Good Life

Howard glass blower celebrates with ornaments year-round

Local man blows community away with his handcrafted ornaments

James Byrnes makes a Christmas ornament Monday, Dec. 4, 2017 at his studio in Howard. James Byrnes is an artist who makes designs out of glass, including Christmas ornaments.
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James Byrnes makes a Christmas ornament Monday, Dec. 4, 2017 at his studio in Howard. James Byrnes is an artist who makes designs out of glass, including Christmas ornaments.

Divining a quality introduction for James Byrnes is no mean feat.

Byrnes, by his own admission, is not a mainstream kind of guy. Never has been, never will be.

He resists attempts to categorize his creations — ornaments, goblets and other glass confections you’d be loathe to introduce to your hardwood floor — as a form of art.

“I consider what I do to be fine craft giftware,” Byrnes said.

And were it actually possible to peel the artifice back any further, one would still probably walk away thinking that Byrnes had spent some time performing in a very high-end circus.

“You tell someone you’re a flame-blower and they still don’t know what you do for a living,” Byrnes said.

You tell someone you’re a flame-blower and they still don’t know what you do for a living.

James Byrnes

Byrnes knows what he’s doing, though. That much was evident during a brief visit to the craftsman’s workshop in Howard, where he twirled, twisted and tied an ordinary tube of glass like it was a balloon animal without breaking a sweat — and those torches get hot.

On a good day, Byrnes can knock out somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 ornaments to populate sales like the holiday-themed bazaar recently held at Centre Furnace Mansion.

Mary Sorensen, executive director of the Centre County Historical Society, said pieces for the annual Stocking Stuffer sale are evaluated on quality and value. Byrnes’ contributions were on theme.

“The fact that these ornaments are hand blown works of art are the reason the shoppers seek them out. They’re lovely,” Sorensen said.

When Byrnes first started dabbling in the wild world of fine craft giftware, he made a conscious decision never to make the same ornament twice.

That resolution quickly fell by the wayside, as evidenced by the expansive inventory taking up shelf space in a grid of shelving positioned against the back wall of his workshop.

Ornaments cocooned in bubble wrap sit neatly stacked in cubbies labeled with names like “Pirouette,” “Americana” and “Jester.” Good days do not appear to be in short supply.

The fact that these ornaments are hand blown works of art are the reason the shoppers seek them out. They're lovely.

Mary Sorensen

Byrnes likes that there’s a scarcity of people who can list “glass blower” as an occupation. His niche was hard won.

“Everything everybody else knew how to do, they knew how to do better than me so I had to find something nobody else knew how to do,” Byrnes said.

He graduated early from a high school in Bridgewater, New Jersey, and spent less than a semester in college before dropping out.

A gig hoisting bags of sand was followed by a year working at ski lodge in Vermont, a brief prelude to a 30-year career cranking out viscometers and other glass instruments useful in the pursuit of science.

It was not a life that he had ever considered, but it fit.

“I said ‘This is it. This is what I want to do,’ ” Byrnes said.

The way he did it changed about 10 years ago, after Byrnes was laid off during the recession.

All of the trappings of his home workshop had already been assembled, and he was able to make an almost seamless transition into small business.

Locally, Byrnes work is available at The Gallery Shop in Lemont, the gift shop at The Palmer Museum of Art and his website at jamesfbyrnesblownglass.com.

He’s done all kinds of pieces — goblets, perfume bottles, wedding cake toppers — but his favorite remains ornaments, which operate in the same nebulously defined space in which Byrnes seems so comfortable.

“There’s a lot of efficiency about it, but there’s a lot of room for creativity,” Byrnes said.

Frank Ready: 814-231-4620, @fjready

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