I work with light on a daily basis through my extraordinary career as a glassblower and luminaire designer and fabricator. I am honored to be part of the 3,500-year lineage of makers of glass.

Manipulating glass in its molten form is liquid light. At its working temperature, 1130°C (2100°F) the light emitted by molten glass is a tool to measure heat, viscosity, and density of the glass molecules. As the glass cools to a solid, environmental light then refracts and reflects through the form. The inherent qualities of glass bend and magnify light, and sometimes in bewildering ways. But glass can also help us understand our surrounding environment and be more present in our daily lives. It is truly a transcendent material.

Seen through the ages, glass is resilient and timeless. The history of this material has been to inspire awe through its celebration of light in houses of worship; as an architectural marvel of strength in skyscrapers; as a magnifier of scientific discoveries; and to literally let the light in.

I have been inspired by this alchemical medium for 22 years of my studio practice. I have learned centuries-old techniques from glass masters, and I have created my own interpretation of them in modern, art glass light installations and in functional, decorative lighting.

Conway directing an installation
A woman’s world

My journey through the male-dominated culture of glassmaking – as it has been practiced through the millennia – has not been easy, but it has been extremely rewarding. A pivotal moment in my career was an invitation to work on the Glass Island of Murano in Venice, Italy in 2003. At the time, Murano had been open to the public for about 40 years, after 1,000 years of isolation and guarded secrets. A few international glassmakers had made their way to Murano from the 1960s onwards, working in various factories to glean particular skills that have been refined there for generations.

Upon my arrival, I was paired to be an assistant to a maestro, Fabio Fornasier, with 15 generations of family heritage in glassmaking. His specialty in chandeliers was a terrific stroke of luck for me as his apprentice. He is also one of the more open-minded glassmakers on this island of strict traditions and secrets, which allowed for a friendship and a mentorship that has lasted for more than 15 years.

I have returned many times to work in Murano with several maestri to learn their traditions and later blend them into my own artistic style. I’ve worked for as many artisans around the world as possible, learning various ways to make glass – all the while fighting the stereotype of women needing to "stay in the kitchen." Again and again I heard, "Glass is a dirty, sweaty job. Maybe you could just be a pretty woman instead of being at the filthy furnace."

Undeterred, my eagerness to learn led me on adventures to assist Czech masters, to work at the glass school in Turkey, to speak at glass conferences in Australia, and to learn from factory workers in Spain. From each international experience, I’ve soaked up the culture and listened to stories. During it all, I was imagining how glassmaking itself could be interpreted with lighting. Back in the U.S., I worked with one client at a time to create custom lighting for residential and commercial spaces, building my business.

Conway in her studio in Seattle
Looking to the future

My view into history bred concern for the future. Glassmaking is a fuel-intensive process, and it could be at risk of vanishing if we don’t find sustainable fuel sources and efficient ways of creating glass. Allied with several international glassmakers with the same concerns, we’ve formed a not-for-profit group, BioGlass.org. We have been presenting ideas to international glass conferences for eco-efficient glassmaking education and development.

I, myself, work in a community "hotshop" with a shared and fuel-recuperated furnace in Seattle. We are proud that 90 percent of our electricity in Seattle is renewable hydro-electric. My latest pendant-lighting product line will feature glassware made from recycled glass and produced at a furnace burning vegetable oil.

The future is here, and I am a steward of the long lineage of glassmakers. I am thrilled to help create new stories – as a woman and as a sustainability activist – in this history, so there can be many more centuries of glassmaking ahead.

Glass and light are one. I see through to a bright future.

Julie Conway

About Julie Conway

Julie Conway, artist and owner of Illuminata Art Glass Design LLC, specializes in custom, art glass lighting and in site-specific, architectural art glass installations. Her drive to work sustainably and with energy-efficient techniques makes her a leader and popular lecturer in her field. Conway’s strong artistic and design background generates inspired solutions. Her mission: Bring more light and beauty to the world.

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