Huge north windows frame the glass-blowing furnace behind Minh Martin. It’s an overcast and rainy day, but he’s in shorts and a t-shirt as the cold air blows in from the open warehouse door. He’s intent on his work, and smiling.
“Honestly, I can’t image a better life,” he says. “I get to make things every day. Every time I open the kilns, it’s like Christmas.”
Around him, colorful glass goblets fill shelves. Hot glass pops and shatters as recently used tools are plunged into buckets of water. Pottery kilns, used by fellow studio mates, fill corners. The room is expansive, but it feels inhabited – comfortable and well-loved couches, scribbled notes, boxes to ship glasswork to as many as 70 galleries around the country.
Minh talks of the “simple, gratuitous evidence that your life is producing something.” For him, being an artisan is “philosophically unambiguous.” Here, at home in his studio, “there is no spin.”
Cold Winters & Hot Glass: Finding a Home in Waynesboro
Minh’s arrival as a Shenandoah Valley glass artisan begins with a snow storm.
Raised in a Mennonite family among carpenters and woodworkers, he is also the son of peacemakers, born in Vietnam and raised in southeast Asia. He completed a degree in geophysics and environmental science at Yale, followed by a stint of boat building in Texas, and then a surprise apprenticeship with a glassblower in Santa Barbara. Slowly, his world opened to include playing in rock bands and an established urban art scene.
Then, stuck in the Valley during a major snowstorm, he mentioned he was a glassblower. Happenstance led him to Phillip Nolley, who was then the Studio Manager and Glass Designer for Sunspots Studio in Staunton. Today, they are co-partners of Trinity Studios in Waynesboro, where they each run independent artisan businesses as well as lease furnace time and studio space to fellow artisans. In search of cool concrete, big windows, burly utilities, industrial gas lines and honest work, Waynesboro became their studio home.
Function Meets Freedom
Minh’s specialty is functional glassware, including stemware, vessels, and lighting. He sees craft as the antidote to today’s ‘throw-away’ culture, and his choice to produce artwork that contains both beauty and function has earned him many returning customers and a niche within the American glass movement.
It has also won him a degree of autonomy that might be unmatched by other vocations. As he and his wife Anna Shapiro welcomed a new baby this summer (their third boy in 4 years), Minh knew he was spending a month at home, no questions asked. He talks also about how the intersection of his vocation and his rural location have allowed him to maintain a diversity of both urban and country friends, helping him to live “not so locked in our bubbles.”
While he jokes that his role as an artisan has “spoiled me for any participation in real structure” it’s clear that glass is an antidote for not just a ‘throw-away’ culture, but also a pathway for valuing family, friendships, and diversity over the daily grind of the office.
Advice for Fellow Entrepreneurs
Surrounded by ceramic artisans, blacksmiths, stone carvers, and foundries, Minh says that this is “the perfect incubator for all kinds of ideas.” In part, he means his own studio. While his Romeo Glass business operates independently, the shared studio space that he and Phillip Nolley co-manage continues to welcome new participants. Their location in the Waynesboro South River Complex has “so many resources for collaboration.”
But in part, he also means that the start-up costs for new artisans in Waynesboro are accessible. “I definitely know people hustling to be where they’re at,” he says. “Here, you’re not always chasing the dragon. The cost of living is low enough that you can start to feel free.”
Asked for specific advice to new entrepreneurs he echoes his opening promise to remain philosophically unambivalent: “Rent 200 square feet,” he says. “Take a whack at it.”
To Learn More about Minh Martin and Romeo Glass, you can visit his website at www.romeoglass.com. For more inspiring stories about Waynesboro arts, artisans, small business owners, and entrepreneurs, check back often at GrowWaynesboro.com for our latest profiles and interviews.