The art of glass

Renee Miller makes art glass. But what she sells is a little privacy with splashes of color and textures. The artist turned corporate marketing manager gave up her job and late last year opened a storefront/studio on Madison's near east side at 1951 Winnebago St.

Renee Glass Factory sells slumped and fused glass made by Miller and intended for use mainly as windows in businesses, commercial buildings and private homes.

"I have a couple of troublesome windows in my house. The bathroom is one and the second is a window that looks out into my neighbor's driveway with thick curtains that I never liked," Miller said. "This was my first inspiration."

Miller calls her panes "urban dwelling solutions" that make it possible for people to let the light in while keeping unsightly views out. They can be used as installed windows, door glass, room dividers or as hanging art.

"It's really light that I'm the producer of, adding color and texture," she said. "I feel in a lot of ways I'm just conducting light."

Her most notable installation to date is at the Barrymore Theatre on Atwood Avenue. She created textured panes for the theater's prominent spire. Its design features the details of an old iron grate, circa 1924.

Grate glass is one of Miller's product lines. It employs antique grates, manholes and other iron artifacts to create interesting textured panes. Another line highlights Miller's background in ecological art, using things found in nature to make glass showing leaf impressions, and scenes from a forest or a prairie burn.

Miller earned her bachelor's degree in art from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked as an artist making three-dimensional glass sculptures. She then entered the corporate world. But following her brother's death, Miller decided to return to doing what she feels is important to her.

But before opening her shop, Miller returned last year to UW-Madison as a special student in the glass program to do a business feasibility study. She needed to examine every aspect of her then prospective business, from the type of equipment she would need to pricing to the cost of setting up a studio, finding her market and methods of reaching customers.

When the glass program had its customary student art sale last spring, Miller knew there was a market for her work.

"I sold everything I had made plus the scraps from the bottom of the bucket," she said.

How much does it cost to outfit windows with panes of art glass?

Smaller windows can run $40 to $100. She sells a 26x33-foot window for under $200. Martin Glass installs all her work for around $20.

Miller said her materials are costly. But she can keep pricing down because the process she uses to make her artful windows is not complex. She uses a colossal kiln she has named "Easy Bake Oven #1" to produce her glass.

Andrew Taylor, director of the Bolz Center for Arts Administration, said it's fairly unusual for an independent artist to open a storefront and break from the traditional gallery experiences. He explained that the challenges ahead for Miller are the same that any small, independent business faces: identifying her market and positioning her product.

"One benefit she has is there's a trend toward people investing in the quality of their home. They're nesting to help them feel more secure," Taylor noted. "This is the very market many independent artists turn to."

Miller admits that opening a storefront is a bit of a bold step. But she said she believes people needed to really see her glass to know how it could work in their building or house.

Having a shop also helps market her work.

"I realize I have to create a market," she said. "In a lot of people's minds, they've already decided that they can't afford this type of luxury. But you can add some of these without bankrupting yourself."

Most of her marketing has been done through architects in and around Madison. She also recently launched a Web site, To date, most of her installations have been in commercial buildings. She also has made glass pizzas for the Glass Nickel restaurant on Atwood Avenue.

Although Miller's ultimate goal is to do a glass mural on a building similar to the Firstar Bank location downtown, she also seeks to install her work in private homes.

"This business could be huge. I hope I can grow pretty organically, so part of my job is to grow it gracefully," she said. "It will be really interesting to see if installation takes off in the residential market."

600450 The art of glass
Date: 3 May 2004

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