Stopping By: Monticello glass shop offers gems, education


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MONTICELLO — For visitors who stop in at Prairie Fire Glass in downtown Monticello, there's more to the inviting storefront than beautiful glass artwork.

A lesson in how the artwork got from the studio to the gallery shelves is included — free of charge.

Artist Jim Downey, who works with both blown glass and fused glass, opened Prairie Fire Glass in 2002 after a 20-year career with Kinko's.

"When I had the opportunity to try this as a vocation, I thought, 'Why not?'" Downey said. He had studied glassblowing at the University of Illinois and worked for free as an assistant to a glass blower before "jumping into the abyss," as he calls it, and opening his own store.

"This is great because I get to reinvent myself. It's easy for me to turn around and say, 'Wow, I'm blessed.' I have people who come in all day long and tell me what I do is beautiful."

A recent Friday night was no exception. With stores in downtown Monticello open until 9 p.m. on the first Friday of the month, Prairie Fire Glass drew young and old who took time out to browse the gallery and watch Downey at work.

And after six years, Downey has the art of explaining what he does while he does it down to a science.

He started at the beginning of the glass-blowing process by showing the glass in its "raw" form – small pellets. The pellets are shoveled into a furnace, which is cranked up to 2,400 degrees. Once melted and ready to work with, Downey collected the glass from the furnace using a long metal pipe – a process similar in technique to covering an apple with caramel. Then, he began the tedious task of moving the glass back and forth between "The Gory Hole" – a second furnace that Downey describes as a gas barbecue grill on steroids – and a bench where he used tools to shape the heated glass into its desired form.

On this particular evening, Downey made a small vase.

When the glass came out of the furnace, he twirled the pipe like a baton, using gravity to help give the vase its shape. Blowing into the end of the pipe allowed Downey to expand the shape of the vase, as well, as the interaction between the hot glass and the air caused the moldable glass to inflate.

"The hardest thing to learn is what your style is when moving the pipe," Downey said. "It's like learning to play a musical instrument or play sports. The only thing that makes you better is doing it."

As the vase took shape, Downey added color using frit, tiny pieces of colored glass that have been ground into a crystal-like substance. The glass vase was rolled in the frit and put back in the fire so the color stuck.

"My background is in painting, so I like to use frit because you can use many layers," he said. He has worked with glass for more than 25 years, first with stained glass before moving on to blown and fused glass.

Once the vase was finished, Downey used a small amount of water to help detach it from the pipe. Using a pair of thick, specially designed gloves, he showed his work to the audience.

The vase was still 800-900 degrees at that point, and its next destination was an annealer, a computer-controlled container designed to drop the temperature a few degrees every so often, cooling every surface of the vase at the same temperature.

"The glass needs to cool outside, inside and in the middle in exactly the same way," Downey said. "If the outside surface starts to shrink as it cools and not the inside, the glass will break."

Once a piece has adequately cooled, it is off to the "cold" part of the studio for grinding and polishing.

Just about any time of day, Downey can be found doing glasswork – whether he's working with blown glass or fused glass – a form of glasswork where thin sheets of glass are layered to create different patterns and then placed inside a kiln until they bond together.

"Blown glasswork can be physically demanding, so fused glass offers a break," said Downey. He also teaches hot glass classes in the evenings after the gallery closes.

Regardless of what type of glass item you're looking for, there's a good chance you'll find it in the gallery at Prairie Fire Glass. Glasswork for sale includes vases of all sizes, long-stemmed glass flowers, glass lamps and tables, bowls, paperweights, seasonal glasswork such as glass pumpkins and Christmas tree ornaments, and other decorative items.

Across the gallery, glasswork sells for anywhere from 30 to several hundred dollars. Of particular note, Downey's Christmas ornaments are a popular item with shoppers and they sell for around $30.

Laurie Downey, Jim's wife, who oversees the gallery side of the business, said glasswork has proven to be a popular wedding present, as well.

In addition to Downey's work, the artwork of several other area artists can be found at Prairie Fire Glass, including the paintings of Parkland College Professor Melinda McIntosh and the artwork of Botanical Watercolorist Charlotte Brady. Photography, scarves and greeting cards made by local artists are also among the many items for sale.

Downey said Prairie Fire Glass has had a great response from the surrounding community. Being 20 minutes from both Champaign and Decatur, Downey calls his Monticello storefront "the world's greatest location."

"The community has been supportive all the way along," he said. "This business is a destination, like Allerton and the railway museum."

And residents of Monticello feel the same way.

John and Lin Thompson of Monticello enjoy stopping in to watch Downey at work.

"This gallery brings a lot of people interested in the arts to come and see what our town offers in that area," said Lin Thompson. "This is something that's unique and different. (Downey) is someone doing the actual craft. You can ask him questions . . .and he's good about liking your ideas and expressing interest in creating them."

John, who has been by twice now to watch Downey, added, "I enjoy standing here, watching him work."

But regardless of what type of work he's doing, Downey enjoys the concentration his work takes.

"What I do makes the rest of the world go away," Downey said. "I've gotten to the point where visitors say, 'You're here all the time.' ... I love it."

If you go

Where: Prairie Fire Glass, 217 W. Washington St., Monticello

Directions from Champaign: Go west on Interstate 72 to the (Monticello) Market Street exit, turn left at the first stop sign, right at the next stop sign, and follow the curve into town (about 2 miles). After the first stoplight, and just past the railroad tracks, turn left onto Livingston, right on Charter, and then right onto Washington. Prairie Fire Glass is on the left side of the street, across from the Brown Bag deli.

Gallery's holiday hours: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Fridays; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturdays; 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sundays.

This time of year, Christmas ornaments are among the most popular glass items for sale.

The work of several other artists is featured in the gallery, including painting, wood work, photography and mixed media.