LAMAR COUNTY, MS (WDAM) - Hattiesburg is the only place in the state where people can blow their own glass art pieces.
"We bought a portable furnace in January," Thomley said. "We tried to blow glass in June and July just because we were excited, and nearly died out here. It's really hot to be blowing glass in Mississippi period, but at least we waited until October to really launch our business. And it has been incredible. Not just because we're the only glass shop in Mississippi, but we have such a following here with the Christmas tree farm in Hattiesburg. Just this community is pretty tight, so people end up coming. It helps that there's not a lot to do here, some would say, so we have been really busy and blessed by the people in the community who just want to come and spend time together."
Thomley said the idea has been in the works for months, but he and Bell were not certain they would launch their business in Mississippi.
"I had an art show that happened, I guess, a year and a half ago," Thomley said. "It was called 'Anthem.' It showed at the Oddfellows Gallery, and we had the community really rally around the cause. It was right during the Festival South film expo and all that. Hattiesburg was really starting to grasp film as an art, and as a response, they also understood sculpture. Their favorite part of the sculpture show was the glass, and my long-time childhood friend Daniel Bell (is) a very good glassblower, so it just made sense to get him here. We had teased each other for years, where would be the first place that we would open the business, in Park City or in Hattiesburg? You know, few would've chosen Hattiesburg over Park City, but this is where we started."
Now, he and Bell are teaching and helping people in the Pine Belt create their own glass art.
"Everything here is hot, and my shop is full of sharp things," Thomley said. "Steel is not the most kid friendly or user friendly, so how do we make this a place that families can come and everybody feel comfortable? We start by just having them pick out the colors that they want. They'll see an ornament or if they're blowing a bowl that day, they'll decide, 'Well, I want the bowl to look like this,' and then we teach them to gather color out of trays over there. Then they start off slow with that. Their introduction to the furnace is cooking in the color, so whether they're doing a flower or an ornament, a bowl or a pumpkin, it starts off very easy, and it's very fun. Then they slowly get more involved and more comfortable, and you wouldn't know it, but people who didn't think that they were artsy at all end up getting really into it. That's part of the fun."
Thomley said seeing that reaction, but more importantly, seeing people interested in creating makes the the experience the most fun.
"The public is what has made this so much fun," Thomley said. "I'm really proud of my town. I'm proud that everybody wants to come out, and yeah, they surprised us. I know south Mississippi understands food is art, but we don't have any food out here. So we pretty much had to entice them with a good time and hot glass, and they're coming. They're making their Christmas presents with their hands, and they're a part of a little growing community of artists. They believe that they are - they know that they're - making a difference. They're not stuck on an iPad or internet shopping or anything else. They're actually making their gifts, so I'm just happy they're actually doing it. It's been a blast."
The business is only open from now until the end of December.
"As soon as the Christmas tree customers stop coming, we're out of here," Thomley said. "December 23 we're going to shut it down. It is a seasonal business, especially for right now, mainly because we were testing our market. We wanted to know how curious and how much fun people thought it was and what should we improve. We're talking big about doing a Valentine's event. Our date night is probably our most powerful thing that we offer because it lets people, well, I say it like they said it. They say 'We don't feel like we're in Hattiesburg. We feel like we're in Colorado or like we're in Park City.' We've gone to a lot of trouble to make sure the outside of this place is also with sculpture, so having people participate in a living breathing sculpture that is actually theirs and they add something to it when they come, yeah, you can't do that all the time. It has to be like a really powerful couple of months or couple of weeks that you get together and try to make something awesome. We'll do it next year, but it won't be happening all the time."
If you want to make your own blown glass piece, Thomley said it is best to book an appointment ahead of time to be sure the glass is hot enough to be used.