THIS IS A STUDIO of exquisite light, and lights. A sumptuous chandelier hovers over the desk, its handblown, transparent glass globules dangling like swollen raindrops just before the drip. Nearby, a series of pendants, each glowing through a different pigment, from a different altitude, stretches toward windows practically erased by sunshine. A workhorse table below sky-high shelving holds other luminescent works of art — lights in progress; lights in pieces; lights awaiting the perfect bulb; lights to package, ship, install.
This is the studio of Julie Conway, the artist/glassmaker/designer behind Illuminata Art Glass Design. It’s housed in a labyrinthine former factory (extra-large golden eggs remain stationed on the roof) and part of an active Georgetown artists and artisans complex called Equinox Studios: “painters, ceramics, dance, blacksmiths, machinists,” Conway says.
Also, now: one artistic winner of an international lighting-design competition.
Conway designs and crafts art glass lighting and custom architectural installations, but only part of her creative process happens here — structurally, that’s “jewelry, Christmas ornaments, small sculptural work,” she says. For larger pieces, “There are two main parts of my project process: I blow glass with my team at a few hotshop furnaces around Seattle. Then I bring the glass back to my studio for arranging and assembly. The metal components also are ordered off-site and come back for assembly at my space.”
The Backstory: Photographing an artist who works with fire and light
There’s more off-site traveling to this craft than you might think — meeting with architects and clients, consulting with collaborating machinists and electricians, renting spaces to blow the glass for her designs. And so, stacked on more shelving, near the plush sofa and velvet chair in the “living room” of her studio, Conway keeps, appropriately and a little surprisingly, luggage. Lots and lots of luggage, all colorful, labeled, organized and stuffed. Some suitcases hold the sentimental, and highly practical, custom-made tools of her passion.
“My first [suitcase] came from my tattoo artist in 1996, when I started working with glass,” she says. “He said, ‘You might want to use this for your glass tools; they’re sturdy.’ When I go to the hotshop, I take my daily hand tools. They smell like campfires.”
THINGS DO GET crisp-marshmallow toasty in a hotshop, all right — Conway forms glass at 2,100 degrees F, typically at The Pratt Fine Arts Center, and typically with a hired, trusted team of 10.
“Every one is an artist in their own right,” she says. “It’s a beehive mentality. People holding molten glass with fire — we’re a rare bunch. Glassmakers are not individual artists sitting in caves.”
The artistic lights Conway has designed, created and fabricated, however, have brought her quite a bit of individual recognition.
She submitted three pieces to the global LIT (Light in Theory) Lighting Design Awards. One, the geometric, hand-blown-glass “Gabbietta,” won honorable mention in the chandelier category. For another, the blown-glass and light installation “FracTur(ed),” which was once part of Bellevue Arts Museum’s “Glasstastic” exhibition, Conway was named Lighting Designer of the Year 2018 in the Artisan Glass Blown Lighting category.
“The jury was from India, France, South Africa — 15 incredible people in the lighting industry,” Conway says. “It was a really neat opportunity doing an artist statement with the work. I don’t get a lot of opportunity to be just an artist, unhindered by, ‘We need it blue.’ I’m very pleased with the opportunity to make it, show it, expose truly what comes out of me as an artist.”
Locally, her artistry has been installed at the Goldfinch Tavern in the Four Seasons Hotel Seattle, in the headquarters of an “international tech company,” in the executive boardroom and ballroom at the Seattle Marriott Waterfront and — for a while there — all over everything at Motif Seattle.
Conway was chosen as the hotel’s 2017-18 visiting artist after submitting a logo inspired by the patterns of light and shadows she uses on her Illuminata business card. (When they called to tell her she’d won, she replied: “You know I work with fire, right?”) And then, she says, “Motif literally changed their motif. Mine became everything in and on their promotional materials, website and key cards.”
Hers is an art of total metamorphosis, from the crystallization of a concept to puffs of breath in the dragon’s lair of a hotshop to the measured installation of art, wires and the magical “on” switch.
“I love making glass,” Conway says. “I want to transform space with it. I want to light up people’s places, make an experiential moment, stop people in their tracks for a second. I’m not only enjoying the glassmaking process. I’m also doing the light: how it changes the experience.”
THE CLIENT EXPERIENCE pulls Conway into spaces with endless opportunity, for collaboration and for transformation. In and around Seattle, she teams with architects and designers on site-specific lighting installations.
“For me, it’s about interpreting the design, the room, a designer’s or client’s desire,” she says. “I try to work with the client more. I’ve had clients call and say, ‘The designer wants a red chandelier, but I don’t like red.’ ”
She’s worked with Rohleder Borges Architecture on a large foyer chandelier, coordinating wall sconces and kitchen pendants for an Eastlake condominium; with Yuendi Design and contractor Guy Bennett of Fine Structures on four rooms of custom glass lighting for a waterfront home in Burien; and, most recently (and dramatically), with clients in Kirkland on a giant, steel-armed chandelier to illuminate a three-story curved staircase.
“It’s a design I’d never done before,” Conway says. “I’m really pushing my limits. The globes are in four colors — aquamarine, layered with silver leaf and silver crystal interference; transparent amber with solar bubbles; mirror coating that’s swirled around on the inside; and crackle.”
It’s so innovative, Conway had to invent the solid brass fittings that attach the glass to the steel arms. “I know I need this connector,” she says. “It solves itself.”
As a bonus, the Kirkland clients also are the first customers of Conway’s new line of ready-made (and customizable, with seven glass colors, 10 cord colors and five metal finishes) pendant lights, called the Lumi Collection. They purchased six for their kitchen.
“They’re like unicorns, giving clients an entry-level option,” she says — with even more options to come. “Textiles is my next level. I started designing pillow covers. Now I’m kind of thinking a whole new way: the element of handmade, but bring it to more people.”
CONWAY’S CONSTANTLY THINKING about the future … of art, of glass and glassmaking, of the planet itself. She lived off the grid a couple times, including in “a wind-powered, tin-can mud home in New Mexico,” and in 2006 founded BioGlass.org, which works to develop renewable and bio-sustainable fuel sources for glass production.
“It’s a fuel-intensive industry,” she says. “Any glass furnace is on 24 hours a day — mostly natural gas or propane, a million to 5 million BTUs of gas a day. And fuel is expensive. When I started blowing glass, it was $15 to $20 an hour. Now it’s $200 an hour, minimum. Some of my days, with a big team, are $2,500 a day.”
She’s launched a new partnership with Christian Thornton, an Ashoka Fellow who lives in Mexico and has a glass facility that uses alternate sources of fuel, she says. “He has invented a triple burner system that could use vegetable oil collected from the village, methane and propane, and he’s going to start making Lumi products. I’m going to be introducing green-product blown glass. I feel like I’m the cutting edge with Christian.”
Conway also appreciates the environmental benefits of LEDs, and uses them — but also hates most of them most of the time. “The lighting is bad,” she says. “LED has its place, as a one-directional diode. But when you want to illuminate beautiful glass from within and eat dinner, the dimension, warmth, feeling, our souls are built around the flame. When you get a blue LED, it kills that. I think humanity is unhappy because of LEDs in offices. Do the garage in LED. I would suggest beautiful, warm light where you eat, take a bath, in the living room.”
Her favorite go-to bulb is a $4 number from Home Depot: “It’s eco-smart, halogen, always a clear bulb,” she says. “It lights up the glass the most. When you buy a 40-watt or 60-, you know what you’re getting.”
She estimates she has maybe $5,000 worth of LED samples she’s researched and rejected. “Most of them are stupid,” she says. “And they’re really expensive.”
Conway keeps those rejects in one of the labeled, organized, stuffed suitcases in her luminous studio of light, lights … and light bulbs. These stay, mostly, in the dark.