Five Artisans: Ruth Hill, glass artist
A Rochester artist finds ways to turn a solitary pursuit into a collective enterprise
At around 8 a.m. on a humid Wednesday, glassmaker Ruth Hill drives from her apartment in the Nineteenth Ward to a basement studio in Penfield. The space is owned by artist and harpist Sandy Gianniny, Hill’s former high school glass teacher. With a flick of a match, a bright blue flame blows from the small torch sitting on a desk. Patiently, Hill puts the seven-millimeter black glass rod in the flame, carefully pulling and angling. Using gravity and a bit of finesse, she transforms shapeless glass into branches of a tree.
The shiny black branches will be part of a necklace Hill hopes to sell at a local boutique. Next, she starts work on a small decorative vessel. This hollow piece will take a bit more time. After the piece fails to cooperate, she takes a look at her handiwork and starts up again. She blows into the rod, rolls the hot glass on a graphite paddle and spins the vessel until she’s pleased with the shape.
“It’s a fascinating material; there’s nothing else like it,” says Hill. “You’re altering this material between a molten and a solid state.”
Ruth Hill often works alone in a basement studio in Penfield.
Armed with a fresh cup of Earl Grey and a mix of eclectic new tunes, Hill’s morning list of glass projects is well underway. The branch necklace and a hollow vessel are warming in the small kiln, and she’s ready to take on her newest commission, a five-piece set featuring female figures with tree-like extremities for her friend Will.
She shapes the first figure from a short black glass rod. In what seems to be an effortless attempt, she molds the rod into the torso of a curvaceous female form. Then with oversized tweezers, which she warms up in the torch, she tugs at the female figure’s extremities to create the right angle for what will soon be branch-like legs.
With the world-renowned Corning Museum of Glass just under two hours away, it’s not uncommon for a local artisan to take up glassblowing. Ruth Hill’s introduction to the glass world, however, wasn’t typical. When most teenagers find themselves forced to decide between P.E. or home economics as a high school elective, Hill was introduced to the art of lampworking. During her senior year at the Harley School in Brighton, a lampworking studio was installed, and a local artist was hired as artist in residence for the year.
“There’s a lot of freedom with the torch,” Hill remembers.
She was hooked. When it came time for college, Hill attended Alfred University and earned her BFA in sculpture and dimensional studies/glass art in 2009. “After I graduated I was floating and to some extent I still am,” says Hill.
It seems she has more direction these days. This summer, Hill and two other local artists, Lindsay Collier Sears and Ashley Landon, opened Dichotomy, a retail shop on Park Avenue. The 300-square-foot retail space features locally made goods for the home, jewelry, and more.
“What we are trying to create is a place where you can find a certain type of work,” Hill says. “Why can’t we sell this functional cup next to this piece of art? We want to bridge the gap between artists and craftspeople. We need a way for the community to interface with us.”
“Update Etsy store,” reads one of Hill’s to-do items this afternoon. She sells products through a shop at Etsy.com called Fine Specimen, the name a reflection on what she calls her “obsession with the scientific.” Customers have come from all over the United States, including California, Florida, and Illinois. She’s even sold a pair of blue Evil Eye beads to a customer in the Philippines.
Over the past year, Hill has focused on her glass business, eager to continue developing her skills. She realized early on that she was just one woman trying to build up a small niche business. At every craft fair or gallery show, she’d run into many local artists struggling with the same challenges that gnawed at her daily. The one-off shows and festivals were wonderful opportunities to showcase work, but they didn’t help build the kind of following a small business artisan needs.
What these local artisans needed was collaboration. Rochester was missing a cooperative of artists who lived and worked in the area, who supported each other and helped create a “deeper bond with our community,” she says.
The genesis of the Dichotomy store came from a temporary commercial gallery opened three years ago where more than thirty artists showed work. It was proof that Rochester would support a similar permanent space. “What we are trying to create is a place where you can find a certain type of work. Why can’t we sell this functional cup next to this piece of art? We want to bridge the gap between artists and craftspeople.”
When you scroll through the pieces in her online store and browse her offerings at local shops like Peppermint, Archimage, Zaks, and the Artful
Gardener, Hill’s connection to nature becomes clear. Her handblown glass work includes pendants, ornaments, vessels, beads, and sculptures with subtle reminders of Mother Nature, like a bit of moss encapsulated in a vessel, a delicate flower showcased in a pendant, or the intricate root system of a glass tree.
“It’s a balance about making things that I feel passionate about making but that customers will buy,” Hill says. “I think I market to myself more or less. I can’t be the only one who likes it.”
In her basement studio, with its cinderblock walls and plumbing overhead, Hill doesn’t sit in a traditional office cubicle. Although she does sit quite a bit when using her torch, at least it’s on her terms.
“Technically, I have a long way to go,” she says, also acknowledging the challenges of building a business with no advertising budget and word-of-mouth as her only sales tactic. Hill, however, has taken her online shop from digital to bricks and mortar in less than two years, and, despite the financial limitations, she finds a silver lining. “It makes me feel less like a cog in a giant out-of-control machine,” she says.
Sometimes she forgets what day it is because, unlike the traditional job experience, she doesn’t feel like a slave to the work week. Then again, she never has a day off because she divides her time among production, administering her online store, working part time at Archimage, and managing Dichotomy.
But she wouldn’t have it any other way. “If I had a nine-to-five, I would be able to buy ice cream, but I wouldn’t get to make glass octopuses.”
After all, glass artists are a rare breed, says Hill jokingly—but it’s a group she’s proud to be a part of. “We know what we want, and we do what we want.”