So Raven…a friend of mine and a member of the Renaissance community, passed away during the Texas Renaissance Festival last November, he was the manager of Black Dragon Pewter, an avid chess player, and D&D master. The part of my story that Raven starred in was during my first few years in business.
I graduated college and started my own business the same year, 1990, still enrolled in a graduate, independent course in glassblowing, and working with and for another SCSU Allum, Ray Mathews Jr, at his place, Bittersweet Glass. I was trying my best to be professional and profitable at art shows in the tri-state area of New York and New England.
The show at the Meadowlands was one of the hardest to get to, to set up, to navigate in every way.
The cheapest hotel was $150/night for venders, the best deal within 100 miles. Without the credit card allowance to check in, and the unfortunate view of local enforcement to not let sleeping vendors lie, retiring in a vehicle at the Meadowlands is severely frowned upon, so I hunkered in sneaky places my first year participating, at the end of day.
During set up, which took forever due to union rules, and the event workers that made and abided by them. Now I believe in the power and think unions’ rule, literally. But that day…
For every two hours, flagging in hundreds of vehicles to the basement underground, beneath the stadium, there was a mandatory 15 minute break in which everything stopped.
Which would be cool if you weren’t single file in a long line of running vehicles driving underground in the exhibition hall, artists set to navigate the long rows of curtains, boxes, and tables to unload their stock, one by one. It literally took hours to get in, then your rushed to unload with workers yelling and throwing boxes off your truck just to, again, by procession, exit out leaving your valuables and business behind in a pile on the floor full of chaos, exhaust fumes and moving vehicles.
Maddeningly breaking every 2 hours.
During one of these 15 minute union breaks, while I was chewing my nails and pulling out my hair, an unwelcome someone yelled to me-
(..if you’ve ever traveled alone, a young female without a cell phone, before the day, and stopped for gas or at a hotel, you learn to ignore “men” because of reasons you must experience to understand, even when your still gullible to compliments.)
“YOUR NEW” growled a man approaching, his cowboy style heels click clacking on the cement and echoing.
And when that brought no reply, as I tried to ignore this man, a long-haired hippy with a weird accent and creepy eyes in which he would raise his eyebrows like a nervous tick to accentuate his words and enthusiasm, spoke again.
“WHAT’S YOUR STORY?” he demanded, a big smile on his face.
I was stuck, underground in a single line of frustrated artists forced to turn off our engines and have a 15 minute break. I was his captive audience for at least 10 more minutes, and combined with the fact that no one had ever called me skinny before, I gave in and said-
“Hey.” Disinterested, kinda.
Raven introduced himself with the first of many road names that were soon to enter my life and not only was he a long haired hippy with a self name, he was also a geek.
A very intelligent geek, prone to outwit any chess player or Dungeon and Dragon enthusiast, alike. He was a gamer before they were all virtual and he charmed me by the end of that union break into a life -long friendship.
The next night, treating me as one might a sister, I crashed at his mom’s house close by. They were a throwback to my Italian roots and like family I was fed too well and spoiled with attention and praise, and a paper bagged lunch for the following day, sweet thought note on the side. I wasn’t the only lost urchin that Raven had taken home, but I hoped I was their favorite.
*side note* I believe it was the second year of staying with Raven during the Meadowlands that while driving to the Stadium we learned of Kurt Cobain’s suicide while riding together and drinking coffee from an Italian bakery somewhere in New Jersey, I don’t remember the name, at 7 am. It was surreal and one of those moments that everyone says-
“Where were you when that happened?”
That’s where we were.
he told me repeatedly that I should do Renaissance Festivals. He started his circuit mid January, in which he would drive down, out of the winter drudge to sunny Florida, and participate in a handful of shows that kept him south until spring.
I had never heard of a Renaissance Festival but he compared it to a cross between a Dead concert, and a Rainbow Gathering, but real.
But I was had at sunny.
That year I applied and tried to sell glass at the Florida Renaissance Festival at Snyder’s Park, Fort Lauderdale, for three lovely weeks in which I barely made a dime. It was a community of like minded young adults that I fell in love with..and you can park your truck and retire anywhere in the park! I didn’t want to go home when it was over, so I followed Raven and Shadowwalker, another new pal, to Gainesville (HoggTowne), Sarasota and then to Largo, working for anyone that could pay $50/day.
I was so happy, and almost a gamer, but eventually I went back home, sad to go.
That experience set me to apply to the New York Renaissance Festival and to buy a used booth for $350. It was awesome, lots of fun, but I barely made enough money to survive while also doing art shows near by, and squeaked a living out slowly. During the festival I would live on the grounds and doing so I learned to live inexpensively. And of necessity! I hardly made enough to count it. It had become quite apparent at this point that the performing glassblower made all the glass sales, because everyone wanted to see it made.
For the following season, I had secured a better location at the fair, and set for the task of dismantling and re-mantling an entire booth at a new and better location. At this point I was hanging in there because I never felt like I belonged anywhere like I did at these festivals, and the quality of friends and mentors was so great, I just had to get a glassblowing gig to perform. The problem was, I had total stage fright. I mean really, really bad stage fright.
*While in college I dreaded nothing more than speaking in front of the class. As a child I was bullied so relentlessly for my quirks, my looks, my family’s reputation, that I tried to be an invisible adult. I wanted to be valued in my artwork, my expression, but did not value the societal expectation of gender, looks and a girls role in this world. I realized young that I wanted more than to attract a successful mate. I wanted to be a master in the arts and not only valued for my looks, but for my role, my choices. I digress..
So…at Southern Connecticut State University, the dreaded day came that I had to give a speech to get through Communications 101.
I did not dress up, but down, and over prepared a speech called “Nutrition and Athletic Performance”, written from the point of view of a vegetarian bodybuilder. The typical bodybuilding diet was not necessarily a healthy diet and I wanted to prove the built body does not need meat to grow muscle. Interesting and compelling my speech was, but short and sweet. I believed in my topic, the points of which were delicately honed to make my case, the content of which I had read and reread in front of a mirror. Even so, I was absolutely terrified when my name got called and I fumbled to the front behind the podium. The room was one of those temporary buildings Universities put up sometimes during major renovations. It was an ugly metal box with about 30 students seated and looking expectantly at me.
I kept saying to myself, I know this, I got this, I know this I got this….but I froze. I forgot everything I wrote, couldn’t stop shaking the paper to read it, and I literally hallucinated their heads, with these waiting faces on them, begin to separate from their bodies and float up to the low hanging roof overhead. I was fascinated and relieved that those faces floated away and were no longer looking at me, as my teacher slow walked me to my desk.
It was a really bad trip and later amongst my deep humiliation, she said that “Today is just a tape that I need to.. just throw away. Tomorrow is a new day!” I’m way too literal to grasp, and responded to, that half wisdom by never going back to class and not taking that particular requirement until my last semester, years later. I still have anxiety dreams about skipping that class, and others, that I paid for, wasted.
Same speech, four years later, got me an “A” but I nearly had heart failure. Luckily I was right about the health implications of a vegetarian diet.
I never had any desire to be on stage. I dreamed of the peace of a home studio to create without interruption, in which my works would sell (magically, out of sight) without having to interact with…people.
But a wise woman once said, “When you find the right people, it is your home studio, no matter where you are.”
Thus began my desire to overcome my fears and get one of these plush glassblowing positions, and perform for my people.
So…another year came and I had my own booths at all the Florida renaissance festivals and the art shows close to them, ensuring I always had a place to retire in my truck. I was struggling to say the very least, but as in youthful fashion, I didn’t care if it took every last dime I had. I wanted this. But to get a demonstration position at a festival requires the previous glassblower to resign or die, so it can be a long wait. So I starved a little and had a blast until the fateful day that a New York number paged me for a call back and it was the number to the fair office. I hemmed and hawed and was so nervous to call him back. I had extreme phone anxiety, and pay phones were all the rage for poor travelers like me, and that made it worse- that I had to make a business call of great importance at a mid Florida Denny’s payphone in a waiting room of breakfast folks chatting up their meals.
Don Gotti from the New York Renaissance Festival answered when I dialed out, a handful of change rattling in my clenched fists, and offered me the position as glassblower!
*catch* As long as I shared the position with a local glassblower, who was male (and I’m sure felt safer) to maintain the highly dangerous equipment.
He said I had the look and was already a part of the renaissance community, and the other glassblower was more experienced and owned his own studio. But I refused, promised I could run a studio, which wasn’t completely honest, and (stubborn or stupid) told him I would not share the position. To my surprise, he replied that I had the position, alone. I got off the phone shaken and dizzy, I almost blew it, but he hired me. Now I had to build it. The agreement was that the fair would pay me back for supplies but I had to build it, with my own investment at first. And I had not furnace building money on hand, no desire to tell him that, and a handful of art shows scheduled in the 4 months until the fair started.
When I settled back with my breakfast at a table with my traveling companions, a friend named Ocean suggested we drive to Tampa for the 2 days of the Grateful Dead concerts coming up and maybe if I make some glass pipes, I could sell. Now I was adamant I didn’t want to be a pipe maker. I wanted to make great things and didn’t consider pipes a quality direction… but I needed money, and that was all that was selling.
So…Ocean called a local studio in St. Petersburg and asked the owner if he would rent furnace time to me. That was when I met Chuck, owner of Sigma Glass, and at $40/hour I worked for 4 hours a day, and in two days had enough stock for the Dead concerts and the Bay Area Renaissance Faire. I had to make more pipes, basically, because food is good.
So… ‘to Tampa I scampa’ to not just dance.
*past-blast and side note*-My second semester in glassblowing I wanted to go to Madison Square Garden for a benefit concert starring the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, Hall and Oates, and Suzanne Vega, an unlikely cast. The tickets for general admittance were $55, the train from New Haven was $12 each way, and I had not $10 to my name. My friend and I decided to make some pipes, never having done so before, they were kind of funky. I alone, took all 15 or so pipes that actually annealed without breaking, and headed for the train station. I almost had enough for the ride into the city and hoped for a miracle. Having met some kids heading the same way, I chatted up my pipes and sold two at the station totalling around $20, and a few more on the train. I was on the train full of kids in tie dies, all seeking their own miracle, and never having made anything worth selling before, it was my miracle.
My miracle unfolded as I got off the train to Madison Square Garden and joined a small group of venders on Shakedown St. Mine were the only glass pipes. At that time lamp workers, scientific glassblowers, were not making tobacco pipes. I opened my little bandanna and laid out my short supply of pipes and was rewarded with interest, even from the local police patrolling Shakedown.
(Back then they just let us sell anything that was legal right there on the sidewalk outside a Dead show, commonly known as Shakedown St)
Tobacco pipes without a carburetor were legal, used for tobacco. So they let me slide with kind statements like ”beautiful work” and “never saw any pipes this nice” and “good luck!”
Within a few hours, I had my ticket and a street pretzel in hand, $70 in my pocket, and found myself climbing the stadium, with thousands of dancing, happy people to the top row center, which was always my perch at shows, because air is good.
So…Madison Square Garden was the totality of experience that I had when I arrived to sell pipes in Tampa, 4 years later. That evening’s Shakedown was full of glass pipe makers! What a difference a few years made. A young lamp worker by the name of Snodgrass had begun a glass revolution on Dead tour. He started making hard glass pipes, for the leaf, than lamp work of earlier days, and managed to make the most of the limited colors available to him. It was amazing . I was now one of hundreds of glassblowers at the Tampa Dead shows which ran two consecutive days. I walked around with pipes in my waistband, for I hadn’t figured a way to carry them easily until I saw other glassblowers using pistol cases, and planned to get my own. I sold close to 50 pipes in those two days and it was glorious. And again, a miracle indeed.
I had to head back to Connecticut a few weeks later for some time at the furnace and a few art shows I had scheduled for the late spring, and as I was driving my old pickup with my dog Brandy, I had an epiphany- I needed like $8-10 grand to rebuild the studio at the New York Faire, and had none of it -but my recent pipe money.
I called Ocean and asked if he would come with me on a 10 stop Dead show tour of about 16 shows starting in a couple of weeks. I hit the ground hard when I got home and made pipes for 10 days straight to the point my arms felt like they were falling off, and even after I ground and packed them for sale, my shoulders were getting worse. By the time we went to our first show, I couldn’t lift my arms.
I had full blown tendinitis, but all I knew was, I was broke, but not in a money way. I made well over $8000 in 18 days and learned how to dance without arm movement, all while living in a pickup with my dog Brandy and a boy named Ocean Wave.
I planned to return to tour later in the summer before the fair started, musing on the opportunities still available for glass pipe makers and never had a better reason to do my favorite thing- touring with the Dead!
When I was younger, I had school and lots of reasons not to go on tour. Now I was 27 years old and going back to make some bad money with some phat pipes, without guilt and excited to do so.
While riding in my truck a week later, my assistant Chris Sabatelli and his son Sebastian, in his old Volvo behind me, tried to call me on a crappy cell phone we just got, costing $2/minute! He told me, through static and then yelling into my truck as he pulled beside me, that he just heard on the radio, that Jerry Garcia is dead! My first reaction was “No, the band is still cool, you’ll see and love them!”
(he was a bit younger and not yet a Dead lover) “Shut up and drive!” I shouted laughing.
Until I finally heard.
“ Jerry is dead!”
I went on to build that studio and perform at that festival for 16 years. I mourn Raven like I still mourn Jerry Garcia, that festival and profits never earned. I never stopped needing a miracle, each and every day.