First impressions – always plain sailing?

First impressions – always plain sailing?

As the rule goes, our first encounter with most things is one that defines how we view that thing thereafter. It’s very hard to shake off first impressions, something that goes back to our ancient past, when we had to quickly determine if something was friend or foe.

So, those encountering Jo Downs most recently, will be seeing her and the fused glass pieces that she and her team produce without being privy to the journey that brought everything to this point. They will see lovely pieces of fused glass devoid of the knowledge of triumph and failure that has culminated in the object before them. For the record it is a story worth telling.

The spark that first fired her imagination was when she was studying for a degree in glass and ceramics at art collage in Sunderland. Her initial plan was to specialise in ceramics. However, when a tutor started talking to her about the little practised art of fusing glass Jo became curious. Placing a piece of glass in the kiln she came back the next day to see the result – “It came out as a blob. But in this blob was magic! It was the most amazing thing that I'd ever seen; it was just full of texture with all these little things going on, it was fluid. I was just absolutely amazed. And that was it, I literally gave up everything else and said this is what I want to do.” First impressions do count sometimes it would seem!

What followed was a flight into uncharted territory. Taking a summer job, she was able to purchase her very own kiln to speed up the process of experimentation. This she installed in her bedroom! Unheard of before and unlikely to be repeated, but it demonstrates that if you have a passion and a focus then certain conventions fall by the wayside. Some results were successful, others weren’t. But she persevered.

One of the greatest obstacles she encountered was the general lack of large kilns on the market, ones that could accommodate the ever-larger panels she was creating. The hunt was on, until she eventually found what she wanted, allowing her to produce a single piece of fused glass measuring two metres twenty by one metre fifty. She was pushing the boundaries both in terms of what was physically possible and what she could manage emotionally. Large single pieces are beautiful things to behold, but if anything goes wrong in the process, such as a misfire in the kiln or breakage due to rough handling during transportation the cost is heavy. Being at the cutting edge can be a lonely place and by the very nature of what she was producing she was starting to have new ideas of where to take her passion without it taking such a toll. As chance would have it a collector approached her to produce a large-scale piece to fill a wall in his newly finished barn conversion. It was to be the first of many of her Shoaling Fish designs, involving much smaller items that come together to form one complete picture. In a masterstroke it allowed her to offer to her clients a beautiful wall piece but with a lot of the headaches associated with a single piece of fused glass effectively removed. She still accepts commissions for large single pieces but they are not the sole focus of her creative output.

Assimilated diversification is the hallmark of most successful businesses. So, besides large sculptural pieces to adorn walls or standalone pieces of objet d’art Jo’s expertise lends itself to creating beautiful items to populate homes throughout the land – from candle stands, simple coasters, jewellery, mirrors through to vases and dishes. But even producing these is not without its problems. A few years back Jo received a commission from the London Transport Museum to produce a collection of dishes that required a lot of input at the design stage. It was a big order that meant putting in some long hours if she were to meet the deadline, a process that wasn’t made easier by the fact that Jo had her young son at the time! Baby brain kicked in at precisely the wrong moment – the crucial second firing. What emerged the next day from the kiln was totally ruined! The thought of having to start all over would have sunk a lesser person. From the initial despair she picked herself up and managed to complete the commission – just! It was tough, really tough, but as Jo says, it's the passion that carries you through! If you haven’t got this then things can break you. For example, when a palate of expensive coloured glass toppled over and every bit shattered and smashed. When things like this happen, you have to dig deep in order to carry on.

Not all of the obstacles are down to physics and the peculiarities of the human condition. As any business expands there comes a point where the initiator has to let go of some of the reins and pass on certain duties to others. It’s either that or remove themselves from the creative process and become managers themselves. It’s probably one of the hardest decisions any business owner has to make and can be a painful process. Jo explains, “You wonder if anyone will understand the complexities of what you’re doing. But you have to step back and trust people, passing on the skills you have learnt over the years and then just letting them run with them. It turns out that they’re really quite capable!”

So, plain sailing it hasn’t been, contrary to those first impressions you have when you encounter a piece of Jo Downs glassware. But then the oyster would not produce the pearl if it wasn't for the irritation of that piece of grit. As Jo says, “I absolutely love what I'm doing. I think the most important thing for me is when I'm doing a commission for someone and they love it too. It’s just so rewarding.” So as she and her team forge on, they no-doubt will encounter issues that will require forbearance coupled with some creative thinking but as the track record suggests nothing is insurmountable.

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