Welcome to my second installment of Creativity Corner. I’m so excited to share some of this woman’s story with you. As an artist, an entrepreneur, and one of the nicest and most generous women I know, Mary is an inspiration to everyone who meets her.
But first, a quick reminder about why I started Creativity Corner—here’s an excerpt about this column from my first post:
"A few months after my daughter returned home from treatment, I undertook an on-line course hosted by Brené Brown that was an arts and crafts journaling class based on the guideposts in The Gifts of Imperfection. I created art that gave me permission to be imperfect, that reminded me I’m enough just the way I am, and that represented gratitude as the practice that it is. If the pie chart self-esteem exercise we did in treatment was the wake-up call to start this journey, my new art projects became a type of hammer and chisel, chipping away at the wall of negativity I’d constructed around myself. I layered paint and glue and tape onto blank white pages, and, small though my projects were, each one added new perspective to past events. Markers and stickers and water colors helped me to see myself as deserving of the same compassion I so willingly showed to others and reminded me that no one else can do what I do or say what I say. I realized that I am unique! (Read more about the pie chart and my creative journey in the full text here.)"
Mary and I met at a one-day Amy Ferris writing workshop (Find more about Women of our Words here). When Mary told the group that she was a fused glass artist, I was fascinated. When I was a kid, my dad’s favorite hobby was to do stained glass. He eventually started his own business creating stained glass terrariums for people in the shape of their home. I wanted to get to know Mary and her art better and asked if she’d be willing to participate in this column, and she said, “Yes!” Here’s the fruit of our labor and more about why glass and creativity are important to Mary, and why she named her business, Grateful Glass.
Tracey: Can you tell us about what art meant to you in your childhood and how it helped you find your place in your family?
Mary: I was very definitely seeking my parents’ attention. I always felt like my brother got all the attention, and I didn’t get any. Or I got the negative attention, but not positive kind. When he was playing sports, they’d watch his games, I wasn’t a sports person. I felt like I didn’t have their approval or support. One way I noticed I had their approval was when they had guests over to our house. My parents would say to me, “Mary, draw something”, much like you ask a child to play a musical instrument. I always had a pad of paper with me, and I’d draw something. Or I’d pull out my latest drawing and they would “ooh” and “ahh” over it. It seemed to make my parents happy, proud. It was a way for them to show part of my skills to other people and I felt good about that. I won an art contest in kindergarten with a drawing I did for Fire Prevention Week. My whole family attended the ceremony. So by the age of five, I considered myself an artist.
Tracey: I know you carried art forward in your life, and you studied to become a social worker. You told me that you considered possibly becoming an art therapist. Can you tell us a little bit about this?
Mary: The interests academically for me were equal between psychology and art. I went to school thinking that maybe I’d be an artist. I wanted to be a potter. But it didn’t turn out that way. I did some pottery, but then I went into the drawing department and discovered etching, which I did for a while. I thought the perfect blend of these two disciplines would be to become an art therapist. I got the sense that I wasn’t good enough to be able to make a living at art. I made a decision to transfer colleges. When I did, art study dropped away. I took Jungian psychology and I did paint and draw for projects, but I never took any more art classes, just psychology. When I moved into my career, it was strictly psychology and social work. I was a counselor for juvenile delinquent kids. Art became something I did on my own time. It became recreational and I no longer identified myself as “an artist.”
Tracey: You hear adults say that they let their creative endeavors fall by the wayside. What I’ve read is that there can be deep injury from a parent or another powerful adult when we’re children relative to our art. Comments or critiques get made and we stop doing it. Sounds like art was something you still clung to.
Mary: Right. Artwork was the one thing about me that I always knew I was good at and enjoyed doing. I never suffered an injury like that around my art. I loved it and didn’t let go of it. I just got very busy. I was married and pregnant by the time I graduated from college and then had another daughter twenty-two months later. Before I was out of my twenties, I had three kids and making money was more important than pursuing a hobby which is what art had become for me. I stayed creative at home with the kids. I’d paint the sweatshirts and make handcrafted gifts and all that, but art was not a career path for me at that time. I eventually left social work and moved toward theological studies and into a pastoral role. I went to work for the Catholic Church as a pastoral associate, which became a twenty year career.
Tracey: Did a desire for more creative endeavors lead you back to wanting to pursue more creativity? You were artistic all along, but did there come a point in time when you realized that you needed to make it more of a priority?
Mary: I think what happened was I got very busy raising three daughters. Then I got divorced when my children were young and for 10 years I was a single mom with three teenage daughters. It was hard. Single parenting is very time consuming. And then one of my daughters had a child so I had a baby in the house. There wasn’t time, just in general. I was busy working and taking care of my family. Economically, if you’re not very, very successful at your art, you can’t make a living from it. It just wasn’t an option for me. When I met Ron (Mary’s current husband) and got married, my youngest daughter was on her way to college. I moved here to L.A. and had the privilege of time on my hands. I had an empty nest. I had just left my friends and my support system. I came here and Ron was the one who suggested to me that I take classes in something I’d always wanted to do, but hadn’t had the time or money to do. I thought about it. There was some freedom. I could breathe. I didn’t have to pay all the bills. I decided I wanted to work with glass. I already had a collection of colored glass and I thought about how I’d always wanted to do that. We took a trip to Venice, Italy where I went to see the glassblowers on the island of Murano and I knew I felt a real passion for working with glass. Surprisingly, it’s not easy to find places in L.A. that teach glass art. I took every class I could find, torch work, bead making, glass blowing and glass fusion. Fusing glass was “it” for me. I had found what I really wanted to do.
The only down side is that it’s not really social. When you’re doing your own art work, you’re alone. I spend hours out in my studio by myself. So fortunately for me, the relationship comes in selling the product. The relationship aspect is as important to me as the creative process. I pretty much love everything I make, but the fact that someone else loves and wants and appreciates it and I have human contact brings me as much joy as making the piece itself.
Tracey: As writers, we can sure relate to being lonely, sitting at our computer for hour upon hour without any guarantee that someone will read what we wrote. It’s interesting because there’s a component about the art and it getting out to the world. I was at a seminar with Michael Meade and he was asked a question about art and its power/place in the world. A woman asked if art’s impact is the same if we create it but don’t then put it out into the world. His answer was a resounding no. I'm paraphrasing here, but he basically said that unless the creativity gets into the world, it’s not feeding the greater good, not adding to the collective unconscious. So, sharing the art seems as important to the process as creating it. Like you firing glass to share the final product, to bring joy and color and art into peoples’ world.
Tracey: You told me when last we spoke that your business, Grateful Glass, is a dream come true. Please tell us why.
Mary: So my husband had suggested I do something I wanted to do and I decided that was making glass art. I took classes and decided on fusion. Initially, I bought the cutting system and some glass. I took my project to a studio to be fired in the kiln. Then, Ron got cancer. I knew, at that point that he was going to need surgery and radiation and maybe chemotherapy and I would be by his side for the entire process. You know you’re in it for the long haul when you hear the diagnosis, “Cancer.” I thought to myself that I’d need a creative outlet during his treatment so I could devote myself to him and his care and then have something creative to do without having to leave the house. Something that gave me some joy. Something above and beyond being a care giver. Seeing other people go through this journey, I had a sense about what it was going to take. The time, the energy, the worry, the emotional toll on both of us. So I went out and bought a little kiln. I would make a glass piece and take a picture and send out via email. Everyone loved it and then people wanted to buy it! Within four weeks, the kiln had paid for itself. I was amazed and encouraged. Someone suggested I start my own small business. I said, “Okay.” I had to come up with a name. I had still been going through the treatment process with Ron. Then, he completely recovered and was cancer free so that was behind us. I dove headfirst into working with glass, so I named the business, “Grateful Glass” because I was just so very grateful for his health and his life and his doctors and his recovery and his support. And because he loves me so much that he lets me follow this passion…just the whole thing. I’m so grateful for all of it. My business, Grateful Glass, was the silver lining to his cancer diagnosis.
Tracey: One of the things I learned about creativity is how it helps us cope. You just talked about how you knew you needed an outlet when Ron was sick. Can you talk a little bit about how having that creative endeavor did help you cope?
Mary: Yes, I think one way is adding color to your life, to the world. The very basic, simple act of making things brighter. As beautiful a place like City Of Hope is—it’s meant to make you feel like you’re on a retreat—it is still a hospital. When you’re sitting inside, it’s bland. It is a sober, somber, even sorrowful setting as one might expect. You’re in wooden chairs with all these sick people waiting to go to treatment and I remember saying to Ron, “I feel like we joined a club we never wanted to belong to.” We were there daily. Sometimes you’re so worried that you can’t get into a good book. A novel can take you away but you don’t allow yourself to leave this experience. You can only read so many magazines. It’s not the kind of experience that lends itself to conversation. You may have to make the trip every day and you come home and the person you're with is exhausted and needs you by their side, physically present. I would remember that I have a glass project to look forward to. It’s got life and color and movement and so I was looking forward to getting to it. I have a timeline to meet. My day is not about just going to the hospital and sitting in the waiting room. In that way, I think you have to have something creative to do. It literally saved me during this process. You take care of yourself in order to be able to care for someone else and for me, making art is part of taking care of myself.
Tracey: Last time we met, you mentioned that letting go, giving up control, is a big part of glass work for you. This is a lesson I learned in a completely different way, but that had a huge impact on my life—to let go of what I can’t control. Can you talk about that letting go process for you? How else has it impacted your life?
Mary: I think I’ve always been a control freak. I really am particular. I like to know how things are going to be. Creativity is not like that. I think I was a decent artist before, when I used a pen and ink, colored pencils or etching tools, but because I never gave up control I was only as good as my technical skills allowed. Now, with glass, there’s a technical skill to it, you learn how to cut, but then you have to give up some control to the heating process. Some pieces just blow up in the kiln. You put the work in, but you never really know what’s going to come out. Ninety-nine percent of the time, glass does what you want it to do. Mostly, I’m happy with giving over the control. I think that’s just about me being older. This wouldn’t have been my medium when I was younger. Even pottery you control more. Glass melts. It liquidates. Maybe it works and maybe it doesn’t.
I’d like to think that the older I get the more comfortable I am with letting go of all kinds of things. I don’t know if others would say it’s true. I hope so. We face life lessons through our relationships. We invest so much of ourselves. We like to think we control the outcome of each investment. Our time, our skills, our emotions, our hearts but certain things just happen and people react in a good way, an affirming way or an indifferent way. Sometimes they react in a negative way. We can’t control it. Working with glass has taught me, the more I let go, the more joy and surprise I experience. There’s more beauty and certainly more delight in the process than if I did try to control every aspect of it.
Tracey: Brené Brown writes in her book Rising Strong, “That creating is the act of paying attention to our experiences and connecting the dots so we can learn more about ourselves and the world around us.” Can you talk a little bit about this related to yourself?
Mary: That’s how I feel about this process. I’m paying attention to the colors and depth of the bowl etc, but I’m also paying attention to my customer and how I can be a part of her life and connect it to my life. There is a relationship. The customer can be involved, participating in the outcome. I get fulfillment by giving birth to something that’s a larger part of both our lives. If I wasn’t present to my customer and what she wanted, it would just be a bowl. Maybe she’d like it and maybe she wouldn’t, but doing it with her makes her invested and makes it a custom order. Sometimes it doesn’t work—there can be no pleasing some people—but an artist puts themselves into their work and hopes to please. There’s a real vulnerability in it. Will they like my stuff or not? It’s very personal.
Tracey: Another thing Brené Brown talks about is perfection and the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism and how perfectionism is really a shield that prevents us from being seen. We’re too busy being fake trying to be perfect. She says art helps us let go of comparisons because whatever we create comes from us, and could not come from anyone else. What do you think of this idea?
Mary: This is what I love about glass. Glass is an organic medium. It has a life of its own as opposed to, say, pen and paper. I never liked to paint because the paint moved around too much for me. The thing about glass is it’s dangerous! I get cut all the time. It cracks and breaks in all the wrong places. It gives off gas, it bubbles and explodes, the colors change. There’s a lot of imperfect stuff that can happen so you learn how to go with the flow (literally). It was a whole new realm for me, completely different than what I experienced before—a good lesson for me to not worry about being so perfect. I showed you all the “seconds” the imperfect pieces that I refuse to sell. Other people don’t even see the mistakes. I’m learning to let go. It’s an ongoing process. I’m learning to appreciate the flaws, to see their artistic value.
Find Grateful Glass and pieces for sale here.
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Here, Mary describes the fused glass process, which is a process of layering sheets of glass.
1. The first process is to buy sheets of colored glass.
2. Then you cut shapes. You can cut it in any shape with skill. I hand cut my glass and don’t use a saw very often. I don’t usually use patterns unless they are my own drawings.
3. Next, you make layers of colors. Lead free, food safe, clear glass is most often the top layer
4. A piece is completed and placed into the kiln on a prepared kiln shelf.
5. Raise the temperature to around 1450 degrees and the glass completely melts. It liquefies.
6. The glass tempers as it cools slowly, in stages. The kiln comes down in increments.
7. All the layers become one solid piece. You can’t tell where one layer ends and the other starts.
8. You clean it and decide the mold it’s going into. For instance, a flat circle becomes a bowl.
9. You bring the temperature back up, not as hot, so the piece can “slump” into shape.
So, the first process of heat is called fusion, second is slumping. Sometimes the glass will break. If you are lucky, it’s magic! Let it cool, clean it up, and you have a piece.
(photos: Work in progess, sheets of glass, little kiln, big kiln)