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To Jenny Thomas, empties aren’t always empty. They’re filled with potential.
Fused glass has been the Pearl artist’s realm for more than a decade. But her source for raw materials — the “paint” and canvas for her pretty and practical art objects — dried up a year ago. The art glass industry’s crisis over environmental concerns sent her supplier out of business.
“I had this make it or break it moment,” she says.
The outcome? A bit of both. A new direction involved another kind of fusion — one that wed her thrifty nature with her glass working knowledge, and occasionally wrapped in her thrifting hobby, too.
She was unwilling to give up working with glass. New supplies? How about that now empty wine bottle?
“I’m a glass artist. I can’t just throw a wine bottle away.
“On a whim, I thought of trying to do something with leftovers. And it just kept going,” as a fun, creative outlet till the glass industry dust settled. “I have the raw materials. I’ve already used the contents and now I’m repurposing the containers.”
Empty wine, olive oil and liquor bottles get cut and hand-carved into new lives as beverage glasses, candle holders, carafes, planters and maybe one day, that outdoor chandelier that’s still knocking around in her head.
“I just keep reinventing myself,” Thomas says. “It’s survive or die these days.
The direction wasn’t without its road blocks of broken glass. First try, in a friend’s kitchen after researching techniques on the internet, was a disaster.
“There are so many bad ideas online,” she mutters at the memory, and they had plenty of shattered bottles to prove it. “I understand glass’s personality. It’s very fickle. … It was really trial and error.”
Eventually she found a technique that worked for her.
She cuts the bottle and polishes the edge with a grinder, “so it doesn’t cut a lip or feel rough when you drink out of it.” Once she mastered the basic drinking glass, “I couldn’t leave it alone.”
Carving came next, with a design in mind before the diamond drill hits the glass. Taking off the first two layers of glass leaves a frosty line drawing, detectable by the fingers but still smooth to the touch.
Thomas’ love of thrifting dates back to childhood, accompanying her mom to second-hand shops and thrift stores in Texas.
“I’ve been doing it all my life. You really hone your skills,” says Thomas, 41.
That’s how she came across a set of small sky blue glasses, a quarter apiece. Her carved birds gave them wings. Another set of clear stemless wineglasses — “so sad and plain” but a Dollar Tree bargain — went upscale with roses.
“I think it all starts with me being a painter,” she said of visualizing the finish before she even starts. “I still approach everything that way.”
Olive green bottle bottoms called out for tribal feathers that now cascade around the surface of drinking glasses.
“I like carving in the round,” she says.
A cobalt blue bottle that once held riesling finds new life as a carafe. A diagonal cut forms the slightest hint of a spout while outlines of fish and ripples call a koi pond to mind. More blue bottles became iced tea glasses, their tall sides inspiring the luxurious drape of blooming wisteria.
Bottle tops turn into candlesticks and olive oil bottles into small planters. When recent flooding washed stray wood into her yard, she used that, too, as a frame for upturned bottle tops that can work as vases, little bird feeders or more.
Response has been good, and many chime in, describing their own efforts to recycle or upcycle wine bottles. Thomas wanted to bring something new to the table. “That was honestly my intention — to take something that is not all that unusual, and make it unusual.”
“I didn’t have anything like it,” says Lesley Silver, owner of Vicksburg’s Attic Gallery, which is packed and piled with so much fine and folk art, the hunt is half the fun. “I had seen necklaces made out of wine bottles and wind chimes made out of wine bottles, but I had not seen anybody take it and put as much detail and thought into the marks that she makes on it,” Silver says, noting the artist’s playful, fused glass stir sticks are fun, too.
Katie Jones, co-owner of monthly market The Rusty Chandelier in Ridgeland, is particularly taken with Thomas’ bottle-turned-wall planters that could be a vase, a tiki torch or more.
“Something somebody else would look at and see as trash, Jenny has taken it and turned it into something unique and totally cool and useful,” she says.
“I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel,” says Thomas, whose Jenny Thomas-Artistry Facebook page is another outlet. “Bottle art has been around forever. I just want to put my flavor on it.”