMHO. Fortunately we are mainly a teaching facility and don't have to chase the pumpkins and widgets. While that pays the bills, it also adds a new dimension to the situation Scott so elegantly describes. Studio operation is expensive in both time and money and forces you to modify your dream in order to survive.

Pete VanderLaan
04-24-2012, 09:32 AM
Narcissus Quagliata once said " Never let your art be your work."

I think he was right but it is really hard to get there. It has taken me forty plus years. As I said at this point my art makes about 20-25% of my income. I make exactly what I want to and consign most of it. No one tells me what to make anymore which is incredibly nice, I just make it as it occurs to me.

My work is doing crucibles and elements and everything in between and being very good at giving advice to glass studios. . Teaching an occasional class in color is really fun and challenging at the same time. I can't deny what Scott said.

And Scott, you really can come here at some point and we can make some stuff. I assume that your sweetie is doing well?

Sky Campbell
04-24-2012, 11:58 AM
Great discussion.
I always thought that with the overhead it takes to run a full time studio I needed help. I chose the path of a community used studio and tagged up with the local college to offer a glass program as community enrichment. I knew I didn't want to teach so I found a college graduate from alfred. I built them a house in the trees and gave up all the profit from teaching also allowing them to create a body of work. The studio gets paid for the time during teaching and maintance falls on all of us. This keeps the place alive and somewhat clean.

Side note our resident artist is leaving for a new residency at Pilchuck and we have an opening for this position. He will be missed and hard to replace. If you know a graduate with great people skills we are Intrested!

Thanks Dave the memories fade and remembing those that helped me on my way is important to me.

Ben David
04-24-2012, 12:34 PM
Thanks to everyone who has replied so far... looking forward to other opinions as well.

A lot of what's been said confirms my observations... the reality of "art becomes work" dovetails with my natural caution about being dependent on sales for a living.

Dave - I read the stuff on your website a while ago. You have a very eclectic history! You ask if I'm interested in freelance engineering - I've been away from hands-on engineering for a while, and I'm really looking for something stable that will largely "tick over" by itself, with little daily attention. That's the problem with sticking it out in hi-tech as an outsourced freelancer - and the attraction of something like teaching (which is almost entirely public and unionized here).

Pete - you are not far off: a few museums here have brought in pottery programs, letting kids recreate ancient coil-built stuff... and on a fantastic trip to the Sinai we dug the original mineral sands to make faience.

Thanks to all for the reality check -
Ben David

Hugh Jenkins
04-24-2012, 12:40 PM
Had I not conquered the cost thing in running a glass studio, I know I could not have kept up enough production or sales to pay the cost of operation. Even now if we get into working too many days in a row, the fatigue factor takes any enjoyment away.

But I also have to say that the work it took to get the efficiency I now have was almost too discouraging at times as well. Lots of days when something wasn't right and I had to choose between working on equipment and blowing not very good glass. I only now have things to where all the oil filtration and oil moving is on timer switches and there is no carrying of containers.

I can let my furnace idle for about $7 a day when I need to, and I do need to more and more. Just writing this makes me really feel lucky on one hand and mad, bad, sad, that our craft has come to such a challenge to just stay alive. I wonder if those who fell in love with glass under my instruction or example can continue to enjoy the choice they made by making it a career. It will take more ingenuity and determination than ever to stay with it. Very few will find this to be easy street.

Pete VanderLaan
04-24-2012, 03:19 PM
I wonder if those who fell in love with glass under my instruction or example can continue to enjoy the choice they made by making it a career. It will take more ingenuity and determination than ever to stay with it. Very few will find this to be easy street.

I ask myself the same questions Hugh as I look at the costs of making color sometimes. You really need a strong presentation to make it. There are way too many glass blowers for the market now. When Hugh and I were starting out I think there were about 125 in the whole country. My last count was at about 9,000. I would point out that among the 9000, I think there are about 350 good designers and I don't equate good blowers with good designers at all. There are opportunities out there.

I was actually quite serious about the antique vessels, particularly in the middle East. I think that Scavo work could really sell well in Turkey, from Istanbul to Ephesus, south of Ismir. The whole coast of North Africa, Israel, Jordan etc. I was just in that part of the world and tourism is alive and well there.

Dave Bross
04-24-2012, 06:57 PM
The competition point is a good one.

When I first did my website (1999 - 2000) there weren't even a million websites. Anything you put up sold.
We're probably going to top 500 million sites this year.

Same era when I learned the hard way what everyone else said about your art as a living. I discovered the curse of something popular that sold consistently. You become a factory and the fun goes away.

There's a lot of other shakeout/squeezeout lately.

Everyone making things on the smaller scale is hitting the higher cost of making things vs. fewer buyers and greatly diminished sale price to actually move it out the door.

Doug Sheridan
04-24-2012, 08:21 PM
For the last 4-5 years, this forum has repeated pretty much the same thing about the economy, costs, too much competition, production glass, art glass, closed galleries, and the changes in buying patterns. Call me weird but I only see opportunity from those things. Hunger is a great motivator, and can be the mother of invention. It could be just attitude, but I've never made anything that I didn't want to, and when it's on the pipe I could give a shit if it sells or not. Be it worth $20, or $2000. Success/pleasure for me happens at the bench. Only when we open the annealer does the pressure to sell happen. And what I hear on here (often) is that it's the selling of our glass that takes the fun out of things. Only our creditors care what we sell it for. So, spend most of your time at the bench, it's nicer there.

Tom Clifton
04-24-2012, 09:41 PM
And here is a 4 page article (http://www.stlmag.com/St-Louis-Magazine/March-2011/Jim-McKelvey-Has-Altered-the-Way-Money-Changes-Hands-Now-What/) on Jim Mckelvey - one of the founders of the Third Degree Glass Factory here in St. Louis.

Hugh Jenkins
04-25-2012, 12:29 AM
I don't regret any time I spent blowing glass or working with students. I don't regret the struggle to get much more efficiency out of fuel and equipment. I think that was some of the best work of my life, and will continue. So, as I said, I feel lucky, and, yes, challenge and struggle can be great motivators.

My regret is that the world situation with energy takes such a bit hit out of our work, at least right now. But, even that should be a motivator to make your shops work for you and not you working for them. There are choices to make.

I also wonder though if Narcissus actually did keep the work away from his art all the time. If so, he was a great self motivator.

Pete VanderLaan
04-25-2012, 04:53 AM
And even worse, his real name was "Bob". Really.

Business sense and knowing your market potential has everything to do with success at this point. Being a good glassblower is helpful but not that important. Standing out in the crowd is critical.

While I never thought I would say it, but I have become fond of my consignment stores in New Hampshire. They let me test stuff. Not so much designs but pricing. I really watch what sells each month at the League stores. It shows me clearly what I can and can't produce. I know how much I can get for a bowl and I make the effort on that bowl reflect the price in turn. It's a range. Some are lower and the best reflect a higher price but I know to not make ones which will have to sell out of the comfort range very often.

Glass is a comfortable old shoe for me now. Stuff sells OK but it's hard to get a store or gallery or whatever to try it if you're an unknown factor. Every square foot in a store cost the owner money and they have to turn over that square foot a certain number of times each month. Having your own store can be a blessing or a curse depending on the local market. In Santa Fe it was like shooting fish in a tuna can. Not true in the great north woods.

I like the approach Doug Sheridan has as well as Hugh's. There has got to be joy in it or you really should be doing something else.

Doug Sheridan
04-25-2012, 05:02 AM
Nice article on Jim McKelvey. I also surround myself with people that are much smarter than I am. I have 12 employees, four of which work with glass, the rest do the selling/managing/marketing. My in house accountant has an MBA and could turn just about any business a profit, and I'm convinced that this is the most important element to success. We have four bank accounts that she reconciles every day, not once a month or several months. We know exactly where we stand all the time, allowing me to take advantage of opening doors because I know my options. Without that knowledge I'd be guessing, which is too risky. Doors open and shut quickly and we have our knees bent and ready to react. My glass shop sold over $300k in 2011, which is not huge but it all came from an 80 lb. furnace. Costs here are under scrutiny daily, and that's why the 250 lb furnace was turned off in 2010. It may never get hot again. Low costs allows us to make more of what we want to, not what the creditors want. We run the metal shop, gallery, and jewelry store the same way. Hiring smart people, my best skill!

Dave Bross
04-25-2012, 05:14 AM
Good article Tom.

Those card readers are cool. Some friends are using them and they're loving it.

Had to laugh when he got to "blue" as in "big, blue, shiny".

I think your individual personality plays into this big time too.
If nothing else you'll learn a lot about where your "happy" is by chasing down the dream.

Scott Novota
04-25-2012, 11:38 AM
I have spoken with Jim a couple of times over the years and he really seemed like a pretty down to earth guy. That artical seems pretty close to how the guy really is. I hate to hear he will not be coming back to my neck of the woods.

I use his products and they are the best on the market. Square really is that good.

Customer service has a large bit to do with that as well. They seemed to have that nailed as well.

Cecil McKenzie
04-25-2012, 12:42 PM
A friend who does glass fusing augments his income pretty well cleaning windows. Here is an anthem he could use. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ciK2n2MebTU 4 minutes of Van Morrison.

Dave Bross
04-25-2012, 12:51 PM
My nephew makes a great living clening windows commercially.

There used to be a guy here who would start at one end of a main state highway and ask each business in each town if they would like their windows cleaned.
Most did.
He spent two weeks out of the month traveling town to town and did what he pleased otherwise.
They missed him badly when he died and the kid he had helping him (who he taught how to do it) blew it off.

Barb Sanderson
04-25-2012, 07:45 PM
This shows there's opportunities out there! :)