Entrepreneurs

How a mythical backwoods monster saved a struggling West Virginia glass company

MILTON, W.Va. — Late last summer, a family-owned firm of artisanal glassmakers, which for more than 100 years has produced vibrant, decorative handblown glass using traditional methods, emerged from a months-long closure brought on by the pandemic with a surprising notion for getting back into business.

Blenko Glass Company would partner with a West Virginia artist on immortalizing the mythical Flatwoods Monster, Big Foot’s Appalachian cousin, that has become part of the fabric of regional folklore.

The first alleged sighting of the “green monster” occurred in the town of Flatwoods in 1952, when a group of locals reported seeing a giant floating creature with a spade-shaped head, claw-like hands and a metal “dress,” emitting a toxic mist or odor. In recent years the legend has inspired a museum, festival and tchotchkes sold at the local gas station.

Designer and illustrator Liz Pavlovic visited Blenko’s factory and flipped through old catalogues, looking for inspiration to pair with Pavlovic’s own playful renderings of this and other popular cryptids they sell on prints, stickers and magnets. Pavlovic submitted a sketch that captured the creature’s spooky aesthetic, right down to its beady eyes and the fabric-like swirls of its outfit.

The two-piece, 16.5-inch tall figurine, in the company’s signature clover green and ruby red colors, was the first in a planned series of decorative cryptid sculptures. The roughly 800 monsters in the limited-run series were priced at $129 — more expensive than most of Blenko’s products, including its water bottles ($53), small bowls ($33) and suncatchers ($16-18).

Yet the monsters turned out to be hugely popular among millennials, helping to propel the company to its most profitable year in two decades.

“It was a pretty good seller,” said master craftsman Daniel Chapman, a 40-year “lifer” at Blenko who used local wood and a mallet and a chisel to hand-carve the mold used to cast the creature. “I thought it was a pretty nice-looking piece myself.”

The line of monsters helped the fourth-generation company weather a pandemic that closed tens of thousands of other small businesses across the country.

Alex Burdette, a recent hire at Blenko who first reached out to Pavlovic on Instagram, credits the company’s willingness to pair the enterprising spirit of young creatives with institutional knowledge inside its factory.

“I’m personally a huge fan of Liz, and I said, ‘I have an idea,’ ” Burdette said. “These old men there wouldn’t have known what an Instagram is.”

Bryson Cutler, the company’s marketing and accounting lead, said the monster was a “home run” in selling glass directly to online consumers and appealing to a younger customer base that might previously have associated handblown glass with a bygone era.

“We’re trying to get away from it being our grandmother’s glass,” he said.

Where exactly the enthusiasm for cryptids has come from in recent years — inspiring T-shirts, home decor, jewelry and more — Pavlovic can only speculate.

“People are maybe getting into what makes the state unique and our folklore,” combined with paranormal communities and those into ghost hunting, the designer said. “Other than that, it’s still somewhat of a mystery.”

The success of the monsters makes for a surprising chapter in Blenko’s history.

When the lockdown began in March last year, workers at Blenko turned down the fires as low as possible so the liquid glass inside the furnace would not harden. Keeping them burning was a way of saying they would be back soon.

The company furloughed all 48 employees with pay ahead of a state-ordered shutdown, then laid everyone but the watchmen off a week later. One month on unemployment turned into two.

“I couldn’t sleep at night,” said Randy Rider, who has worked in the hot shop, where the glass is made, for four decades.

But in June, Blenko slowly began to reopen, and by August, the company had hired back most of its workers, buoyed by a roughly $250,000 loan issued through the Paycheck Protection Program.

The reopening — and the loan — predate the partnership with Pavlovic, but Cutler says the monster project was critical “in the sense that it opened up Blenko to a younger audience” and helped prove viable their idea to do a limited “drop” release instead of selling items in catalogues.

In the hot shop, the workers do not wear masks. Sometimes two or three share a blowpipe in the glassmaking process, so they tried using a rubber tip, removing it before passing it to the next person. Ultimately, it proved to be too unwieldy.

How a mythical backwoods monster saved a struggling West Virginia glass company

David Layne, right, 50, holds a wooden mold as glass blower Charlie Chafin, 59, creates a glass mushroom by blowing the molten glass to the shape of the mold. Blenko Glass has been in business for the past 128 years. It is well known for its handblown glass products.

How a mythical backwoods monster saved a struggling West Virginia glass company

A glass blower’s tools sit on a tray in the hot shop.

How a mythical backwoods monster saved a struggling West Virginia glass company

Alex Burdette, 27, shapes a ball of molten glass as he practices his glass blowing skills after work. (Photos by Ty Wright for The Washington Post)

TOP: David Layne, right, 50, holds a wooden mold as glass blower Charlie Chafin, 59, creates a glass mushroom by blowing the molten glass to the shape of the mold. Blenko Glass has been in business for the past 128 years. It is well known for its handblown glass products. BOTTOM LEFT: A glass blower’s tools sit on a tray in the hot shop. BOTTOM RIGHT: Alex Burdette, 27, shapes a ball of molten glass as he practices his glass blowing skills after work. (Photos by Ty Wright for The Washington Post)

They have had several scares, and those who might have been exposed to the virus while at church or elsewhere stayed at home for two weeks just in case. Some of the guys have part-time jobs outside Blenko. But they have counted no positive cases on-site, and by now most of the workers have been vaccinated.

“All of us, we had to keep Blenko going. We protected everybody,” said Charlie Chafin, who works in the hot shop with his son, Justin. “This is a family.”

Still, Blenko’s long-term prospects remain limited by the economics of artisanal glassmaking and the challenges of finding skilled labor.

“If we don’t have glass blowers,” Cutler said, “we don’t have a business.”

West Virginia was once home to more than 50 glass factories, productions employing thousands that benefited from the area’s rich deposits of national gas and silica sand, the key ingredient in glassmaking.

Blenko, founded in 1893, originally produced flat glass for windows, including stained glass at New York City’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral and in the Space Window at Washington National Cathedral in Washington. As most of West Virginia’s artisanal glass operations shuttered during the 20th century, Blenko turned its attention to decorative glass sold in showrooms. Over the past decade, though, the company has struggled to stay afloat.

In 2011, it emerged from bankruptcy and in recent years, launched a new marketing plan, focusing on social media engagement and high-quality promotional videos, Cutler said, with a core demographic of mid- to high-income women, between 30 and 50 years old.

It brought in a team of designers in late 2017, Emma Walters and Andrew Shaffer, who revived some old pieces and reimagined new ones and generally drummed up excitement about new blood at the factory. Blenko had not had an in-house designer in decades. Still, Walters said, the future felt uncertain.

“We were always on that brink when we were there. It was a slow growth,” Walters said. But, she added, “they have an incredible brand, an incredible following.”

The couple parted ways with Blenko in March 2020.

Blenko provides no health or retirement benefits and has struggled for years to recruit and maintain young workers. Cutler said the company is working with brokers to begin pricing health insurance premiums.

“At this point we have sent off several versions of employee census data and are awaiting the quotes. We are hoping to have insurance plans in place within a few months — certainly by the end of the year,” he said.

Most new workers start out at $12 an hour and will work in helper roles for years before they will land the most coveted positions like finisher, who attaches handles and makes other final touches, and blowers.

The company considered starting an apprenticeship program with a nearby trade school, but it cannot take on more than a handful of trainees at a time, making a long-term partnership difficult.

“There’s not an industry here waiting for them,” said Dean Six, Blenko’s vice president.

But the partnership with Pavlovic will continue, and the designer has already sent Blenko other sci-fi ideas.

The company will likely also make a piece honoring Mothman, probably the most West Virginia cryptid and the subject of the 2002 Richard Gere movie “The Mothman Prophecies.”

(Blenko made the red eyes for the Mothman statue in Point Pleasant, W. Va.)

“They said, ‘Send us whatever you want to,’ ” Pavlovic said. “They made it really easy and fun.”

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