After 20 years as Pastoral Associate with the Catholic Church, a chance meeting on a flight would lead Mary to move from Oregon to California for love. When her new husband was diagnosed with cancer, Mary turned to glass making to help her cope; little did she know this would become her business, Grateful Glass.
Tell us a little about your background…
I was adopted into a family in upstate New York when I was just three weeks old. My brother was adopted before me and, to be honest, I always felt like a bit of an afterthought. I struggled to get the attention that was showered on my brother. He excelled at everything and my parents applauded and supported his endeavors.
I did notice early on that I had one talent that gained my parents’ approval. That was my skill at drawing. When my parents had parties they would say, “Mary, draw something!” much like you would ask a child to perform a musical instrument they knew how to play. I always had a pad and pen near by and would pull it out and do sketches of the party guests or show them the latest piece of art I was working on. My parents seemed pleased and proud of me and so I was encouraged to do more because I really did enjoy it and because it gave me their attention.
When I went to kindergarten I won a drawing contest for Fire Prevention Week and my entire family came to see me accept the award. So by the young age of five, I considered myself an artist.
I thought I would have a career in art when I grew up but it didn’t turn out that way. I went to an alternative art school in northern New Hampshire for college and I was going to be a potter. I was not that skilled and I turned to etching instead where I could use my drawing skills.
What I discovered was that I was good and enjoyed artwork when I was able to produce something on my own terms, with my own timeline and the medium of my choice and, most importantly, when I was giving it away as a gift for someone. When I had to produce a piece of art for an assignment, I was often blocked, unhappy with the confines of the task, hated working under pressure, and was not happy with the final piece. This process made me realize that I wouldn’t be cut out for making a living in the art world. I have always believed that my ability to create art is my gift to the world. It has given me great joy to give pieces away. Probably not a great way to begin a career.
So I dropped my art classes and decided to pursue my second interest, psychology. I changed colleges, moved to the west coast and got my BA in Psychology and Social Science. I did entertain the idea of becoming an art therapist as I thought that would be a perfect blend of my interests in the two fields, but I did not begin a career when I graduated. My goals and priorities started shifting.
By the time I graduated college, I was 21 years old, married and pregnant with my first child; then the second one came along 22 months later. I took odd jobs that fit into a busy family’s schedule. I was a counselor for troubled teenage girls at a Youth Service Center, did piece work for a jeweler, and had a brief stint in banking. I no longer saw myself as an artist and barely considered myself a psychologist. I was a very young wife and mother still trying to figure out a balance between working and parenting and basically just surviving day to day. My third daughter was born four years after the second and I committed to being a stay-at-home mom for my girls. I worked at a variety of odd jobs to help us make ends meet and to get out of the house once in a while.
I was a creative parent who made handcrafted gifts and painted sweatshirts and did drawings to hang on the walls, but none of that made any money and so economics forced me to move further away from the art world and more into job choices that could turn into potential career paths.
I went to work at our church, where I had been a volunteer. My youngest child started school and I dove into the field of religious education and made a career of it. Pastoral work suited me; it filled my spiritual needs and my academic interests and it was the perfect vehicle for working with people, serving their needs.
In 1990, at the age of 34, I started graduate school in Theological Studies and juggled a demanding home life. I was a Pastoral Associate for the Catholic Church in Oregon and held that position for more than 20 years. I always considered by job to be a privilege and I loved it. I got divorced after 16 years of marriage and then found myself as a single mother to three teenage daughters for the next 10 years.
Life was difficult and life was busy; we lived paycheck to paycheck when we were fortunate. I moved the kids around a lot, looking for the best and safest place to raise them within my budget. I rarely had time for any artwork even on a recreational basis. I was just too busy with making a living and caring for my family.
I met my current husband on an airplane when my last daughter was about to move out and go to college. We sat next to each other, struck up a conversation, and it was “love at first flight.” A year later almost to the exact day of our meeting, I moved from Portland to Los Angeles to marry him. I was 46 years old.
When did you start to think about making a change?
When I moved to LA to marry Ron, I quit my job and said goodbye to longtime friends and family; I left my entire support system for this man. Los Angeles is a big city and not an easy place to meet people. If you are not working and if you are not parenting children, there really are very few ways to make friends. I was alone, a lot. It took me a few years to get acclimated to living in a big city.
I felt like I had retired but I also felt too young to say I was retired. When people would ask me what I did for a living, I found myself talking about what I used to do. I had been very wrapped up in my career. I was proud of it, I was good at it, I was needed and respected in my field. Without that job I felt none of those things. I went through a real identity crisis. I loved my new title as Mrs. Farina but it was clearly not enough.
In this day and age, no one says they are just a housewife anymore. It should be fine but reality is that it’s not. It sounds like, and feels like, you are “less than” a working woman. It felt that way to me even though I had had a long-term, fulfilling career that I had freely given up to be a housewife. It’s easy to see I was conflicted about how to define myself.
I was approaching 50 and my husband suggested that I take classes in anything I wanted to. Surely there was something that had interested me in the past that I didn’t have the time or money to pursue. This was a huge gift of freedom that I really wasn’t sure what to do with. My immediate thought was to take some art classes. I remembered having been offered an internship in stained glasswork when I was in college, which I had turned it down. Ron and I took a trip to Europe and we went to Venice and took a boat out to the island of Murano to watch them blow glass. I knew then that I wanted to work with colored glass.
I looked into it and took every class I could find in glass art. Torch work, bead making, glass blowing, and then glass fusing. Fusion was it for me. I loved it. I was instantly good at it. My very first piece is still one of my best works. So I began to rent studio time, then I began to buy glass and cut it at home but pay a studio to fire it in their kiln. Ron kept encouraging me to buy a small kiln to use at home but I was reluctant to spend the money. Glass is an expensive medium.
Then Ron got cancer. I knew that I would be with him throughout his treatment. There would be surgery and radiation and possibly chemotherapy. When someone you loves receives the diagnosis of cancer, you know your whole world is about to change and you had better be prepared for the long haul of caregiving. I decided to purchase a kiln so that I could have a way to continue to work on glass pieces and not have to leave the house. I knew that I needed a creative outlet to take care of myself. I needed to take care of myself in order to be able to care for him. I needed something to look forward to after days spent in the hospital. I needed art. So I bought the kiln and started making pieces.
Almost immediately, I knew who I was again. My identity had returned. I felt more myself than I had since I moved to LA. As a couple, we were facing and battling a crisis but at the same time I had found something that brought me joy again.
People loved my glass pieces and wanted to buy them; I was 52 when I sold my first piece. Within four weeks, the kiln had paid for itself. Ron finished his treatments and has been cancer free ever since. Thank God! Our life took on that survival mentality, that “live life to the fullest” attitude and that “if not now, when?” approach to things. A friend suggested that I start my own small business to sell my work. I knew I needed to come up with a name and so I chose the name, Grateful Glass. I am grateful for my husband, for his life, for his health, for his doctors, for his care and his recovery, for his love and his support. Because of him I am able to pursue something I love. I am grateful for so much.
What is your next act?
I am turning 60 this year and I finally consider myself an artist again: A working artist! A business owner. I own Grateful Glass. It is a role that was meant for me and I love identifying myself as such. Now, when I am asked what I do, I answer without hesitation, “I am a glass artist.” I rarely even talk about my past career. I am so much more than a housewife, always have been.
When I say I am a glass artist, people will often think that I blow glass. I tell them that I make bowls and plates and platters using the process called glass fusion—cutting layers of glass, melting and layering it, and then placing it in the kiln where the magic to heat transforms it into something new and beautiful. I love every aspect about working with glass.
My pieces are meant to be both decorative and functional: a unique piece of art that is not only beautiful to display in your home, but can be used to serve food as well. I also make wall tiles, sinks, and light sconces.
I get inspiration from all kinds of places. I enjoy using bright bold colors; I will see a shape, a silhouette, a flowering plant, a building, or a landscape and think of how that might translate to glass. I oftentimes let the glass speak for itself. I will look at a piece of glass and see a certain curve or movement in its pattern. But what happens most often is glass designs come to me in my sleep, I will wake up with a design clear in my mind or if I am sort of daydreaming I will see glass pieces in my mind and then execute them as close as possible to my vision.
My customers are worldwide. I get a lot of orders through my website and my Facebook page and sell on Custom Made as well. I begin a relationship with most of those people online. Sometimes, we’ll talk on the phone for clarification but I rarely get to meet them in person. I send glass all over the country and have filled custom orders for people in the UK and Australia. A few of my pieces were recently taken to Chile and to Germany. Most of my orders are here in the U.S. though.
Of course there are local customers as well, friends and family, or people who see my work in stores (Los Angeles County Store, the Cheese Store of Silverlake) and then call for custom orders.
I work with clients on custom orders and also come up with my own creative designs. When doing custom work, people will send me a request for a bowl or platter that they have seen on my website but they want it made to order in the colors that match the décor in their home. Sometimes they want an exact replica of a piece they like but they would like it in a different size, or a design in a different shape, or they will ask for multiple pieces.
For example,” I love that bowl, can you make a set of them for me in three different sizes, small medium and large?” or “ I really love your large color block bowl. Can you make it with a red background instead of a black one?” A common request is this, “We are remodeling our kitchen, can you make me something in these colors? “ And then we begin to talk. A few conversations later and I know what they like and how they intend to use the piece and what color palette they are thinking of. Most often, people are ordering glass pieces for someone else to give as a gift. Wedding gifts are oftentimes custom ordered to match the colors of the wedding, to symbolize some aspect of the honeymoon destination, or to be a hand cut piece of art that will go with the china pattern the couple has in their registry.
One of our post-cancer life decisions was to build a new home and when we did, we built in a studio space for me in one half of the garage. I had it wired for a large studio kiln and so I am able to make much bigger pieces and to fire multiple pieces at one time.
How hard was it to take the plunge? How did you prepare?
I am very fortunate at this stage in my life to be supported financially. That being said, I would love to make enough money with my glasswork to support myself, to make a living at this. But to be honest, it is easier to “take the plunge” when you are not relying on this new direction to pay your bills. There is less financial risk involved. Still, no one wants to fail and no one wants to waste money.
Being an artist is an emotionally and financially vulnerable place to be. You invest in your artistic expression and hope that other people will like it, appreciate it, and perhaps want to purchase it to become a part of their lives. You hope to make a profit and you hope to make other people happy with your work. If someone doesn’t like something I have made I take it way too personally. It’s like they don’t like me. I can be critical of my own work but it’s excruciating for me to hear someone else be critical of a piece.
I prepared myself by educating myself with the skills of this field, by experimenting with new methods and techniques on my own, by practice, and by learning to let go. If it doesn’t work out, I try again.
How supportive were your family and friends?
Very. I think everyone was happy to see me happy. People said they had always known me to be a creative and artistic person even when I did not see that in myself anymore. No one seemed surprised that glass art would work out well for me. My friends and my family members buy my glass to display in their homes and they buy my glass to give as gifts to others. I am always grateful that they like my work enough to want to give it. I have had nothing but a boatload of encouragement from friends, family and everyone.
My daughters are now all in their 30s. They have always been my biggest fans—well perhaps my five grandchildren are even more enthusiastic—and tell me know how much they love my work and how proud they are of me. My glasswork resides in their homes and they often give my work as gifts to others. Each one is an accomplished and successful woman but none of them are really artistic. They are far more organized and disciplined than I am but I hold the title in the creative department. I have heard that these kinds of traits skip a generation so I am always encouraging my grandchildren to pursue artistic things.
What challenges do you encounter?
Working alone for hours in a studio attached to my home can be very isolating. I am an extrovert. I am a social person and the time that it takes to make a piece of art means that I don’t socialize as much as I need to. I cherish the time spent in conversation with customers. We build relationships while designing custom pieces and in the delivery of purchased glass, but often times when the piece is done I don’t hear from them again. It’s not like going to work in an office or a place with coworkers, where you are surrounded by people daily.
So loneliness is a factor and so is danger. I get cut often; I burn myself occasionally. I invest time and energy into pieces that might blow up in the kiln. Explosions are rare but they do happen. Glass cracks and breaks and bubbles in all the wrong places a lot. These are challenges. I am a perfectionist and this is a medium that I cannot control completely. I am learning to love the flaws and appreciate the imperfections as part of the art.
Pricing for a profit can be a challenge. I try to stay within a price range that most people can afford and try to stay close to what other glassmakers are selling the same size pieces for. My husband keeps telling me I need to figure in the amount I spend of materials per square inch, the cost of the equipment, the cost of the electricity to use the kiln, and of course the amount of time I put in creating a piece. None of that is how the mind of an artist works. I simple grab colors and textures that I like and start working, no matter how long it takes to get it right. Therefore, I am sure that I don’t charge nearly enough to cover all that has gone into a Grateful Glass creation.
When a store carries my work they buy it from me wholesale or sell it on commission and I usually only make 50%. So although the exposure is good, unless they are selling twice as much as I would on my own, then I really don’t make a profit in stores. I believe if my work were in a gallery, it would be priced much higher and be sold to a customer who could pay that amount. A single piece could be displayed alone in the right lighting and be seen and purchased as art. This is something I would really like to have happen one day.
Also, keeping up a website is very time consuming. You have to photograph each piece and price it and post it. I get my things up on Facebook right away but it’s usually a while before I take the time to update the website. I’d much rather be in the studio making new work.
Were there times when you thought about giving up?
Not yet. I have been in the glass art business for eight years now and I still love what I do and would like to do even more. I do have some issues with my back and there are times when this work is physically demanding and I have to take breaks. But as long as I am able to work I will continue to; I am not about to give up for a few decades at least.
What have you learned about yourself through this process?
I have learned that while I was an okay artist before, I was only as good as my skills with a pen or pencil would take me. I was never willing to go beyond that. I am learning to give up control, with glass as my medium—to allow the melting process to take over and bring out elements to a piece that I did not see coming.
I am learning to expect delightful surprises—for pieces to be better than I thought. I’m also learning to accept what I have always known, that I need affirmation and attention and art is a way of getting that need met in my life and it’s okay to be needy and it’s really okay to accept praise. I’ve also learned that art is still a gift in my life and I still love giving that gift to others.
I have learned that I need to pace myself to stay healthy. I have learned that I need time with people as much as I need time with my art. I have learned that the relationship between the artist as the maker and then seller is an important one. I need other people to like my work and want it. I would be happy creating pieces of glass art but I would not want to stockpile them around my own home. It gives me great joy to know a piece lives in another person’s home, that they see it and use it and enjoy it. I like knowing I am making the world a brighter place by adding colorful, beautiful things to it.
I have also learned that you never know what the future will hold. I was very happy in my last career, but when I sat next to a handsome man on an airplane one day, my whole life changed. I was ready to change my life for him and with him, and that was a great choice, even if it meant giving up a 20-year career and moving long distance to begin again in a new and unfamiliar place.
Then, just five years into our marriage we were shocked and frightened as we heard the word cancer. I certainly didn’t see a whole new career coming out of such an awful experience. I didn’t know the choice I made to have a creative outlet in my home would become such a source of joy for me. I was just trying to get through it the best way I knew how. I didn’t know then that I would find myself again, that I would have a new yet familiar identity as an artist.
So I have learned that it’s important to believe that good things will come from unexpected places. When you realize the good that has come out of the bad, grab on to that, go with it, run with it, trust it, work it, seize it, BE it.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife and for would-be artists?
Try new things and trust your instincts about what is a fit for you. If it enhances your life, do it. If it brings you joy, do it. Let yourself be identified in an entirely new role whether your previous role was good or not. Most importantly, believe in yourself.
For would-be artists, I say keep at it. Make yourself go out and work on something for at least a little while every single day. If a piece isn’t turning out exactly as you want, walk away, start something new and come back to that one later. Each piece has a life of its own. Don’t compare your art to others.
What resources do you recommend for glass artists?
Most retail glass distributors also have classes in their stores.
Ron at Stained Glass Supply in Pasadena, CA offers classes in beginning and intermediate glass fusing and is a wealth of information for any questions that come up. Pacific Art Glass in Gardena, CA also offers a variety of classes with guest teachers. They are both stores that sell glass and tools and are most helpful with any questions.
Warm Glass: A Complete Guide to Kiln-Forming Techniques: Fusing, Slumping, Casting by Philippa Beveridge, Ian Domenech and Eva Pascual
Fused Glass Handbook by Gil Reynolds
Tutorials by Laurie Spray of Bonnie Doon Fused Glass Tools will take you step by step through various techniques. Fused Glass Fanatics is a closed Facebook group but once you begin this craft you can ask to join and they really are very helpful about sharing resources and techniques.
Glass Artists, I admire and follow:
Faye Malench of Malench Glass and The Glass Niche. Her use of color is wonderful. She is also a master at weaving glass.
Paul Messink of Palm Desert , CA is a master at painting on glass and layering glass. He offers classes and is an incredible artist.
David Patchen is my absolute favorite glass blower. His use of color and attention to detail always amazes and inspires me.
Valerie Adams of Santa Rosa, CA is an incredible glass fusing artist with a great variety to her work and skills.
Al Bray is the most innovative and unique fused glass artist I have seen.
What’s next for you?
I would love to sell more. I would like to make bigger pieces, such as wall art installations for restaurants or other public spaces. I’d also like to have my work in art galleries. If I dream big, I would have a shop of my own where I could sell my work, have a studio in the back and teach classes, and provide a space for other glass artists to sell their work as well. The name of the store would be, Grateful Glass of course! I can see myself continuing to make art but also encouraging new artists and having fun interacting with customers who come in and out of the store. My need to be with people would be met!
I also want to find my birth family. I am curious about the story of my birth and how I came to be given up for adoption. I want to meet people who are related to me and see if we are similar in anyway, perhaps find other artists in my family tree. I know there is another story here. I know and trust that what I can’t even imagine is just around the corner and I believe the best is yet to come.
Contact Mary Farina at email@example.com