During the first week of October, I traveled to Toronto to attend the annual B Corporation Champions Retreat. (And to celebrate our 10th anniversary as a founding B Corp!) Less than a week before I was set to leave for my first-ever trip to the Great White North, I learned that Stephen Kitras, a long-time member of our maker family, owns and operates the largest hot glass blowing studio in Canada. I immediately contacted the Kitras Art Glass team with fingers crossed, hoping to squeeze in a last minute visit while on their side of the continent. A few days later, I found myself in Fergus, Ontario, thrown into the fire of glassblowing alongside artists who have traveled from all over the world to practice their craft at Stephen’s studio.
Located along the Grand River, about 67 miles outside of Toronto, Fergus boasts beautiful stone architecture built by early Scottish settlers. The charming town might lack hot temperatures, but in my mind everything about it is warm. From the autumnal rolling landscape and cobblestone streets, to the tree-lined murals decorating Stephen’s showroom, it’s evident why Stephen and the Kitras team operate with the mantra “when surrounded by beauty, the spirit is uplifted.”
This year marks our 11th holiday season working with Stephen and his team. An afternoon with the Kitrases taught me that real secret to their success isn’t just the timeless quality of their product, but should also be credited to the strong bonds inside Stephen’s studio. Kitras Art Glass is a tried-and-true family business, with Stephen’s daughters Sophie and Lucy having leading roles within the company and welcoming every employee as an extended member of their family. (After all, if he were left to his own devices, Sophie and Lucy joked, everything made by Kitras Art Glass would be orange–Stephen’s favorite color).
As Stephen toured me through every aspect of the operation (complete with a hands-on tutorial!), the most mesmerizing relationship of all was not between the recycled glass and the orange flames, but the bond between the artists themselves. Glassblowing is a Tango. Every move needs to be in sync. There needs to be an unspoken agreement between glassblowers as they circle around the ovens. When one turns, the other has to be there with open arms, ready to take the next step. The process only works when they wholeheartedly rely on their partners.
Whether you’re looking to start your own creative business, or just hoping to get a sneak peek into an artist’s everyday life, you’re in good company. Read on for a Q&A with Stephen that touches on his inspirations, his family-run business, and the ways in which glass has the power to enhance the lives of others.
When did you know you wanted to be an artist?
I was interested in being an artist/craftsman when I took a workshop in glassblowing at the Harbourfront [Centre] in Toronto. I had always made things. Working with glass was new and the medium sparked a lot of interest in me, especially the possibilities.
How did glass become your medium of choice? When did you know you wanted to turn your passion for glass into a business?
I always had liked glass. My interest first grew after I went to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto as a student in university. It was very mysterious and intriguing. I decided to go to college for glassblowing after the workshop at Harbourfront. At the time I also had to make a decision about a new career since I was working as a waiter and we had just had our first child, Sophie. I originally had gone to school for Chemical Engineering, but dropped out to change over to study Philosophy. I guess I ended up doing a bit of both since there is a very specific science to glassblowing, especially when batching color.
You’ve been working as a glassblower for nearly 30 years. What’s kept you in the profession over the past three decades?
I liked the independence of self-employment and the freedom to be creatively intuitive. To be honest, when I started working as a glassblower after finishing school, my goal was to make $15.00 an hour. I figured if I could make that much I would be able to support my family. And then the business took off. I’m always very grateful for everyone who has helped bring us to where we are now. When the business grew, making it self-sustaining, I could focus on the creative work which is what I really love most. I still am fixated by the possibilities in glass making and the reach it gives you for creative expression and work.
How has creating a family-run business influenced the direction the company has taken over the years?
I’m honored that my children are interested in keeping the business going and growing. Although having a family business does not come without its struggles, like any growing and changing company. They have definitely helped fine-tune the brand and what our vision is for the future. They’re young, so they keep coming up with fresh ideas for us to try! It has made keeping it fresh and new so we may sustain our status a priority. The new designs need to keep a lot of people working.
Family is important to us. It’s not just my own family that is working here with me, but a lot of our team is made up of families, with multiple family members working in different parts of the company.
How many folks make up your team now? How do you collaborate with the artisans that help produce your designs?
We have 25-30 team members depending on the season and orders. In production, we have 14 glassblowers and this includes our team leads and assistants. It’s really myself and family that come up with new designs we decide to bring into production. The team will help us trouble shoot if we run into any difficulties during production. We always value getting feedback from our community in regards to designs; this of course includes our in-house staff, customers, and sales reps. I think as a company, you’re really missing opportunities if you don’t listen to what your community wants. Sometimes artists are stubborn about this, but I believe there is usually a way to make it happen and bring it forward that makes it true to your artistry and brand.
Your Glass Tree Globes and Starry Night Solar Stakes are just a couple of pieces inspired by nature. Do you have a ritual for gathering natural inspiration? What’s your process for coming up with new ideas?
Glass is a natural material. Even the way it mixes, melts, flows, and burns is natural and inspiration in itself. It’s volcanic, molten and intense. Also, I really love gardens and flowers. No one can disagree with the beauty of a flower. I think it’s good to make beautiful things and celebrate beautiful moments. They happen every day, all around us.
What other elements inspire your work?
Color and emotions. The perfect color mix can evoke strong emotions, and color is very important in our designs. And this color-induced emotion connects people with each piece’s story. Emotions are complicated, they’re response based. They just happen and that can be beautiful and tragic. But it’s our stories that bring these emotions together and connect us with each other and hopefully connect people to a certain piece.
You’ve said your goal is to produce beautiful, affordable glass objects to enhance the lives of others. When and how did you realize that your art has the ability to do that?
From my own experience of when I first became interested in glass. Glass is intriguing and versatile. I probably could make dark, moody pieces, but that’s not the kind of artist I am. I’m intrigued by the interior and the spiritual. My signature use of glass is in the interior of the piece. First, I started off with just webs, but then they grew into trees. The story of what’s inside captivates people and excites them, from children to the elderly, rich, poor, common, and genius. It is what allows you to access and perceive the beautiful. Not bad for $50! Life is not short of challenges, so I hope to make glass that moves people in a beautiful way. Maybe turn them away from the negative to see the positive that is there waiting to be discovered.
“I think it’s good to make beautiful things and celebrate beautiful moments. They happen every day, all around us.” – Stephen Kitras