Apart from the mounted fire extinguisher and pack of Camel Lights on the table, Sean Gilvey’s studio feels straight out of a bygone era. Oxidized tools, dark iron molds and other analog accoutrements of his craft accent the exposed brick walls and floors. Folkloric guitar melodies trickle out of the stereo, while two furnaces emit a soft glow and considerable heat. The vents are shared by neighboring Amada, the haute tapas restaurant, so the smells wafting into the studio evolve from deep fried croquetas de jamon to a spicy chorizo according to the progress of Jose Garces’ kitchen. An antique red bicycle rests in the corner.
Gilvey’s workshop is separated from the retail area of Hudson Beach Glass by a thin glass wall, so customers can view the glass-blowing process as they peruse his wares. In contrast to the grotto-like studio, the gallery is bright and airy, with white walls and pale hardwood floors. Light refracts off the kaleidoscope of glassware lining the shelves.
“We’re making 300 glasses for a vodka and caviar tasting event next Saturday,” Gilvey says as he hands one over to examine. “This one’s a dud, it’s slightly imbalanced.” The cordial glass is cast in a bright yellow that takes on a deeper orange hue at the base, with a dappled texture that calls to mind a watercolor made solid. The imbalance is nowhere to be seen.
Sean Gilvey, 32, is a third-generation glassblower. He wears quirky thick-rimmed plastic glasses and his light brown hair is tucked under a tweed newsboy cap. A layer of scruff covers his face, a look that is at once mountain man and Williamsburg scenester.
Gilvey and his wife Emily opened Hudson Beach Glass in October of 2008. He mans the furnace, while she oversees the front of the store and its marketing efforts. The pair met “six or seven years ago” at a bar in Brooklyn. Emily looks young, with light blonde hair and a skin tone almost as translucent as her husband’s glass. Her features are delicate, but her clothes — sturdy shoes, a flowered bandana wrapped around her head and jeans — project a low-maintenance, earthy vibe.
The idea of mixing business with family isn’t new to Gilvey. His parents, John and Wendy Gilvey, co-founded the original Hudson Beach Glass studio in Beacon, New York in 1987. On the surface, Gilvey’s path closely resembles his father’s — both glass blowers, both operating glass studios of the same name alongside their wives. According to Gilvey, “When both your parents are artists, there are two things that can happen. You can become an artist yourself or have this Alex Keaton syndrome and become an investment banker.”
Both Gilvey and his younger brother Luke took the artistic path, a phenomenon that Gilvey attributes to the conservative, Republican area in upstate New York where they were raised. “We didn’t want to rebel against our parents as much as we wanted to rebel against that community,” he explains.
Gilvey began glass blowing at the ripe age of 11, helping his father out around his studio. He initially went to school in Maine for painting, but became “serious about glass blowing 10 years ago,” and started apprenticing for several glass artists in New York.
The notion of apprenticeship and a craft passed down through three generations conjures up all sorts of Old World, artisanal associations, yet Gilvey’s take on the profession veers consistently toward the practical. When reflecting upon his career decision, Gilvey states, “It’s really hard to do this glass blowing, so if you learn how to do it you probably should do it. Like if you’re a really good piano player you should probably just play the piano.”
Moreover, Gilvey mentions business projects as his most proud accomplishments rather than artistic ones. “Building the store, I’m pretty proud of that,” he says. “It took a while, six or eight months of working around the clock. And then the fact that we were able to stay open last year. We opened in October of 2008, so as the market was crashing, we opened our doors. Surviving these last two years was pretty impressive.”
In order to weather the unfavorable economy the studio turned to more creative marketing devices to get people through the doors, such as hosting “make your own” glass blowing workshops. Although, Gilvey confesses, “it’s not what I would like to be doing. It’s pretty grueling. You have 30-some odd people coming through everyday, you have kids in here, you have to worry about people getting burned … it’s a bit of pain.”
It’s difficult to imagine children executing the intricate movements glass blowing entails. Gilvey compares the process to a dance. “There’s a lot of timing involved. You have to count how many seconds it takes to heat something and how many seconds it takes to cool. You have to choreograph each piece — there’s a series of steps you have to work through and you can’t fuck any of them up. If step number two gets messed up you have to scrap it and start all over again. And then its muscle memory, you’re doing it over and over again.”
From a spectator’s perspective, the graceful, rhythmic process is entrancing. However, Gilvey also points out the less glamorous aspects of the profession. “It’s a physical job, so you have to think about it like an athlete,” he explains. “You want to eat a healthy breakfast. If you’re feeling tired or hungover, for instance, it’s not fun. Those are some of the annoying parts about it, because sometimes you really don’t feel like standing in front of this fire all day.”
This sense of practicality underpins much of Gilvey’s attitude toward his craft. “It’s how I make money,” he explains matter-of-factly. “I think about design, functionality, and then I also look at ‘Can I make these things profitable?’ It’s not really fine art. I have to consider, ‘Can I make sixty of them in a day?’ ‘What am I going to charge?’ and ‘Who am I marketing to?’”
Traditionally, a church-state divide has existed between pragmatic commercial concerns and artistic integrity — the archetype of the “starving artist” and creative visionary seems desperately at odds with “the suit” and economic logic of production. However, in the warm red brick interior of Hudson Beach Glass, the romantic and the practical coexist peacefully. As William Carlos Williams, the paradigm of art-everyday fusion, once wrote: “No ideas but in things.”