By Jess Wellar

As an avid viewer of the popular glass-blowing competition TV series “Blown Away,” I jumped at the chance to interview our artist of the month, Jim Byrnes, a local glass blower from Howard. But Byrnes good-naturedly set me straight before we got too far along in our interview.

“That Netflix show is one of those things that has put glass blowing on people’s radar,” he chuckles. “But I don’t use a furnace. I use my torch to melt the glass. On ‘Blown Away,’ that is known as furnace glass blowing or hot glass; my expertise is in flame working, as I melt the pre-made tubes and shape them.”

Byrnes has had a remarkable career, from scientific glassblowing to crafting exquisite Christmas ornaments and more. He also taught at the distinguished Corning Museum of Glass in New York for many years. Beyond his humble facade, he is a master of a craft that requires both precision and patience.

A New Jersey native, Byrnes began his career when he chanced upon an apprenticeship opportunity for a scientific glassblower while reading the newspaper classifieds section one day. Little did he know his apprenticeship would ignite a lifelong passion.

Byrnes’s early career took him into the world of scientific glassblowing, where he meticulously crafted glass laboratory items, primarily instruments used for measuring viscosity. After three decades in that field, though, he felt the pull to do something different.

“I started blowing glass in 1979 in New Jersey, eventually moving up to this area in ’84 to work at what was then known as Supelco in Pleasant Gap,” Byrnes remembers. “In 1990, I moved to Cannon Instrument Co. in State College. It was during this time that I also began nurturing a side business creating Christmas ornaments and other items for more of a creative outlet.”

His artistry extends beyond ornaments, encompassing perfume bottles, vases, wine glasses, and more. In 2009, he finally made the leap to becoming self-employed, a pursuit he thoroughly enjoyed until the COVID pandemic shut down many craft venues. Byrnes became a sawyer at a local lumber mill but still makes time to be in his studio—an extension of his garage—where the alchemy of glass and flame comes to life after he gets home from his day job.

“My creativity is not dictated by routine but rather a quest for spontaneity,” he explains. “I try to go out to my shop and make one or two ornaments before I call it a day, so I’m still dedicating six to eight hours per week to my craft.

“It’s almost like therapy,” he adds. “No one is telling me I have to make the same thing over again, and I like to design on the fly and just see how things evolve.”

Byrnes’ work has been recognized and celebrated in various avenues. His pieces have graced the shelves of the Corning Museum of Glass, and he even taught at this prestigious institution for twelve years. In a heartfelt gesture following the tragedy of 9/11, he created a commemorative art piece, earning a letter from the White House. His talents were further acknowledged when the Palmer Art Museum commissioned him to make the museum’s ornament of the year in 2005, and he has been featured in Victorian Homes magazine.

However, his humility prevents him from identifying strictly as an artist. He prefers to be called an artisan, reflecting his commitment to craftsmanship.

“I like the scale and design possibilities of ornaments. The high art couldn’t be relied upon to pay the bills, and I never saw myself as an artist anyway,” Byrnes notes frankly. “I’m most comfortable being called an artisan or craftsman. The work is dynamic, as you can imagine. You’re dealing with flowing, melting glass. That dynamic nature has kept it interesting for me all these years.”

For those contemplating the path of glassblowing, Byrnes advises patience and persistence.

“The learning curve can be frustrating,” he warns, “but if you do something often enough, you get better at it.

“I owe a lot of gratitude to my mentor, Charlie Kuhles, who took me under his wing and taught me the art of scientific glassblowing,” Byrnes continues. “Charlie played a pivotal role in shaping my career and nurturing my passion for craftsmanship.”

Where to Admire Jim Byrnes’s Work

These festive ornaments can be found year-round at the Gallery Shop in Lemont. If you’re looking to meet Byrnes in person and explore his artistry, he’ll be at the Mifflinburg Christkindl Market Dec. 14-16. The Centre County Historical Museum in Bellefonte will also showcase his ornaments until year-end. T&G

Jess Wellar is a freelance writer who lives in Bellefonte.

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