Episode 101: Today I talk to Sonya Pfeiffer of the Elder Gallery in Charlotte, NC. We talk about the Transparency exhibition which features the work of North Carolina-based glass artists David Patchen, Alex Bernstein, Brent Skidmore, Mark Leputa, Linda Luise Brown and Chris Watts. It goes from January 11 until March 19, 2009.
[Elizabeth Sproul Ross – Whirling Jennies, Duratran light box]
David Patchen – Brilliant Blue Piscine, murine, blown glass
Alex Berstein – Amber Sprout, cast and cut glass, fused steel
Carmella Jarvi is a former painter that has since evolved into glassmaking with kiln glass. It’s really fantastic looking- She invited me to her studio, behind her house, which is in my neighborhood!
–So I was looking at some of your stuff and it’s really exquisite!
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c. C. Jarvi
–How did you…I don’t know anything about…glass making…blowing…anything…
–How did you get into it?
So I’ve always had a secret love for glass. But as an artist, married to an artist, I couldn’t just pick up and change. I was a painter for decades, and just had drooled over glass and enjoyed other people making glass, but my inspiration is water. So from my birth, basically my whole life, my inspiration has been about water, chasing water and trying to capture it in paint. And finally we went to a family wedding in Mexico, and the tropical waters, and the underwater caves…I just came back and said “Paints are too ugly. I just can’t paint…i can’t capture water with paint. So I have to learn glass.” And that was six years ago.
Carmella & her Price Waterhouse Cooper’ commission, c. Mitchell Kearney Photography 2015
Wow! Ok, now what kind of paint did you use?
I did pastel painting. I did oil…acrylic watercolor. So I did a lot of different types of paintings. And if you actually Google me, the images, you’ll see a lot of women in water paintings. But I had a friend, Rose who is a glass artist here in Charlotte…and that clicking is one of the kilns…
The random clicking…I only have one going right now, so it won’t be too crazy…
So you know, Rose said, “Come on out, I don’t care if you can’t pay me. I’ll share what I know. And she was really generous with teaching me. And then I won an Arts and Sciences council Regional project grant. I had 20 sessions with her. And then I realized I really needed my own studio at home. As awesome as that was, it’s a community set up. I’m driving with all my glass. It’s down I-85, you know, twice a day, which is stressful. You know, by a prayer, “Please don’t hit me.”
[laughter] Exactly. Please don’t let me hit a bump…
But I’ve always been an artist and loved art, but I’m just driven in a new way since I switched to glass. It’s like a new passion and then even if I’m working a lot on some other business projects, I’m out here nearly every day. So I will squeeze in a couple of hours at night, or you know, last night I was out here until like, 9:30. And I’m out here this morning. And then, you know, before I showered…
So I really am trying to do as much as I can.
That’s cool that you can do that, though.
Yes, it’s cool sometimes, and sometimes it sucks. Because you have to walk past the checkbook, the yard, the laundry. You know, and I’m married to an artist. Although, it has its perks. It also has its downside. We’ve financed a lot of things; We’ve done without. Theres been many times we’ve shared a car…an old car, ridden the bus. You know, and luckily things have turned around. Not luckily, but thanks to God, and a lot of hard work.
A team effort. But you know, so it has it’s days where it’s wonderful and sometimes it sucks. Especially when the big bills come.
Yeah….What kind of art does your husband do?
He’s a painter. He does encaustic paintings. He’s been a painter all his life. But he’s really switched, made this transition into more abstract work, which is very exciting. So we’ve known each other for 25 years and been together for, like 22.
Yeah, so the studio you’re sitting in has half his, half mine. We have a little barrier in between.
Because we are married…You know
laugher. That’s wild! So what is it like being married to an artist?
You do have good questions. That was one of the things I liked about your podcast.
You do ask some good questions.
Well, let me start by saying, I’m not a typical artist.
I’ve always been an artist, wanted to be an artist, always been a practicing artist, even when I was a full time art teacher. Always did it on the side. We don’t have kids, but I like business. I’m very organized. I’m kind of half in the middle of the creative, verbal…So I’m very good at managing multiple of things. I do a lot of managing, marketing, grant writing. And I’m married to a super talented, yet more typical artist who hates it…
Right…I was going to say, most artists don’t like that…
He hates business. But I will say, over the years…I’ve been full time for about 10 years…a full time artist…and he’s been, he took the plunge three years ago to be a full time artist and he’s really worked hard to network and you know won like the CSA has an art pop billboard…you know…so he’s done some things that give credibility.
As artists you can get your MFA, you can even go and get a doctorate, but there’s not really professional endorsements that you get. It’s a little different than other professional degrees. And so as an artist you want to have collectors or galleries, or win grants, or residencies, because it’s, like, your professional endorsement. So if they are investing in you, then other people are more apt to invest. Especially when you get above the beginner or cheaper work. You know, when you are asking people to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars, you’re not just flitting from this to this. So that helps.
Yeah, that is so great!
I genuinely love business.
That’s so wild, because most shy away from that. But that’s cool, because you can do it for both you and your husband…
No. No. Because we’re married. We have negotiated…like…we do trades. He is really good at design. He does my business cards. He is my go-to guy when I’m trying to put words with images…
I will ask his opinion. You know, so I trade him his graphic design skills for some of my business consulting. And that works better.
Oh, that’s cool.
Because when you’re really good at something, it doesn’t mean you want to do it all the time. So as an artist, I’m still a team of one. So I would have to do my art, my other business projects, plus the stuff for him while he gets to be with his art. So… I mean, that’s…that’s not what he’s asking me to do, but that’s kind of why it doesn’t work out like that. I mean, I help him. I help other artists. I love helping other artists, but after being a full time artist for 10 years, I realize I was giving a lot of stuff away. And I have to pull back. This is expensive. This has been an enormous capital investment with the kilns and the electrical and the lights. You know, because we had to have the studio rewired, because he was running heat guns and all of the heating units and I was trying to run kilns and our electricity used to be run down the backyard. They kind of rig it, so when the air conditioner was on or you did laundry, you could not run a kiln at the same time. So we had to bite the bullet and pay for this to be done with new electricity. We have a business Duke Energy line. So it’s another bill. You know, but it’s great because we can run all the kilns and I think we’ve only tripped the switch once in two years and that was when we were both doing our little air conditioning unit. You know, it was the heat of summer and he turned his on and it popped it. And, you know, it was fine. We just can’t run everything but we can run a lot. So….
Well that was another question I had. I have no concept of what goes into melting glass, so if I’m asking a stupid question…
All good questions.
But, like, I’ve worked with clay…not professionally…someone else has fired it in the kiln for me…but is it kind of like that?
Uh, yeah. I have started with factory glass and I get it from Bullseye. Bullseye Glass out in Portland. There have been some controversial things that have happened with them and the practices. And if anyone has followed along with them. They’ve basically created some new filtering systems and things like that…but I buy my glass from Bullseye. It’s very pretty. It’s compatible. Because when you are melting things, you want them to be compatible. If I had a piece of glass that melted at one temperature, trying to combine it with glass that melted at a different temperature, it would actually crack and have, you know, internal stress. So you have to have glass that’s compatible.
Some people will use, will fire just window glass. It’s called flirt glass; and that’s fine, but that’s not your art glass. I use expensive, beautiful art glass. And I start with sheets or stringers or grit and basically combine the glass; melt it. What’s unusual about what I do, well…back up….there are so many steps…So I do kiln glass which is also called warm glass. So you think about your cold glass, which is stained glass and you don’t ever heat it. So that’s cold glass. And then you have warm glass which you use a kiln. It’ s kind of like a clay kiln, but it’s a little different with the shelves and things. And then you have hot glass, which is blown glass with the furnace. So basically with a kiln, you’re melting it as hot as you would in a furnace – if you want to – you can get it that hot. You don’t have to. So there’s a lot of science and math and a lot of learning. So I spent probably three and a half years, just learning a lot, making mistakes and learning from that. But what I do different is I actually cast the glass in the kiln. So I make a big form of glass and then I will cut it with a tile saw because you always use water when you’re cutting glass, or break it and recombine it with other glass. So I’m actually using the gravity of heat to move the glass. And that’s how I make these interesting forms.
–It’s like a science project…. Since this is completely new to me, I might not be asking the right questions, But I was interested in what is your inspiration? So, like for the bowls, how did you decide what color to make them, how did you decide what shape to make them?
So, water inspires everything. The whole reason I’m doing glass is because I’m trying to capture water. So I do a lot with the teals and the beautiful turquoise blues and things like that. But then I get tired of doing the same things over and over again and just variety, or doing a commission, using the colors of the business. I did a Price Waterhouse Cooper’s commission and I’m doing another corporate commission now. I’m using colors that fit with their… corporate colors, basically….
[Carmella swats a fly out of her kiln]
–Do they ever get in the glass?
No. If they did, they would burn out. That’s the downside of having a studio with the doors open and everything. And it’s actually pretty cool here right now. In the dead of summer, it could be 95 degrees. And when the kilns are going, it gets hot.
But all of the inspiration comes from water. Then I end up getting cool combinations of opaque and translucent colors or playing with the same elements of art, principles of design that every artist uses. So I can contrast between a duller color and a brighter color. And so I find things I visually like and I repeat them, experimenting with different colors and different steps. Different firings.
I’ve always been drawn to water. I grew up…my grandparents had a place on Lake Norman. So I literally spent my whole life in water. Never learned to swim. Never officially. Just have been fascinated with water. And then I discovered swimming pools and all the other water sources. Going to rivers and the beach. Even my name, Jarvi is Finnish. The pre-Ellis Island translation means “beautiful lake.” And my grandfather would swim in the lake year round. He was from Michigan, so even in the winter, he was out there in the water. There’s just something about it. So many levels to it. We’re made of water. So much…the earth. There’s a spiritual level, you know, baptism and just level after level after level and then it’s just beautiful…
–Yeah, I was going to say, it’ s just beautiful
Just yet the most simplest thing and trying to capture it is so hard. As a painter to try to capture it…and what was interesting as I was trying to go more and more abstract but literally splattering water and layering paint between clear varnishes to try to get the depth and then I went to Mexico and said, ‘ok forget it.’ And so I’ve been pretty much doing glass for the last six years.
—When I was looking at your website, I saw that you did what you call “public art.” And when I think of ‘public art,’ I think statues and things like that. So, do you do glass statues? How would you protect that?
So what I’m doing, I have been doing for the last probably 5 or 6 years is scaling up my work. So you have a studio artist, a painter who works solely in their studio. And you have a public artist who do work out in the public. It could be traditional sculptures, it could be paintings, it could be projective light. There is a lot of different types of public art. And you know, in Charlotte, we’ve been pretty blessed to have an Arts Council and people in leadership who understand it. Now not everyone loves every piece…
–Right, and they don’t have to…
Yeah, it’s very beautiful and there’s a nice concentration of it uptown. You can have privately funded public art or publicly funded public art. So basically I’ve been moving from very small scale pieces that someone will collect or a business will have in the interior of their office, to scaling up my work.
So the first time it happened in 2014, I got one of the ArtPop billboards. So my glass was put on vinyl and it was 14 feet by 48 feet.
Right, so that was the first time my little glass had been scaled up. So when I’m talking about the public art, I haven’t made it in the way that…so the thing about public art is you have to kind of get one in order to qualify.
So I’m at this point where I’ve had some cool larger scale; either my glass on a digital projection or the billboard or some larger pieces of glass, but not large scale like that
So when I’m working with small, I call them proto-types, working with mosaics, like taking glass and doing the little pieces of it and doing some cast glass. So that you can have a glass that’s outside. We’re not in Arizona, so it’s a little different. Because the thing about glass is, it’s a slow moving liquid. People think of it as a solid, but it’s its not really a solid. So if you go and do glass and you have a glass structure in a really hot environment, it is going to actually slowly change…
And I’ve had three pieces of my cast glass outside for a year and a half. So they’re out in the Charlotte elements, the heat of summer…the cold winter, and nothing’s happened. So I’m just, you know, there’s a precedence for having outdoor glass, but I’m pushing boundaries and testing myself.
And then there are other opportunities like public transportation. So there’s a lot of times artists will make small prototypes and then have someone else fabricate and install it. So, right now I’ve applied for something in New York with the transportation where they’re looking for emerging artists to create pieces of art that they will have then have fabricated in mosaic or other things and professionally installed.
And, you know, it’s a long shot, but you get the first one and then it opens up, you know, just like grants. It took me a while to get the first grant and then you get more. And then there’s the other public art application for my glass is having my glass on plastics or other man made materials. There’s a lot that’s being done with different types of not just vinyl… people think vinyl and billboard…and that’s cool but there’s a lot of really nice ventricular plastics where you can get multiple views, depending on the way that you look at it. So I really had some cool ideas with projective light, and not just the glass, but other clear and translucent plastics.
You know, so I’m at this transitional point where I’m still creating glass and I always will, but I’m looking for venues to scale it up and have it produced in other materials. So I’m not going to do a 20-foot glass sculpture for something. You know, I’m not set up to do it and even if I was, I wouldn’t want to do something at that scale. I would have someone else go and create it. I would help to manage it and my vision and that’s another cool thing about public art is you get to be more the administrator. Like you create the original vision and the original piece that it’s based off of, but then other artisans basically create it and install it. You know, pretty exciting.
—I’ve seen artists who have installations in museums and galleries and they have other people doing it. I’ve always wondered how they feel about that. How do they know that those people are going to do it right?
Right. Well so you’re an integral part of it, and this is where a lot of artists will say, “Oh, I wanna be a public artist, because there’s a call and it’s $50,000.” Well the actual part that the artist is getting paid out of that is much smaller and a $50,000 public art budget is tiny in the big public art scale of things, but the artists are just looking at the dollar signs, not realizing all of the meetings, all of the interaction with the players involved. You know, whether they’re neighbors or your community leaders, or the craftsmen and women who are going to make it. It’s a very tedious process. You know, it’s not easy money, but I’ve always been a risk taker. You know, like just quitting my safe teaching job as a high school art teacher for ten years. I just quit. I don’t recommend doing that, but ten years later, here I am…
—That’s awesome. Where did you teach?
I was out in Cabarrus County, at Northwest Cabarrus High School. It was a great program and I had an awesome other teacher that I worked with. So we basically started out with a very small art elective program. Like Art 1/Art 2; Pottery 1 and 2 and we grew it into Art 1 to Art 4 and there was AP Art, Fiber Arts, different clay. It was really cool. Some of the students I’m still involved with and friends with. It’s been a real blessing.
But as a teacher you keep giving and giving. So it’s nice to go, I’m not getting any younger, I want to be an artist too.
–Yeah, this is for me
And I kept giving it away. I mean, I loved it
–No, No, I understand
Especially high school
–So where on the timeline of teaching art did you make the transition from painting to glass?
That was after I quit, so I went to school to be an art teacher and graduated from UNC Charlotte, also with a philosophy degree. I love words!
I was philosophy senior of the year.
–Oh, I love that!
And I’m actually more proud of that because it was such a tiny program and very difficult. So I wrote, like, a 50 page senior thesis.
I mean, it was! I mean I never want to go back to school just for that reason. But you know, so I graduated and went straight into teaching public school art and taught for 13 years. The last ten of those, so from 96 to 2006 I taught out in Cabarrus County and I genuinely loved it but I knew I wanted to follow my own dreams. So I quit and continued painting and teaching. You know even if you’re a self-employed artist, you have to have multiple revenue streams…
If you want to pay the bills and you don’t have someone paying for you. That’s the way it is. So I continued painting and in 2011 we went to the Mexico trip and I said,
“I’ve got to do it,” and I switched.
–Good for you! So, I want to talk a little bit about that. Like, how scary was that?
Very scary. I mean, I’m still having dental work done. You know, so a teacher artist, married to an artist and then I’m just switching and I have another business endeavor that I’m working on. I’m probably going to lose a little more on the flats of my teeth. [laughs] It’s scary, but it’s also like, I had hippie parents which is both good and bad. The good part of it was I could do, they told me I could do whatever I wanted. You know, and the people in my life, I was always encouraged. So it’s scary, but I don’t want to get…I’ve seen so many people with their life wait and wait and wait until I get retirement. Wait until this happens. Wait until…well life’s a moving target. This get’s better and then this sucks. Now you may have more money, but then you lose your health, or your spouse or your family. I’ve spent a lot of time taking care of family. It was scary, but I had to do it.
–I’m with you. Life’s too short. You need to be doing something that you love. Everyone has these ideas of what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to have this job. You’re supposed to be making this much money at this time. And if not, something’s wrong with you. You’re supposed to have this degree and if you don’t, you can’t get this job and then, what if you’re stuck in something you don’t like and then you’ve wasted all this time getting that degree or working that job. I really admire you for taking the plunge. You’re my hero.
Awww. It was kind of crazy here. Life is uncertain and everyone takes risks in different places. But I think when you don’t have kids…that helps.
And an artist…you know…if we don’t have kids, why am I not doing this?
You know it’s different…we’ve discussed it many times, if we had had kids, it would be a totally different thing.
But it’s actually scarier to not do things. I’m one that if I get to a point; it’s not that I get bored; it’s that – so I painted women and water for years. And I genuinely loved it. I pushed it in different directions and I still sometimes miss it. You know, when I think about painting, I would still sometimes love to be able to do it. But life is so short, you know, you have to pick and choose…you have to pick and choose your friends and the beauty of getting older is you do realize that you don’t have to do that and artists actually get a pass. I realized, you know, I’ve been around a lot of people who had money and collectors and people. What’s interesting is that they’re a little envious of us.
So they are working hard in their life, for their kids to leave the nest, so they can retire. So they can sell everything and go live on an island or something like that. So it’s kind of interesting.
–Yeah, it is.
And even if you get a degree in one thing, it can help you in something else.
So, like my philosophy degree; my family was kind of like What? Why are you doing this? Because it did add extra semesters and it was really hard. I’m again, most proud of the philosophy degree and I love art and teaching and it wasn’t that it was easy but I really worked for that degree. But it’s helped me in grant writing. It’s helped me in connecting with people; When I write, when I speak. It’s helped me to be a better teacher. So all of those things that you would think, what’s a BA in philosophy going to do? Actually it’s probably served me quite well. Because basically, everyone in school was like oh, if you make it they will come. What a load of garbage. Then and now.
You need the business, you need to be able to articulate what you’re doing and share the excitement. You don’t have to be bubbly and verbose like me. It’s personality driven. You can be very flat and like British humor and still be very successful if you share that with people.
Artists are also entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs are by nature very positive. They don’t look at failure as bad. I mean, you want to make calculated risks and not be stupid, but entrepreneurs are a lot different from artists because artists are by nature very pessimistic, melancholy. And it’s a hard life. I’m not saying it’s easy, but in business it’s exciting when you do something and you take some risk – And big risk, big reward. If you never really take any risk then, yes, you may enjoy painting that painting for the 4 thousandth time, but you’re losing that joy.
I am excited about a new project I’m starting. It’s an internet based platform for artists where they can go and it helps them with their business. It’s like a digital assistant. So it would help them with their writing and help them with their images. It would help them with their web presences over all and applications.
–That’s really cool!
Now this is scary. This is the stuff I lose a lot of sleep over. Because it’s totally different. It’s in the tech world. I’m working on raising funds to get the website built, finding partners, which is interesting.
–Oh, that is so exciting!
And that way I can help artists. That’s the cool part
–I just love how you keep reinventing yourself and you don’t seem scared of it. You’re just like, this is what I’m doing.
Well it’s a natural segue way and I love people, so there are times I’m wake up and go, what have I done? You know, What am I doing? Especially something like this tech project. You know it’s going to be something like 90 to 150 thousand dollars just to get the website built. But that’s everything. You know the website is everything. I can’t have a friend of mine do it from their garage.
Even though I love technology, it frustrates me a lot. So I will go on call for entry and I’m doing a show for something and my Photoshop doesn’t work right, or whatever it is, there’s always a glitch in it. And it drives me crazy too.
You know, PC/Mac compatibility. There’s all kinds of stuff. And I have an understanding of technology so if my friends really don’t, it’s worse for them. And I know some really talented artists who don’t apply for national shows just because they don’t want to deal with it. They don’t want to resize their photos and they don’t quite know how to do this.
So that’s what’s really exciting is I’ve spent my whole life helping other people and a lot of other artists. As an art teacher, I was helping creatives and budding artists…
Yeah! creating creatives. So now I can help them with that, but it also means that I have to say no to things more. So now I’m just going to work on my glass and this project. I can’t have all these little things going on, or I will lose my mind. Some of it’s already gone.
–Haha. But that’s a good thing.
–I wanted to ask you, who is your clientele?
Who supports me?
–Do you sell to stores? Because there’s all these cute little art stores around town, or sell to individuals?
So, because glass is so expensive, I’m already at the price point now where I’m not making any money after investing all of this stuff. So backing up, a couple of years ago, I was with Sozo gallery, which is in Uptown Charlotte, and it’s a great little gallery and we had a good relationship. So I was selling little pieces. I make everything from what I call little mini glass trays, basically tiny little pieces of glass which someone can buy for 50 bucks up to doing commission pieces for 4 grand.
…And I’m happy to do more.
But I do try to make and sell some things are small, that people who are really on a tight budget or my artists and creative friends can get. But then I want some things that would fill that spot that’s needing the art in a larger home or business.
So at Sozo, she sold to a number of different people. I did get the Price Waterhouse Cooper’s commission through Sozo, but she’s in Charlotte and I’m in Charlotte and there’s an exclusivity clause, which a lot of galleries will have. So I could not sell my art anywhere else without giving her her cut.
Right, and I understand because it’s very expensive to be a gallery owner and she’s taking the overhead cost and all of that, but because I’m in Charlotte, it made it kind of difficult. I was at the McColl’s center for a fundraiser and I sold some work through McColl. Well, I gave half of what I made for McColl to the gallery.
So we decided to part ways. So I’ve been without a gallery for about a year and a half now. This past week, I dropped off some glass at a gallery called Coffey and Thompson, in Southend. It’s been around for a long time, but it was recently bought by a new owner and they’re doing some cool stuff. So it’s moving from what it was into something new and they’re wanting to show more art, more contemporary art. Stuff that’s a little higher caliber, if you will. They don’t have the exclusivity clause and I like the new owner, kind of the way she is thinking and her team is thinking in a more innovative way. So I’m taking some risk in putting some glass there. So I’m selling the small pieces through the gallery and then doing commissions and some larger pieces for an individual and for that business.
I did a crowdfunding campaign for a new kiln. I started planting the seeds. I got everything from a ten-dollar investment to up to five hundred.
I got three five-hundred ones! And they weren’t all family!
–Rock on! Oh my gosh!
But it was also very scary because when I did it, because if I didn’t raise the minimum amount, which was like $43,000, I would not have gotten anything and all of my investors would have lost their money too.
So my own mother wouldn’t contribute until the very end.
She said, “you know if you don’t reach your goal, I won’t get my money, and you won’t get it.” I said, yeah, but thanks for having faith.
But that was important because it made me really step up. Sometimes as artists we get lazy. And because it’s not given or this didn’t work…that happens in business all the time.
What do you do? You learn from it. You don’t repeat it.