Great Balls of Fire!

By Connie Barnard

Great Balls of Fire!

Nestled in the shadow of the Horry County Courthouse, in an unassuming storefront on Laurel Street, lies a big surprise. Do not be deceived by the modest sign reading “Conway Glass.” Entering this shop is like saying “Open Sesame” to a treasure trove of handcrafted glass. The studio’s owners, resident artists Ed and Barbara Streeter, have over 50 years of combined experience in creating glass hand-blown in the ancient technique which has remained a vital part of American crafts since its colonial period.

Showcased in the Streeter’s front gallery are blown glass pieces ranging from small gift items including silver-framed jewelry pieces, colorful ornaments and pumpkins to dramatic centerpiece vases, vessels and extraordinary handcrafted pendant lighting. Among the one-of-a-kind items on display is their celebrated signature piece, a brilliant sky blue and sea green ornament with swirls of white-capped waves which was selected for the White House West Wing’s 2010 Christmas Tree Exhibition.

The rear area of the building houses a huge open workshop filled with a wide variety of works-in-progress. A massive work table holds an intricate stained glass window being lovingly re-worked and restored for a local church. A few feet away sits a bicycle with every working part completely covered by multi-colored hand crochet, a tribute to Barbara’s creative energy and her involvement with Create! Conway’s organization to promote local arts and crafts. The centerpiece of this workspace, however, is a massive electric glass furnace which heats temperatures up to 2150 degrees for the vital combination of fire, sand and air used to create hand blown glass. The heat from the oven is so great that it can be used only between October and April each year.

Great Balls of Fire!

On this sunny early winter Saturday, the shop at Conway Glass is a lively, bustling place. In addition to their usual business traffic, the Streeters have a full schedule of four blown glass classes scheduled throughout the day. We joined Karen, Dorie, Kathy, Maureen, Pam, Vickie and Marianne – a group of seven adventurous women who regularly set out to explore new things in the local area. Today each will create a hand blown glass ornament in the color of her choice.

Ed Streeter begins his instruction by explaining all about glass blowing procedures, equipment, temperatures and color application. The glass blower first gathers clear glass from the furnace on the blow pipe. Then the ornament color is added to the molten glass, melted in and rolled on the steel marver. The glass blower then adds a puff of air to start the ornament, manipulates the glass, and adds another puff to make a sphere. The glass is then reheated before it is taken to the bench and blown into an ornament. After a top loop of clear glass is added for the ornament’s hook, it is placed in an annealer at 960 degrees for 12 hours before slowly cooling to room temperature over an additional six hours. The students watch with rapt attention, especially as Ed opens the furnace door to expose the 2300 degree Glory Hole in which the sand, fire and air combine to produce the hot molten glass. Over the next half hour each student will take a turn at the bench as Ed patiently guides them, saying “Blow” and “Stop” at just the right moment in the tricky process. Later the participants will return to pick up their cooled and packaged ornaments.

As Ed works with the glass blowing classes in the warehouse studio, Barbara mans the continuous stream of clients and inquiries at the front desk. Several customers stop by to pick up orders for custom cut flat glass. Others come to shop in the gallery or sign up for a variety classes which also include instruction in hand blown paperweights and hot glass flowers as well as private parties and individual instruction. Local residents, Richard and Carol Lajoie, drop by to tell Barbara how pleased they are with the bamboo motif clear cut glass they purchased for the doors of their kitchen cabinets.

Working together for almost three decades, Ed and Barbara have managed to combine the artistic with the practical, also providing residential and commercial glass products such as tabletop glass, custom shower doors and mirrors, along with insulated, textured and safety glass installation. Conway Glass is also one of a handful of companies specializing in leaded and stained glass design, restoration and installation for churches and historic buildings, as well as residential and commercial properties.

So how did this talented pair of artisans happen to land on a side street in Conway, South Carolina? That is an interesting story filled with coincidence and serendipity. Originally from Upstate New York, Ed moved to this area in 1968 when his father was stationed at Myrtle Beach Air Force Base. In 1979, right out of high school, he got a job working with glass. He first learned to cut flat glass for window frames and doors. A few years later at Wheaton Village in Millville, New Jersey, Ed took a class in blown glass. “I learned to make a paperweight,” he recalls. “I fell in love with its creative aspect and wanted to learn more. Since then, Barbara and I have studied at most of the major glass studios in the country, including the Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina, and the Studio at the Corning Museum of Glass in New York. We also had an exciting opportunity to work in the Perry Glass Studio at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia.”

The year Ed moved to Myrtle Beach, Barbara’s father was transferred to Spartanburg from the Philadelphia area. Though early interests initially took her in other directions, Barbara’s great, great grandfather had been a master glassblower in Winslow Village, New Jersey, in the 1800s. Call it fate or some kind of genetic attraction, but the couple just happened to meet in 1985 at the Arcadian Dunes pool while Barbara was on vacation in Myrtle Beach. They married in 1986 and opened their studio in Conway that same year. It is a partnership that has proven to be rewarding, both personally and professionally. The success the Streeters enjoy today did not come quickly, however. They started out creating stained glass pieces on their back porch while working at other jobs. In 1999 their first glass and pottery business, Summer House Studios on North Main Street, was destroyed by Hurricane Floyd. Barbara and Ed lost not only their building and inventory but all their costly equipment as well. They started over and held on, but another decade would pass before the Streeters fully achieved their shared dream.

Barbara reflects, “It is important to do what you really love, especially as you get older and look back on your life as a whole. Fortunately, we have been able to carve out a life which allows us to do that and to share it with others.” The Streeters also attribute their success in part to Conway’s resurgence as a center for arts and crafts, and they are deeply involved in efforts to support a variety of art, music and drama programs in the community they love and call home.

Great Balls of Fire!

Barbara and Ed’s studio is one of only three glass-blowing shops in South Carolina. Currently, Barbara is the only professional female glass blower in South Carolina. Their pieces are sold at galleries throughout the country, at the South Carolina State Museum and through the art and crafts web site Etsy.com. Local area residents, however, are fortunate to be able to visit these talented artists at their workshop in Conway, explore their bountiful display gallery, and learn first-hand about this ancient yet ageless art form. Free glass blowing demonstrations are held the first Saturday of every month, October through May.

About this writer

  • Connie BarnardConnie Barnard traveled the world as a military wife and taught high school and college composition for over 30 years. She has been a regular contributor to Sasee since its first issue in 2002.

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