Sometimes success breeds its own challenges. By the time glassblower Amber Marshall turned 35 last year, she realized she had hit a crossroads. “I felt like I was sitting in the turn lane,” says the artist, based in Spruce Pine, North Carolina. “I had to go full time or move on.”
Two years before that juncture, she had decided to begin marketing her work in earnest. “I realized I needed to get serious about selling my work. For me, that meant the traditional craft-show circuit.” Marshall had graduated with a degree in glass sculpture from Illinois State University in 2001, moved back to her hometown of St. Louis, where she worked as an assistant to two glass artists, then became a teacher at Third Degree Glass Factory. There she began to develop her line of vessels and other functional pieces. Having found her style and created an inventory, she tried the shows.
While not always easy – at an early show, she brought home an award but didn’t sell a single item – the shows have taught her a lot. They are her marketing lab as well as an important source of income and exposure to a larger public. What are some of the lessons she’s learned?
“Color is key,” she says. “I used to make my pieces in clear, white, some celadon. Very clean, all texture and line. But people don’t see that at a show. They’re drawn to color.” The distinctively simple color ranges she developed in response have become a signature. For Marshall, less is still more. Resisting the temptation to overload a form with color, she infuses each shape with palettes she has developed for glass. Rather than muddying one another when light travels through the work, the colors retain harmony when illuminated. Form and texture take center stage.
People also respond to a visually coherent body of work, she says. “To look at a display and be able to see a common thread through it is really important.”
Images an artist uses for the jurying process will usually be used for that show’s promotional material, she notes, which can play a key role in attracting people to the work.
Since 2010, Marshall’s work has been favorably received at a number of craft shows, including the Cherry Creek Arts Festival (Denver), the Smithsonian Craft Show (Washington, DC), and the Philadelphia Museum of Art Contemporary Craft Show. Following the Smithsonian Craft Show in 2011, her work was profiled on the influential design site Handful of Salt.
As her show schedule filled during the last couple of years, Marshall was finding herself stretched thin. Between teaching, assisting other blowers, working a part-time day job, and producing her own work, she was in danger of burning out. After about eight years at Third Degree, she was ready for a new challenge. “I had tried the shows, and I was willing to commit to that as my sole income.”
In 2012, as key to that commitment, she won a three-year residency at the EnergyXchange in Burnsville, North Carolina, an hour from Asheville. The innovative green program [see “Fueled Up,” Apr./May 2012] is a craft business incubator, providing affordable studio rental and free use of glass furnaces and kilns powered by methane gas from the former landfill on which the complex is built.
“The EnergyXchange allows me to have the freedom to fail,” she says. (Her experiments would otherwise be extremely expensive.)
What’s next for Marshall? “I’m addicted to the acid-etched surface,” she muses, “making it soft and sexy.” We can look forward to seeing those sensual surfaces – and whatever else she comes up with – in her latest creations at the shows.
Rachel Schalet Crabb is a fiber artist and writer in Minneapolis.