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We use glass in everyday life, though most of us don’t truly appreciate its splendor. Even simple pieces hold great beauty, but the works created by craftsman glass blowers turn those pieces into stunning works of art. In Hot Springs Arkansas, the Riley brothers create and exhibit the breathtaking craft of glass blowing at Riley Art Glass Studio.
What started as a desire to make a glass marble turned into a magnificent love for the craft. Charles first heard about glass blowing when he was 20 years old. He quickly fell in love with the work and introduced his brother, Michael, to the craft. Thus began their evolution into true glass smiths.
Born and raised on the West Coast, the Riley brothers first came to Arkansas by their grandparents who settled in Hot Springs Village. They grew fond of the eclectic town they now call home.
Using the “soft glass” method, the brothers raise temperatures to 2200 °F to turn raw materials into glass objects by hand. Then using metal rods of assorted sizes, they transform the glass into various shapes and masterpieces as small as an ornament or as large as a chandelier. Over the years, the brothers have mastered their craft and specialize in their own, unique pieces. Charles and Michael each make specific designs and styles. Together, the pair offer paperweights shaped as hearts or eggs, candy dishes, bowls, wall/table platters, vases, candle votives, pumpkins, ornaments, abstract sculpture and chandeliers.
Their handcrafted work is on vibrant display in their gallery. The plates and bowls that line the walls remind me of walking through the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas, full of Dale Chihuly pieces on the ceiling. The pieces in the Riley gallery show off every color, shape and size imaginable. The Riley brothers used to display their work for sale in several states, but now they have scaled back to sell directly out of their Hot Springs studio. “We prefer to meet the people who buy our work and they prefer to meet the artists who make it….it’s a win-win situation,” explains Charles Riley.
Regarding their most popular items, Charles says, “Overall I would say the wall/table platters. They can be shown either on the wall like a painting (no stud or heavy bracket needed) or on a flat surface like a bowl. The option of displaying the piece in multiple ways makes them very popular. Although, if you come by in October pumpkins are king and in November we can’t make enough ornaments to keep up with demand!”
Their studio itself has quite an amazing story. The Riley’s purchased the former Fire Station #4 built in 1904 on West Grand Ave. “We had been looking for a new location for a couple of years…” Charles began. “Keeping an eye for a new listing, building or lot. We had looked at more than a few places, but it was beyond our budget or needed too much repair. Then we saw the firehouse listing and jumped! It was a realty office for over 30 years after the Fire Station was decommissioned. It didn’t look that special but we immediately walked through and saw the potential. It had 8ft acoustic tile ceilings, narrow hallways, dirty carpet and dust everywhere, but we could envision it with the former tall ceilings in the gallery and brick walls exposed in our workspace. We put our offer in 3 days after it was listed! We wanted to do as much of the renovation as we were allowed with our own hands, it was a labor of love for sure. After 6 months of renovating, the bottom floor was finished and we could get back to glassblowing. Meanwhile, at night we continued to renovate the top floor. It took an entire year total for us to renovate both floors inside. Now, if we ever get some spare time, we will work more on the outside.” I laugh a little at the irony of the former fire station now being home to “fire breathing equipment” as the studio’s website puts it!
Depending on the time of year, visitors can watch the Riley brothers’ glassblowing process. Throughout the warmer months, they generally start as early as 4 a.m. to avoid the central Arkansas midday heat. When I asked what was in the future for Riley Art Glass Studio, Charles told me, “We love what we do now! Perhaps in the future, we may expand or relocate to a larger building… but we do love this old Firehouse! I don’t think we’ll ever sell it. With w larger space we could offer a wider viewing area for our demonstrations, more showroom space, more parking, and a larger workspace. Then who knows! We could even offer classes or training one day if we expanded!”
Charles and Michael have such contagious enthusiasm for their craft and their studio. Be sure to explore their website, Riley Art Studio for hours or give them a call!
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