Arts-Louisville : From what do you draw inspiration?
Brook White: It’s changed over the years. Part of it is the material itself. Glass is very…I know it’s cheesy to say and you hear it so often…but it IS seductive. Hot glass draws you in – you either like it or you don’t. There are no part-time glass artists – it’s too expensive. But the material itself is inspiring. That has always been a constant. More recently my kids inspire me. Doing things with them – whether it’s the zoo, the water park – I get to go through a second or third childhood. I see how they react to things, with such natural innocence, and I like to see people have that same reaction to my work.
AL: Do you keep a sketchbook to develop ideas?
BW: No, at least not consistently. My mind never stops, and there is a lot of overflow, and some stuff comes out in the studio.
AL: What seems so fascinating about that is that glass as a medium and a process would seem to demand careful pre-planning, yet you are working so intuitively with it.
BW: When I am doing my own work as an artist, I try to do that. But when you are running a business and meeting custom orders, commissions and lighting, you get into the grind of fulfilling the proposal and the customer’s expectations. So sometimes I do sketches or have another member of my team do sketches. I don’t have an art background, so I would rather have someone else be a part of that. I can explain or describe it to someone else easier than I can draw it out myself. So the work I do to support the business often requires planning. But then when I go into the studio for myself, I like to turn that off and, again, draw inspiration from the material itself.
AL: What is the most important quality for a glass artist to have?
BW: Besides a slight touch of crazy, I would have to say persistence. It’s not something you can do halfway; you have to be committed. Persistence and tenacity and a drive. I think in this day and age that’s true of any type of art.
AL: The process would seem to carry a lot of risk. Do a lot of pieces get broken?
BW: There can be, particularly when you are experimenting or doing new things – a technique or style I haven’t tried before. In my personal work, if I’m lucky I would say I lose about a third. On the business side, I’m very picky about the quality. But that is one reason I work with assistants: you can blame it on them [laughing]. We take turns and the joke is always, “Well, that was the best piece we ever made, right?” But then we move on.
AL: You recently moved your studio, Flame Run, into the Glassworks building. Is this move going to make the business side of things easier for you?
BW: It was a business decision. I started here [at Glassworks] 10 years ago when it first opened; there were two or three of us working here. I took over running the hot shop after about a year and learned a lot – none of us knew anything about running a hot shop.
AL: Was Glassworks the first glass studio in Louisville?
BW: The first studio of its size, yes. There had been several small, mostly private studios, but there had never been anything on this scale. That’s why they brought two or three of us in together; but after about a year and a half I decided I wanted to be captain of my own ship, so to speak, and I moved my crew down to Flame Run at 823 East Market. [While there] the NuLu area built up around us, with cool restaurants and gift shops; the neighborhood changed dramatically. We did see some increase in walk-in traffic but only nominally, maybe 15 to 20 percent at best. Wayside Christian Mission was next door and we invited them in and even brought their kids over for Christmas and made ornaments for them. Three weeks later, we had a group come in from New York City – collectors – and they spent more money in that one hour than three to four months of normal business combined. That was the range of people we encountered there. I believe we can still do that here. We’ve built an identity with Flame Run, established a presence, so that I knew that if we stayed anywhere within 20 minutes, the people that know us and like us will still come to us. Coming back here, Glassworks is an established location, Louisville Slugger Museum is around the corner, Frazier Historical Museum is there now, KMAC has moved closer, and there’s a synergy down here. The walk-in traffic that we get, we would never see in our old location, so my business decision was that, hopefully, we could expose ourselves and the general public to a lot more glass. Also, we, in effect, competed for all those years with Glassworks. People from out-of-town, when the glass conference [the 2010 Glass Art Society conference was held in Louisville] was here, for example, could distinguish between the academic environment of the Cressman Center [the location of the University of Louisville glass program], Flame Run and Glassworks.
AL: You mention the Glass Art Society (GAS) conference, which was held for the first time in Louisville two years ago. There was a lot of comment at the time that one of the reasons they chose Louisville as a location was that it could boast three separate hot shops. Does this move diminish the local glass scene?
BW: On one level its undeniable that we’ve gone from three studios to two. But in so doing, I believe we have an opportunity to make the two function as well as they possibly can. Che Rhodes does a great job at the University of Louisville and we are very close, having worked with Stephen Powell for all those years. (Brook and Che Rhodes both graduated from Centre College where Powell is on the faculty.) But I think we would still be in the running for that conference, which has been held in cities with only one hot shop. We were special because we had three so close together, more or less a straight shot through downtown. GAS members had a lot of questions at first. But the people who came had a very positive reaction to Louisville and the wide range of support from the city and other arts groups – Louisville Visual Art Association, KMAC, The Speed. There were so many great glass exhibits that they left with a real sense of the artistic community here.
AL: How much of a role does education play in Flame Run programming?
BW: Part of the decision was to increase the exposure to art and glass specifically, whether for collectors or the general public, and that has always been a part of our mission. I didn’t see glass until I was 19. But if some kid who is 8 or 9 sees us and becomes inspired to become the next great glass artist and they can credit it all back to Flame Run (laughing)? We’re already doing more classes for the general public, but mostly private lessons. Ten years ago we tried to have scheduled community classes where you have four to five adults in a class. But trying to schedule it and allow make-up sessions if one student missed a class – financially it just wasn’t worth it. After we opened Flame Run, a few individuals pressed us for private lessons, and that works well. The customer satisfaction from the one-on-one interaction is more gratifying, and we have three to four instructors, which means we can be more flexible; so it works better that way. I’d like to have workshops, where we bring an artist in from out-of-town for a long weekend of multi-day sessions.
AL: On to philosophy: Is your glass half full or half empty?
BW: Did I make the glass? How big is it? Is it oval? Is it…
AL: Maybe I should not have asked the glass question!
BW: I want to say it is half full. I think of myself as a realistic optimist. I don’t see the negative in things, especially through my kids’ eyes. It’s so refreshing and rewarding to spend time with them. But the coolest part of that question is, I get to make my own glass; and if I break it, I can make another!
Tim & Dair Mathistad
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