Parker Stafford was 12 years old when he remembers first being impressed by glass. He had traveled to England with his grandparents and was awestruck by stained glass windows. After graduating from high school in Floyd County, where he lived most of his young years, Stafford attended Berea College in Kentucky, a unique, tuition-free, liberal arts college with an intensive work-study angle. He received a bachelor’s degree in studio art with an emphasis on sculpture before going on a few years later for a Master of Fine Arts [MFA] at Southern Illinois University. Here, the 27-year-old sculptor spent time bending metal and working in the foundry, until ….. one day.
“From the moment I stepped into the glass studio and the professor blew a bubble [of glass], I was hooked,” he recalls. It was not a big leap from metal to glass, as both use similar techniques in pyro technology. The attraction of glass, not just to Stafford but to everyone he feels, is its enduring quality of utilizing all the classical elements:
• Earth • Water • Air • Fire
Showroom and Workshop
Parker Stafford set up Stafford Artglass (one word) on U.S. 460 just across the Giles County line in 2007 in a 3,200-square-foot building on about three acres. His showroom in the front is small compared to his work space in the back. The office appears to be one computer on a table on the way to the heart and fire of the business of making, molding, shaping, coloring and – eventually – cooling glass.
While we chatted, he picked up a steel, 4-foot long pole and grabbed a gob of molten glass on one end out of the 2,100-degree furnace. Certainly, there is some romantic slant to the roar of a red hot furnace, and here, there are several glowing red hot kilns and furnaces where hot doesn’t quite begin to describe the intensity. Don’t even contemplate his electric bills.
Stafford twirled and shaped the blob and slid it in and out of another, not quite-so-hot furnace several times in between laying the pole across two supports and turning it. Then he pressed it into a mold on the floor that gave it pumpkin ridges and shape. He twirled some more while he talked of art, glass, politics, sales and marketing strategies and his theory about the “man gift”, the inscape geode.
Water and Space
“Two formative influences on my work have been spending the first six years of my life in Florida where water is ubiquitous. At that time, we were going to the moon. Space has played into my glass in the Andromeda Geodes, and water shows up in the Inscape Series as well as Oceana, Shell, Aurora and Nautilus pieces,” he explains.
The inscape geode is an innovative all glass piece mimicking a rock geode with many small components inside, all handcrafted in glass. A few of them have a clear opening on the side for light to shine into the scene with a stunning, visual effect, beyond this writer’s command of words.
Sales and Marketing
Stafford grasped the power of the internet early on, trying to convince artists they would no longer have to be in an urban environment to succeed. “I am using that tool to shrink the distance between me and my customers. I recently video-conferenced with a follower on my Facebook business page who lives in Iowa. I showed her my inventory by holding the phone up to the shelves of pieces. A link for an invoice and my ability to write out and print a shipping label made quick work and caused both of us to feel closer together throughout the process.” Hey, there’s a huge emotional value to shopping and purchasing something as special as handcrafted glass.
Stafford has invested quite a bit of time in studying sales and marketing methods as well, citing the book “No Thanks, I’m Just Looking!” as a wonderful resource for turning shoppers into buyers. After cautiously wrapping up glass pieces, loading his van, hauling, setting up, tweaking the lighting and staffing a booth at craft fairs, then tearing down and returning home dozens of times, this glass artisan has pulled back from doing shows.
“I do custom work, but my main focus has been expanding design options of my work by designing all new lines of products which I only sell direct to the public. I now have work I sell to galleries and other things directly to the public. I recently showed a score of people out of our area the pieces in a sale here at the shop through teleconferencing software. They were able to comfortably and easily purchase one-of-a-kind pieces.”
“I have always felt like an outsider because I don’t have, or care to have, pedigrees with well-known teachers or schools. My degree in sculpture was from one of the foremost programs in the country, and much of what I have done in glass was sprinting to catch up. I had one semester of instruction in glass. The rest has been paying attention to the glass to learn how to get better and better at what I do.”
Across his storied career, the 57-year-old glassblower has collaborated on new designs for awards, lighting, home décor solutions and sculptures. He has worked for home builders and designers, government agencies, schools, foundations, individuals and corporations.
Over most of his 70-hour work weeks now, he is in his New River Valley workshop, selling in the front, filling orders online in the middle, boxing up pieces for shipment, and his favorite activity of all in the back – moving among the furnaces, kilns, molds and glassmaking equipment, twirling (and talking sometimes) as he smoothly transitions through all the stages of creating a unique, attractive glass pumpkin or tree, tumbler, ornament, inscape geode, paperweight or other beautiful piece.
Text by Joanne M. Anderson
Photo courtesy of Christopher Risch