Ronnie Hughes learned glass blowing not because he was particularly interested in the craft but because he needed a job.
"I'd just graduated from Wake Forest University with bachelor's in psychology and business. I really fell in love with psychology and planned to get my master's degree and become a counselor."
Fate intervened when, in 1976, a friend setting up a glass studio offered him a job.
"I was just looking for something to tide me over," said Hughes, 55, who lives in Laurel Springs, a small mountain community south of West Jefferson, where he grew up. "I thought it would be fun, a nice hobby."
After a couple of lessons, he said, "It kind of opened up an avenue in me I didn't know was there. I don't think it would have worked with any other material. It was a combination of the fire and trying to manipulate this molten glass to make it do what you want it to do. You try to keep up with it and you try to stay one step ahead of where the glass is going to go."
Hughes has managed to stay a step ahead of the glass for more than 30 years, but only in the past decade has he really ventured out of Western North Carolina, racking up awards along the way, including Best of Show at this year's Artsplosure, his first time appearing at the Raleigh festival. Also, for the first time, he'll have a booth at the annual Carolina Designer Craftsmen show at the State Fairgrounds on Thanksgiving weekend.
Two factors have contributed to his recent success: Hughes' amazing body of work and his on-the-ball manager, his wife, Chris.
"Up until we got married in 2000, I had basically been doing local and regional shows," said Hughes, who was living in Blowing Rock. "When we got married she gradually became more and more a part of the business, doing basically everything but the glass. It made all the difference in my work. I could focus on the work itself. My creativity level skyrocketed. I wouldn't be where I am now without her."
When Hughes started his own glass-blowing business, he didn't have a specialty.
"I was making anything anyone wanted me to. A lot of animals, things like that. I also really got into making creatures from 'Lord of the Rings.' In college I'd fallen in love with those books. Making them taught me to pay attention to details."
In 1980 his work took a significant turn.
"I was living near Boone, off the Blue Ridge Parkway. One day I was bored and went out for a walk. I kept seeing these little specks of pink in a field. I got up to one and realized it was a pink lady slipper," he recalled. "I'd heard of them through the years, but I'd never actually seen one. There were about 200 of them in this field, and I was enthralled. It was one of those experiences where you know something special is going on."
His reaction? "I've got to make one of these."
The field was so close to his studio he was able to work on the piece then run outside to compare it with the real thing.
"I'd go back and forth, from the studio to the field, especially for the blossom. That was the hardest part. I was never a big lover of wildflowers growing up, but there was something about doing them in glass, a combination of the medium and the subject matter."
He'd found a niche that has carried him for three decades.
"I liked it from a professional standpoint, of giving me a focus, I was able to specialize and concentrate in one direction," he said. "That, for me, was when my work really became worthwhile."
He now makes 50 varieties of wildflowers, using the method called lampworking, which employs a small torch as opposed to a blast furnace for greater precision.
"I use borosilicate glass, the same kind used in Pyrex cookware and laboratory glass. It's stronger than it looks."
Strength is key, he said.
"I'm always trying to balance the delicacy of the appearance of flowers with the fragility of the glass. I want them to look delicate but not be too fragile. For me to make a salable product for someone's home, I have to beef them up, give them structural integrity. I have wildflowers on steroids."
Customers are always relieved to hear that Hughes can generally repair any piece that is broken.
"I repair about four to seven pieces a year," he said. "After 36 years that's a pretty good record. I don't want someone to feel they lost a piece of art because it slipped out of their hands."
As beefed up as the flowers are, Hughes prefers not to ship them, but he will.
"I don't work with a lot of galleries primarily for that reason," he said. "It takes so much time to pack them up."
Among his dozens of creations, mountain wildflowers, any type of orchid and the state flower of dogwood are consistently popular. He also makes free-form blown ornaments for the holidays and table pieces that involve clusters of flowers.
"One of the things that has kept me in business through the years is I make an art form that's very collectible," Hughes said. "Most people who enjoy flowers, once they buy one, more often than not they're going to buy another down the line. Dozens of people have a few pieces, and I have five collectors with over 30 pieces. They really have been my patrons. It's a great feeling to know that these works are well taken care of and will possibly be around for a long time."
Hughes adds flower to his collection based on their appearances, but he does study up on the flower itself. "As my experience grows, so does my knowledge base. But I tell people right off the bat, I know a lot more about flowers than I used to, but I'm no expert. I'm not the person you want to take out on the nature walk."
Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.