Upon entering Jill Davis’ open, bright studio space two things were apparent. Firstly, I didn’t expect such petite glass beauties to come from such a big personality, and secondly, I wore way too many layers of clothing. We seemed to have a longer, wetter, grayer winter in New England than I remember from past years so visiting a warm and inviting space was ever the more sweeter at the tail end of a dreary season. We visited Jill and her team at Henrietta Glass in their Pawtucket, RI, studio to see where some of UncommonGoods’ most beautiful (and best-selling) glass items, like Jill’s Wishing Balls and Birthstone Wine Bottle Stoppers, are created. Read on to take a look at her process, learn how she collaborates–and celebrates–with her team, and find out where she finds inspiration in and beyond the walls of her creative space.
What are your most essential tools?
In order to be malleable glass must be heated to about 2000 degrees, so our first most important tool is the furnace. Our furnace is a little bit special because it is electric, whereas gas is more common. As with all of our tools, we couldn’t just go to Home Depot and buy a furnace – everything we use is handmade, by small businesses, usually by other glass artists.
Our furnace was made by Steve Stadelman in Oregon, then shipped to us. Steve wears three hats in life: he is a fireman, a glass blower and a furnace/equipment builder.
Our second most important tool is our blow pipes. Once the glass is hot, how do you get it out of the furnace? We stick the very end of a pipe into the glass, and by turning, turning, turning gather up a little blob off the end. It’s a lot like gathering up honey on one of those little wooden spoon-balls. All of our pipes are the same, “standard cup pipes” made by Fred Metz at Spiral Arts out in Seattle.
The third essential tool is a pair of jacks. Working with glass is funny, because unlike clay, wood, fiber, or so many other materials, you never get to touch it directly with your hands while it is in a malleable state. You must always have a tool acting as you intermediary. While they look nothing like hands, jacks are the closest, most effective and versatile approximation of your hand. A glass blower’s jacks are very personal. Like a pair of shoes, they change over time and are molded by the person who uses/wears them. Our jacks are made by a wonderful tool maker out in Washington State, Jim Moore. Every 7-10 years each pair goes back to Jim for repair and general tlc. Right now we’re in a cycle of sending back one pair at a time –again kind of like shoes, you’re not ready to relinquish all the old ones simultaneously, you want to break in a new pair before giving up the old!
Where do you find inspiration within this space?
I have worked to make our studio a place of warmth (emotional , not just temperature!), comfort, and beauty. For me (and although I cannot speak for them directly, I hope for my team as well) it is a second “home base”– a place of security (again, emotional as well as physical). Working in such an atmosphere makes it easy to let down one’s defenses, and thereby to be open to new ideas.
Where does downtime fit into a day in the studio?
Downtime? What’s that?
What was the toughest lesson you learned as a young designer starting a business?
That I do not have to do everything myself. The work is so personal, it is easy to fall into the trap of believing that no one can do it as well as you can – but to grow into a solid, reliable business requires a scale beyond the capacity of a single maker. So you have to take a leap and get assistants. It’s hard to let go, but you MUST, and the sooner, the better because no one wants to work in an atmosphere in which they feel their boss will never think their work is good enough. As a designer and a business owner my challenge is to figure out which parts of the process truly require only me, and then to not just let go of, but to welcome my assistants to share the other parts.
What advice would you offer the you of 5 years ago?
Take more pictures of the day to day stuff, not just the big events and special moments.
How and when do you decide to celebrate a victory?
We often have lunch – as in “Hey, we’re shipping that huge Holiday PO to UncommonGoods today – TWO WEEKS EARLY! Henrietta’s buying lunch!”
I also like to buy presents for the team when something big happens. When we were featured in a Mother’s Day gift-giving segment on the Today show last year I bought Asics running shoes for everyone. We stand on concrete all day, so good shoes are crucial. I’d recently gotten my first pair of Asics and LOVED them – so I wanted to ‘share the love’ so to speak. My team will tell you that I do this pretty often. When I find something I really like I want the team to have it, too. I don’t remember what we were celebrating, but a couple of years ago I gave everyone electric toothbrushes.
A long time ago I worked for a gallery out in Seattle. Every now and then my boss would give me a hundred dollar bill. Maybe there’d be an obvious reason, maybe not, but it made my day every time. (My day? Hell, my week, my month. I was a young struggling artist, a hundred bucks was a big deal.) So I do the same for my employees, but with a twist: I periodically give them origami 100’s.
What quote keeps you motivated? What does that quote mean to you?
The quote I’m currently nurturing is from Lisa Genova’s Inside the O’Briens. One of the characters is a yoga teacher who likes to remind herself that you can be now-here or no-where. I’ve shorten the idea to simply “now here” and use it as a reminder not to walk past open doors, not to say “no” to an unexpected opportunity just because I was intending to do something else at that particular time. “Now here” is written in chalk on my heat-shield.
How do you recharge your creativity?
I travel. The farther outside my daily world and routines, the better. Peru, Russia, Cambodia, Turkey, the Galapagos, Bulgaria, India… catapulting myself (and a companion) into a foreign environment is one of the best ways I’ve found to keep my eyes open and stay alert to new ideas and possibilities. When you relinquish the tools you take for granted (e.g. your native language, cultural norms, accustomed foods, social patterns, etc.) you have to stretch and find new tools to suit the new situation. Sometimes it’s scary, sometimes it’s awkward, often it’s funny, nearly always it’s a great investment.