Breaking the mold of business as usualWhen life closes a door, it opens a window. And Duluth glass artist Ron Benson took that window and recycled it into an extraordinary new line of functional, environmentally friendly “green” art. Benson works with recycled glass to create unique pieces that combine functionality with artistry.
By: Lucie Amundsen, Living North Magazine
When life closes a door, it opens a window. And Duluth glass artist Ron Benson took that window and recycled it into an extraordinary new line of functional, environmentally friendly “green” art. Benson works with recycled glass to create unique pieces that combine functionality with artistry. Artists are often the canaries in the coal mine of an economy, feeling a slowing market long before other indicators sound the alarm. That is what happened with Ron’s jewelry business. He jokes, “If only Alan Greenspan would have talked to me 10 years ago, I could have told him something was wrong.” In the 90s, Ron’s signature fused-glass pendants were featured countrywide, but between tightening budgets and the technique becoming well-known, it was the end of the line.
Breaking the Mold
Because Ron was no longer toiling away creating thousands of individual jewelry pieces a year (he’ll tell you it takes selling a lot of ten-dollar items to make a living) he had time to reflect on what he could do differently in terms of creations and business model. “I was looking across my kitchen and saw an old-fashioned mason jar with the raised letters and I realized I wanted to create something sculptural.”
Ron began to explore carving low-relief sculpture into clay to be used as glass molds – he experimented with carving depths, carving in reverse, firing the clay with the glass in it, firing the mold first … the variables seemed endless. “The learning curve was fairly steep,” says Ron, which is a nice way of saying there was plenty of exploding glass and bubbly misfires along the way.
But for once, Ron had plenty of free material on hand for experimentation. “I had been working with dichroic materials – glass with optical coatings – and it was really expensive. Now I use all old window glass, which isn’t recyclable,” says Ron. Typically when a windowpane is discarded it’s simply buried in a landfill. “As an environmentalist, I feel really good about finding new ways to make these materials useful and beautiful,” he goes on. He always has his eye out for free glass. “I’ll pull over for the odd “free” window on the side of the road...” Ron laughs.
After many months of trial and error, Ron is happy with the technique he developed. The key lies with his programmable kiln which heats and cools the glass slowly, removing internal stresses and toughening the final product. In the process, he also adds powdered glass available in many hues to color the piece, making it a lead-free alternative to stained glass. “I’ve researched and looked all around; I think I’m the only person doing this type of 3-D “green” stained glass.”
Ron’s new sculpted glass got its first big break in 2008, when he won a large public art project. Duluth’s Whole Foods Co-op chose his work to adorn their new storefront in 2008. “That was a rare opportunity with a high-profile location,” says Ron. Putting his heart into the mural, he took months to create glass that could withstand all that the Duluth climate has to offer. He describes the installation as waves on a big, stormy Lake Superior and feels good about the connection between healthy food and fresh water. “The mural just seems to fit well at that location,” says Ron.
In his thrust to once again support himself through his artistry, Ron is learning from previous missteps. “The problem before was I had all my eggs in one basket: the gift market,” explains Ron. Now he’s developed a product that can run the gamut from practical interior design applications to large sculpture.
One of the most popular uses of Ron’s sculpted glass is as a custom backsplash under a kitchen cabinet. By lining the back of the glass with mirror, light is picked up and reflected into a space lit from behind. “A homeowner or a contractor will usually see me at a show, like the pieces and realize there’s this really functional way to incorporate art into their everyday lives,” says Ron.
On a visit, he typically sits down with clients in their home to get an idea of what they’re hoping to achieve, while immersing himself in their design asthetics. From there, he’ll go back to his studio and come up with several original designs. “Luckily, I’m not a shy, retiring hermit type of artist. I actually enjoy working with a client or a designer to create a piece they’ll love, and understand the concept of a deadline.”
His designs for custom tile usually revolve around nature themes. “I can create most anything a client can think up, but there’s a trend towards flowing lines and curves found in nature like water, trees, leaves,” Ron says. It seems folks who have chosen to live in the Northland often want their love of the outdoors reflected in their custom pieces; they also readily embrace the recycled aspect of the product. In fact, it’s so environmentally friendly that it is LEED-certified by the U.S. Green Building Council, which developed the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification system.
In addition to expanding his range of products, Ron has also worked with commerce professionals including the Northeast Entrepreneur Fund and the University of Minnesota Center for Economic Development to shore up his business plan. “While I’m very interested in art and art theory, I also want to make sure I get the business end of this right.”
While artists are said to be the last to recover in an economic downturn, Ron Benson aims to be among the first wave of working artists sustained by their craft.