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Ways We Work

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Sally McCubbin


I met Sally a few years ago and I was really curious to learn more about her craft as a glassblower. It's not everyday you get the chance to meet someone with such a unique creative skill and artistic mind. It was great talking with Sally and learning more about what she does and the challenges artists face when trying to manage the more practical elements of their lives. Sally gives an honest look into the realities of running a business while being an artist and presents some helpful perspective for others who might be on a similar path.

For those who might not know you, give us an idea of what you do?

I am a freelance glassblower that does a lot of my own speculative work; that's anything sculptural or functional but it really depends on where my head is at, what's happening in my life or what I'm working on at a given moment. I also do commission work for people who are looking for particular glass object to be made. I also have done some public art and sometimes I’ll do repairs. Since glassblowing isn't a super common thing, I find I do a variety of different work.

How did it all start and how did glassblowing evolve into being your full time career?

I discovered glassblowing when I was pretty young, around sixteen, and it naturally felt like something I wanted to do. Not having the right guidance in high school, I didn't actually get into it until I was in my early twenties. I had a couple years of misguided university where I followed the path you were supposed to follow. I went to university and took geography because I really liked weather, volcanoes, and natural disasters. It was the only program I was interested in enough to focus on during school. I don't regret going to university, I learned a lot of valuable life lessons, however, it was a big waste of my academic time. I eventually found an arts program at Sheridan College and I applied right away. There were three schools in Canada that offered glassblowing and Sheridan College happened to be really close to where I was living at the time so it was a perfect fit.

By the next fall I quit university and went to college. The funny thing is, it didn't really dawn on me until three years into the program what I had actually chosen to do. I'm a really impulsive person who doesn't mind massive amounts of change and I was really psyched about the idea of glassblowing, so I went for it. It took me a few years to recognize that I was signing up for a career in the arts and it was something that was going to lead me to the world of freelance. I really didn't wrap my head around this until I was well into it. In hindsight it was probably a good thing because I'm not sure I would have continued pursuing it if I knew an entrepreneurial life was ahead of me.

You said you were sixteen when you discovered glassblowing. Where did you experience it for the first time?

My brother is a sailor who was teaching in Bermuda and on a visit I walked into a glassblowing studio that was making souveneiry type stuff. It was really hot and it was really active. I was a big athlete in school and anything challenging, body wise, I was always interested in. Watching them work with this beautiful material that caught light in interesting ways really inspired me. I don't know if every kid has a natural attraction to glass, but I definitely did. I always wanted to play with little bits of it, like those glass beads, or the things you fill vases with. Seeing all this activity in one place, I thought, 'This is it. This is what I'm going to do.' In retrospect, it was a really important moment.

“I am trying to make these objects that are important to me because they include my ideas about the world, politics, or social trends. I'm trying to make objects that make other people think about things, cause them to think differently, or have an idea of their own.”

“Unfortunately, it’s very difficult in this climate to be an artist who wants to perfect a craft and to just do it for the love of doing it. You have to be very aware of what you're making, who it’s for, and what the ideal price point is.”

After you graduated, what were the first few steps you took to start your career?

Straight out of school I applied to a residency program at the Toronto Harbourfront. I didn't know it at the time, but I could have accessed the program when I was sixteen and it would have been a faster route to where I am now. The Harbourfront residency program is one of the best in the world. They offer emerging artists three years of highly subsidized studio access. It essentially afforded me the time and resources to become really good at my craft. It also enabled me to develop my creative voice and explore my professional options. It's awesome. I was there for three years.

Going back to what you were mentioning earlier about being entrepreneurial. At what point did you realize that you would have to be a business person?

The first thing I realized at college was that I was signing up to make things. Making things has always been an interest of mine, but the more I became concerned with ecology, waste, and the environment I became very self conscious that I was going to be filling the world with stuff. I already looked around and saw too much stuff, and too much garbagey stuff; like things that didn't need to exist. I had to grapple with this internal conflict and decide how I was going to deal with it because I wasn't okay with just making stuff and filling the world with it. It took me a long time to find the solution and I eventually decided I would only make things that were very worthwhile and had a high quality to them. I wasn't going to try to produce anything at volume.

Once I got through this mental hurdle and had my values in order I also had to figure out how to make money. I think Harbourfront residency afforded me some time to not feel like I needed to make money as quickly, which is so nice and so important. I had time to develop my business values and my ethics without needing to pay a whole lot of bills and overhead. Overhead in glassblowing is crushing. I learned about business after exiting the program. I started my first real functional glass brand and I designed everything to be highly economical and to not use up a lot of material or produce a lot of waste. That was definitely the biggest leap forward in understanding how I was going to structure a business.

Were there some turning points in the first few years where you knew you could do your craft and make a living?

The year after my residency I learned to take nice photos of my work and they started getting picked up by some media outlets. I made this piece called the “chip and dip” bowl and a photo I took of it appeared in Dwell Magazine in 2006. I think I got two hundred and fifty emails from that article in the days following it's release. That started a pursuit to get more press for myself. I was spending a lot of time sending releases and images to magazines and so on. The stories were producing sales that could sustain my very humble lifestyle. I was making a good amount of money but it wasn't excessive, at all. It was just being able to pay my studio fees and my lifestyle as a poor student type person.

How did these magazines discover you?

Good question. I owe that to a girl named Jessica. Coming out of school, myself and five other like minded people–they were mostly furniture makers, and a couple of ceramicists, and some textiles people–made this design collaboration called The Vest Collective. It was really cool and it was one of the best things I think I've done in my career. We would meet every couple of weeks and work on pieces that followed a theme for an installation that we could do at different galleries, or at different shows. This girl Jess was an excellent PR person who would make these beautiful press packages and send them out to I.D. magazine, Dwell, Wallpaper and others. We got a surprising amount of coverage for being so young and so new. It was all because of her that Dwell picked up my work. From that initial story things just snowballed.

Looking back to that period where you were moving away from your residency and starting your freelance career, what was one of the bigger challenges that you faced during that time?

I don't think that my identity, as a creative, has always fit well with the glassblowing environment that exists in Canada or the States. I think the biggest challenge for me has been finding my niche, or finding where I belong. A lot of what people think of when they think of glassblowing is souvenirey, chatchka stuff, because that is, essentially, what it is. There is a lot of people making their careers by making stuff that people can buy inexpensively. I couldn't connect with that idea so that crafty perspective was never going to work for me. I explored interior design thinking that making decorative objects for interiors might be my thing and it definitely is to a certain extent. I also had a long road of exploring what didn't work for me and what did. I would go to trade shows in New York and different gift shows and those types of things never really suited my sensibility. It was always, 'Well, I'm just going to be making decorative stuff that is very on point with trend.' Which meant it eventually would not be trendy and inevitably become garbage.

I have flipped back and forth with my work. I make a lot of functional things that appeals to a very particular kind of person. Someone who has an interest in design and things that are handmade. Since the price point is high, you have to be able to target your customer, very specifically. Where I landed after all these years is making things that are in viewed with ideas. I am trying to make these objects that are important to me because they include my ideas about the world, politics, or social trends. I'm trying to make objects that make other people think about things, cause them to think differently, or have an idea of their own. I'm not sure if I have, necessarily, satisfied all of my challenges but I have landed in that place.

What are some of the challenges you face today?

For a year I took a business course that was offered by the government. It made my finances extraordinarily painfully clear to me, as far as expenses are concerned. At the time it was a horrifying class because it was made apparent that the economics of being a glassblower don't work. They don't really work unless you are very mindful of what you're doing and how you're doing it. I teach business at Sheridan now to people in the program I studied. That's pretty much what I talk about the entire time. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult in this climate to be an artist who wants to perfect a craft and to just do it for the love of doing it. You have to be very aware of what you're making, who it’s for, and what the ideal price point is. The business aspects are the thing I think about the most now. My lifestyle is such that I don't have the freedom to not make money.

The challenges I face today are weighing my costs and my price versus the market and trying to find new places in the market where there is money and interest. Traditionally, the arts were very much supported by a particular demographic of the population that doesn't really exist anymore. There is money everywhere, for sure, and there is a lot of people interested in the arts who have money, but they are not the same kind of supporters of the arts. The climate and the buyer market has changed. Even craftspeople and designers have had to adapt a lot, as far as finding places to sell. In the crash in 2008 a lot of galleries closed. A lot of people who would normally represent people like me aren't in the business anymore. It’s a matter of trying to be creative and finding out where the people who would be interested in your work are and how to access them.

Artists and people with creative pursuits have to deal with a lot of uncertainty and stress because of what you’re speaking about. How do you manage those elements, keep going and not say, 'I'm just going to go be a banker?'

Totally. Only recently have I felt like I have to manage those elements. Before that I feel like my career in glass has been extraordinary and very lucky. I have been able to travel and I've been able to do all kinds of things that I never would have been able to do, if I was a banker or if I was anything else. I was okay with living hand to mouth. When I had money I would do my craft and I would get grants and be able to do research and travel, it was awesome. I would say in the last three years I have had to grow up a bit, and that's cool. I like that. I have realized how much stability I have sacrificed in having the kind of career that I have had. I've had to work really hard at creating stability. I would say that I am facing, now more than ever, the challenge of feeling like I should just drop it all and go back to school to do something else. I would say I was very close to doing that six months ago and I have realized that I am not built for it. If I decided to go back to school and be something different, I would keep getting pulled back to the career I have now. Instead, I have been trying to work at how to blend what I do now with something more stable.

What do you think you would add to bring stability?

I currently teach at Sheridan College and it has always been a small source of stability, as far as income goes, but it’s not easy working as a part time faculty. I would like to replace that part of my career with something a little more substantial. At first I was interested in the idea of user experience design because I'm super into digital products, platforms and applications that make business and my career so much easier. I'm always immersed in that and teaching that in my classes. It was natural for me to be interested in user experience. In taking a couple of workshops I have realized that it also blends, really naturally, with my skill set. Just thinking about design and how people use things every day or how they blend into their lifestyle, or their day’s workflow. UX is the thing I am going to investigate first. I don't think it’s going to replace what I do now but I'm hoping it’s going to dovetail really nicely into what I do.

In a way, you've been thinking about design and user experience for quite some time then.

Right. Like, analog user experience.

Very interesting. The rate at which everything is changing in tech has created this demand for creative people who can think beyond just fancy features and that must be really exciting for design thinkers working in other mediums.

I have this real desire to be a part of that change. The tech industry is this tsunami of change. There are these companies on the crest of the wave, being able to shape this change, and essentially, decide where our culture is headed. I find that extremely interesting and I want to help shape that change, or at least contribute.

When you are in a creative pursuit there are these duelling worlds between doing the craft and selling it. How do you balance the relationship between those two things?

More and more now I have the luxury of not having to blow glass as much as I used to, simply because I'm good at it. It doesn't require so much time like it used to. It’s fun for a lot of people but I look at it, very much, as work. I prefer to get that stuff done, and then manage my business.

I balance it because I have talked myself into thinking that glassblowing isn't the coolest thing going. It’s the other work surrounding it that needs a lot of the maintenance for anything to work. I have learned that the hard way, a number of times. I would realize that I'm not spending enough time doing the things that are going to get work out the door and get money coming in. I think through learning and experience, I balance it because it has to absolutely balance.

Do you have periods where you are burnt out or feel disconnected with your craft? If you do, how do you pull yourself out of those situations?

When you asked me about the biggest challenge I probably should have told this story. I got to work with Bruce Mau in the summer of 2012. He has nothing to do with glass, but I go to a glass school on the west coast almost every year and he was invited to be the artist in residence there. Through a process of applications he chose me to be his artist assistant. It was amazing. I got to work with him for three weeks, just the two of us. That experience changed my career so drastically. It allowed me to see burnout and all the challenges, and the negative stuff in my career, as just design problems that needed solutions.

He's such an optimist and is so positive. I learned about his way of working and the positivity that he approaches everything with. When I met him, I was probably very burnt out. Part of his residency was giving a slideshow about his work to the school. Being his assistant, I was asked to speak after him. I sat through Bruce Mau's forty five minute artist slideshow and then it was my turn. Mine was just a small fifteen minute thing. I have always been a fan of his and his work. His slideshow was just so moving and I was so in awe of everything he was doing. I thought what he was doing was so important and what I'm doing is so unimportant. I'm making glass objects that, essentially, only rich people can afford and I felt guilty about it because I've been consuming massive amounts of fossil fuels and so on. I often get stuck in that rut of, “what am I thinking?”

After his presentation it was my turn and I felt like I had to stand up and tell everyone about the silly career I have. I just cried. I couldn't get over how moved I was from his presentation. I couldn't muster talking about my work. I just sobbed for about eight minutes. Then, I finally pulled it together, and give my presentation. Afterwards I talked to him and he said, 'Sally, your work is so great.' I was just like, 'Oh, I'm so embarrassed.' I told him how I was feeling and why I was crying. He said, 'Sally, you cannot worry about that stuff. What you do is so important.' He was just saying all these nice things and at the time I thought, 'Yeah, okay. You're making me feel better, but whatever.'

In the process of working with him for the following three weeks, it made me understand how he is so optimistic and how he is so positive. It just breathed this optimism into me and it allowed me to look at what I was doing and say, 'Yes, maybe I am burning all these fossil fuels. I consume a lot of everything in order to make glass, but there are ideas that I'm trying to put out in the world that will maybe change people’s experience, or perhaps shape it.'

I try to see the value in the ideas I'm putting out. Putting things that are positive into the world or that are changing and perhaps even influencing perspectives is important, I think, so that we are all not just manufactured to be the same. It’s hard to explain but I've been able to try to take the long view when I get bogged down, or feel burnt out. I just try to think about what it is that I'm doing and try to solve that.

“You cannot always expect someone to be able to teach you how to do things, you just have to do it and probably fail a bunch of times. You're going to learn how to fix it and do it better if you just do it yourself.”

What is some of the best career advice you've been given that made a difference in how you moved forward?

There is a lot. Glassblowing is a very social activity, so I have a lot of mentors and I have a lot of close friends that I know through work. One of my mentors, his name is Blaze, taught me to blow glass by just saying, 'Fuck, Sally. You've just got to do it.' Because I would always go to him and say, 'How do I do this? How am I going to figure this out?' He would just always say, 'You just have to do it.'

I apply this advice all the time. I say that to my students, too, because you cannot always expect someone to be able to teach you how to do things, you just have to do it and probably fail a bunch of times. You're going to learn how to fix it and do it better if you just do it yourself. Some people, I think, can take that advice better than others. I do see people who just need to do it, and need to stop asking how?

How do you mentally recover from situations where things don't go as planned, or things that don't go as expected?

You just have to develop such a thick skin for being able to bounce back. I would say I have gotten better at it because at the beginning of my career I would plan these huge projects that would involve travel, or something that I needed funding for. I would put everything into it because I don't do anything half-assed. I would go into it thinking the project was going to happen because the plan was perfect. I convinced myself it was happening. Unfortunately, countless times, what I expected to happen doesn't happen. I would say at the beginning of my career it lead to little ruts of depression. I would feel bad about it. Now I have learned that it should take me a day, or a day and a half, and I can get over it. I have just learned that I have got to get over it and there are more opportunities. I've got more ideas. It’s not like I'm running out of them.

Why do you do what you do? Why do you keep plowing through the ups and downs of it all?

Community is a big part of it. I feel really lucky to have worked with the people that I have worked with, and to be able to collaborate, or bounce ideas off the people that I know in my network. The community, I think, is big part of it. I know that there is great people everywhere and I would find new interesting, and awesome, people in other lines of work, but I do know there is something special, about the community I am in.

Additionally, sometimes I try to switch career paths or switch disciplines and the switch is hard because I'm kind of good at glassblowing. It’s hard to deny yourself the thing you are actually good at. I'm sure there is other things in the world that I am good at but I just keep coming back to this. I think it’s because when a new opportunity comes up, or a new project comes up, I realize it’s happened because of what I’ve done already. I just slide back into it because I know I'm good at it and people want it. There has got to be value in that.

If there is a sixteen year old kid right now, who had that epiphany about what kind of work they wanted to do, like you had when you were sixteen, what would you say to them?

That's a really tough question. My husband Clayton and I always talk about how we are going to try to work on our daughter Alice to not be interested in the arts [laughs]. If someone told me that they really wanted to be a glassblower I would encourage them to do it because everybody needs to pursue the things that they are excited about. I would tell them to learn how to do it by whatever means makes sense for them. I would also say that it's so important to remember what you're making, and why. Understanding "why" you want to make stuff is something that really important for craft people, and makers, to think about. The act of making is attractive to everyone, its part of our nature. If you want to do it professionally, you really should consider why. As far as learning to do it, good glassblowers are a dime a dozen. They are everywhere. It's the ones that make really important things that are the special ones.