Through the Looking Glass

By Karin Fabry • Photos By John Jernigan

“You have to have a very forgiving, blasé attitude,” she says. “I’ve learned to compromise and alter some of my pieces.”

Kelley has led a very interesting life. She was a professional photographer for five years before becoming a chef who toured the world on private yachts. Eventually, Kelley moved to Ocala and opened The Real Baker, a successful bakery she ran for several years.

“When having the bakery got to the point of not feeling creative, I had to close it,” Kelley says. “It was very much a manufacturing business, just like what I do now.”

The main difference is that Kelley’s final product is no longer edible.

Today, Kelley owns and operates Hang Fire Design out of her northeast Ocala home. Instead of bread and pastries, though, she creates impressive, one-of-a-kind pieces of glass art. From small, everyday items like bowls and plates to custom-designed fountains, shower enclosures, or sinks, Kelley’s workload varies from day to day. You won’t hear her complain, however. Tiny finger nicks aside, Kelley enjoys what she does.

“I love to manufacture things from raw materials,” she says. “And I’ve always enjoyed manipulating light. I’m a sucker for gemstones, too, so put those elements together and colored glass had a natural draw for me.”

Kelley began experimenting with stained glass, but quickly realized she preferred a more multi-dimensional form of art.

“I talked to several fused glass artists and fell in love with what I saw,” Kelley explains. “I went out and purchased my first small kiln and began making beaded jewelry pieces.”

As her interest in her craft increased, so did her business. Two large kilns later, Kelley now has an at-home workshop and a display studio that she graciously opens to other local artists.

On the day I visited Kelley at her studio, she was busily working on two projects: a set of sushi plates for an area restaurant and a collection of unique dinnerware for a bride-to-be.

The process of creating each interesting, colorful piece is time consuming and delicate.

“All of my creations come from inside my head,” Kelley says. “I don’t design based on pictures of existing objects. Instead, I ask my clients to think of a theme or color they’re interested in and we go from there.”

Once an idea comes to her, Kelley will create a crayon sketch for her client’s approval.

“She’s very enthusiastic about her work,” friend and client Dennis Alden says. “I’ve worked abroad at our nation’s embassies for 30 years and I’ve lived in places where some of the finest glass art is displayed. Kelley is doing things that I can honestly say I’ve never seen before. I’m very impressed.”

Shaping and manipulating glass takes more than patience. Kelley’s skills are self-taught through a year of trial-and-error projects. Her Wall of Shame, a ledge of not-so-perfect final products, reminds her daily of what can go wrong in the firing kiln.

Glasswork involves great attention to detail. After selecting her colors and textures of glass, using a simple carbite cutter, Kelley will first score then break her glass into the desired shapes.

“When you cut a piece of glass, you end up with two pieces of glass,” Kelley says. “The more you cut, the smaller the residual pieces. I used to call them my scrap pieces, but a friend told me that diminished the glass. She was right. Now I have no scrap glass; I only have smaller and smaller pieces to use.”

Once her design is finalized, Kelley will transfer the pieces to the kiln where temperatures in excess of 1300-degrees Fahrenheit will melt and mold the glass.

Perhaps the most important lesson Kelley has learned is the difference at which various kinds of glass expand and cool.

“It was necessary to know the co-efficient of expansion because it enabled me to learn how to use the different types of glass together, producing some unique, funky combinations. Once I learned this lesson, I went from about a 30 percent to an 8 percent failure rate.”

When firing glass that needs to be shaped, Kelley uses bisque molds in her kiln. Once glass reaches its melting point, the glass will melt or “slump” over the mold, creating a bowl, plate, or a multitude of other shapes.

“I think she has a clear vision in her head of how her pieces will come out,” Dennis says. “She spends a lot of time planning and imagining.”

The firing process is the most tedious and nerve-racking part of the process for Kelley.

“Once you put your creation into the kiln, you can only look through a tiny peephole,” she explains. “Even after the kiln is done firing, you still have to wait 12 hours before the door can be opened to reveal the finished product. It’s a very time-consuming process. I think this discipline forces me to be a more patient person.”

For those moments when human emotions take over, the punching bag hanging in the corner of her studio is the perfect place to release her frustrations.

After only a year in the business, Kelley has already established herself throughout the region. Her work is featured in galleries in North Carolina and Alabama. She is a regular at weekend art shows and has walked away with numerous awards including “Best of Show” from the Art in the Park Festival in Fort Lauderdale. Kelley only competes in juried shows and the awards she’s received enabled her to show in Disney’s Festival of the Masters this past year. Her work was also on display at Ocala’s annual FAFO festival.

“It was a wonderful experience,” she says. “I showcased a bar back I created for a local gentleman and three artists came to my booth and asked how I dreamt up the idea. It was a great compliment to be recognized by my peers.”

In the future, Kelley sees herself taking up glass blowing, and that seems appropriate.

“It’s amazing. I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of what I can do.”

Hang Fire Design
(352) 401-3473

Posted in Ocala Style Features

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