Mountains Covered in Glass
[imgbelt img=Glassposter2final.jpg]Combine talent and innovation in one region and remarkable things can happen. Witness the cluster of glass makers in the mountains of Western North Carolina.
• The EnergyXchange, glassblowing and pottery studios powered by methane from a landfill have operated since 1994 as new business incubator for developing artists, is now managed by Mayland Community College.
• Several local galleries specializing in art glass.
These two relatively poor, rural Appalachian counties with a combined population of about 30,000 have unparalleled proportions of internationally recognized American glass artists.
The impact of their work is not its volume of decorative and functional glass, which characterized art glass prior to the 1960s and defined types of clusters, but the range and depth of artistic talent among the glass artists.
Toe River artists’ glass can be found in art museums around the world. Nearly a dozen are represented in Denmark’s famed Glasmuseet Elbeltoft. At a special showing of North Carolina Glass at Ebeltoft in 1995, 19 of 22 artists were from within a 40-mile radius of the heart of the Toe River Valley.
Local glass artists John Littleton, Kate Vogel, Katie Bernstein and Dick Kennedy led the planning effort. They designed a weekend-long series of events that included gallery exhibits, glass blowing demonstrations, studio tours, lectures, a tour of the EnergyXchange, special events, and an exhibit at the Toe River Arts Council that included a timeline tracing the historical development of the cluster.
The celebration included a special tour of Mark Peiser’s studio and, of course, Harvey Littleton’s studio, which is destined to become a historic landmark.
Can a micro-cluster be a catalyst for a rural region’s economy?
Art glass in the Toe River Valley has all of the attributes of a cluster: a concentration of enterprises; a social infrastructure; suppliers; education; and innovation. (The innovation is both in the form and design of the products and in the technologies of the furnaces and tools.)
But the real power of this particular cluster is that it’s embedded in a much larger art cluster that includes artists in many other media, which leads to many new applications and art forms that mix glass with other arts and crafts.
For example, local home builders and interior decorators are using glass art and other crafts as architectural elements in their work.
More importantly, the art glass cluster contributes to a creative milieu that attracts and keeps talented people in a rural region, and it gives the region distinctiveness among the growing array of creative places.
Stuart Rosenfeld is the founder of Regional Technology Strategies in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.