Studio Visit: Jim Downey

Studio Visit: Jim Downey

Studio Visit appears first in print, in Sunday editions of The News-Gazette. Here, Melissa Merli visits with Jim Downey, owner of Prairie Fire Glass in Monticello. In the Sept. 16 newspaper, we'll have a visit with Robin Kearton, fiddler/violinist and founder of Community Center for the Arts. 

Q: How long have you had Prairie Fire Glass here in Monticello?

A: It'll be 10 years in October.

Q: Did you study studio glass?

A: I learned to blow glass at the University of Illinois. I studied art in college (Western Illinois University), but it was painting. They didn't have studio glass. I didn't start blowing glass until I was 42 years old. I was following the call of Joseph Campbell, to follow your bliss. I knew it immediately. I took a class, and that was it.

Q: Did you ever study with (former UI Professor) Bill Carlson?

A: Bill was there when I was, but I worked mostly with graduate students. I actually took the glass class at Parkland College, which had a cooperative agreement with the UI. I literally stumbled into the course. My wife was looking at the 1997 Parkland catalog, and there was a glass-blowing class with one spot left. She was interested but said, "Oh, you go ahead and do it." I was working for Kinko's at the time. I started there as a manager and then ended up being a director of field training. When Kinko's went through reorganization and got bought by FedEx, it eliminated the training program and paid me to go away. But you know, it worked out great. By the time I left Kinko's, I already had put my son through college. And I found something I love to do.

Q: How are your studio and gallery doing in this economy?

A: Best year I ever had was last year. My sales never went down when the economy went down. I'm looking at good growth again this year. The thing is, I'm always working on new products. I also do a lot of art festivals in the summers, and central Illinois has been very supportive. Part of it for me is I don't subscribe to the starving-artist myth. I want to be able to afford a house and have a nice car. I know what it is to run a business. My biggest strength is being a business person and an artist person. A friend of mine who owns a record store always said the art has to take precedence, but for me, it's a balancing act. For me, it's about product mix and a range of price points. I have jewelry you can come in and buy for as low as $25 and fused glass at $500 and everything in between.

Q: How many art fairs do you do and where?

A: Fourteen or 15. I usually spend my summer in a tent in a parking lot someplace. It's pretty slow in Monticello in the summers, especially when it's hot. That's where I get my human interest: I go out and talk to people and come back and make more things. I do a lot of fairs in the Chicago area because I grew up there, so I have a lot of family up there. I also do fairs in Wisconsin and in central Illinois. I'm a workaholic. I work 12-hour days, seven days a week. Glass blowing for me is a kind of meditation. When you're working with hot glass, you're dealing with 2,000 degrees at the end of a long pipe. You have to be 100 percent there, in the moment. That's what meditation is about. It means the other stuff goes away. For me, it's meditation in a certain groove because of the level of focus it takes.

Q: What kinds of things do you make here?

A: From low-end jewelry to Christmas ornaments to garden ornaments to light fixtures, vases, bowls, paperweights. I've always made functional art. I like making things you can use. Although it's art glass, it's all functional.

Q: Do you plan anything special for your 10-year anniversary?

A: I probably will do an anniversary sale. People always ask me if I have seconds or sales, and honestly, I don't. But I have to do something for the 10th year.