It’s not easy being an artist in Seattle. Similar to food business owners, makers operate within extremely tight profit margins, and “according to a study by Seattle’s Office of Economic Development, warehouse and other small commercial building vacancies are at an all-time low, under 2 percent” (KUOW). For veteran glassmaker Julie Conway, Founding Owner of Illuminata Art Glass Design, her creative home within Equinox Studio offers a nexus of collaboration where artists often contribute to each other’s projects and have renter equity in the collection of industrial buildings. Amidst Julie’s flameworking equipment, vintage luggage used to carry glass, her grandfather’s silversmithing tools, and an expansive custom metal and glass chandelier made with help from a machinist down the hall, Julie and I sat down to discuss the challenges and rewards of being a creative small business owner.
Julie’s artistic origin story begins with her mother, an art consultant known to her friends as the “picture lady,” who brought art books and posters into her elementary school classroom in Denver when, already in the mid-1970s, art was cut from the curriculum. Art is something everyone needs to understand she said: “You have to understand space and color and therapy, all the different things that make you feel good and understand spatial relations in everything.” During a period of rapid growth and change in Seattle and beyond, art also helps us to make sense of the world.
Julie, who has a special place in her heart for craftsmanship, said she has always thought in 3D. In 1997 in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Julie was bitten by the glassblowing bug, and has never turned back. There she had a transformational apprenticeship where she worked day in and day out for three and a half years alongside a glass production artist. “I went to trade shows with her, did everything with her. I learned hot shop. I learned cold working. I learned shows. I learned packing. I learned shipping. I learned so much,” she recalled. “It made me also realize I didn’t want to do production at the beginning. I wanted to do custom work….however circle back to my LUMI collection, which is now going to be production 20 years down the road.”
Her new LUMI Collection, a subsidiary of Illuminata Art Glas Design LLC, is the reason Julie signed up for Business Impact NW’s immersive Grow & Thrive mentorship program for existing small business owners. “Transforming space is my biggest mission,” she pointed out, and with LUMI, she’s able to create her elegant and edgy work at a larger scale using shared hot shops in Seattle.
Through Business Impact NW’s partnership with Seattle Made, the Spring 2019 Grow & Thrive cohort featured five local makers. “Another maker can really only understand another maker,” added Julie of her cohort experience. “The Business Impact NW Grow & Thrive class has been an incredible inspiration, and presentation of materials was so abundant. I’m going to be at this for a year and a half, you know – operations manuals, cost projections, all these things [that] art school never mentioned.”
Julie has been able to make a creative home for herself in Seattle thanks to the Pratt Fine Art Center where she’s been blowing glass for seven and a half years, Equinox Studios, and Verity Credit Union who she said “believed in me,” and helped her get a business loan when she first moved to Seattle. Illuminata is also doing its part to help maintain a sustainable arts ecosystem in Seattle, employing woodworkers, metalsmiths, blacksmiths, and for one Bellevue installation, 16 different glassmakers. Julie is also a co-founder of BioGlass, an initiative promoting eco-efficient methods of glassmaking, a craft that requires a substantial amount of fuel. On a recent trip to Mexico she began a collaboration project for her new LUMI Collection “making products from recycled glass and using a biofuels furnace with zero carbon footprint!” Check out the LUMI Collection and Julie’s custom work at her studio, which will be open on October 19th and 20th from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. as part of the city-wide glass celebration Refract Seattle.