I arrived at the behemoth South Philadelphia Bok Building on a freezing cold afternoon. I weaved my way through the echoing halls, down into the bowels of the old school building. Tucked away in a corner is a lively glass blowing shop, Remark Glass. There were machines whirring, glass clinking, and employees busy at work.
I found my way to the office situated caddy corner to the studio. I stepped into its glorious chaos--the kind only art studios can have--with shelves of glass work lining the walls and papers spread out on the two desks. I was there to meet Rebecca Davies, co-founder and owner of the business. She settled into her desk chair and I pulled out my long list of questions about opening shop, asking for help, and thriving as a creative entrepreneur in Philly.
Rebecca quickly recounted her personal history; she received an undergrad from Smith College and then graduated from UArts with a Masters in Fine Arts in 2011. Her story hinted at a level of ambition; seeking out opportunities for the advancement of her creative endeavors at every turn. This doggedness led her straight to the Corzo Center early in her post-grad experience. Of Corzo, she says: “ I would go to their workshops, training programs…I’m definitely a poster child; my relationship with Corzo is about ten years now.”
In 2015, she left her job as a glass production manager at a blown glass and lighting company to start her own business. She and her husband soon welcomed a baby and Rebecca realized that she needed more flexibility and control in her career to continue working. She and her partner Danielle Ruttenberg applied for and received a Corzo small business grant to help them move into their studio and develop their line of recycled products.
Rebecca walked me through their operation, explaining that their “process is almost a reinvented way of blowing glass.” They began the project using recycled glass initially because it was an easily available resource, but when they began to learn about the energy waste of glasswork, their process became one of their core principles. Most studios have a furnace filled with liquid glass running 24/7. At Remark, they send bottles up in the oven in the morning and blow them one at a time. At the end of the day, they shut everything off. Not only are using recycled material, they are utilizing an energy-saving strategy to rework them. Major eco-friendly win.
Rebecca shared that she had to learn a lot of lessons the hard way, namely that she can’t make the sale, handle the negotiations, manage the staff, handle the upkeep of the shop, and do the creative work as well. “It means I don’t do as much glasswork as I used to,” Rebecca explained. She offered advice for emerging entrepreneurs as well, specifically in Philadelphia, “Network and use your resources. Find your mentors and then use your mentors. ” She talked about utilizing different programs (Corzo, the Enterprise Center, Women’s Opportunity Resource Center are a few of her favorites) for different goals, as well as the importance of asking for help. She explained that, in a smaller city like Philadelphia, it is easy to find people who want to help you.
Rebecca’s tenacity was evident as she candidly shared details about navigating through a number of trial and error experiences. I settled in to ask her more about maneuvering the winding landscape of creative entrepreneurship.
Corzo: You received a Corzo small business grant. What were you able to achieve with the grant?
Rebecca: Ultimately, we started the business. I partnered, at that same time, with my business partner Danielle. We relocated two studios down into this space. We started and managed the product line. By the end of the grant cycle, we had acquired all of the equipment to run our own hot shop. We had gone from renting time at studios that were accessible to us to actually being self-sustained here.
C: How does what you are doing now relate or differ from your creative degree?
R: I was a Master’s student so I had already completed one degree. For me, at some point I realized that it was going to take more than Fine Arts. I’m a child of the recession. I graduated with my undergrad right when the economy collapsed and watching people with medical degrees go work on farms and figure out how to live, if they couldn’t go home. Rarely did we actually go into the fields we thought we were going to go into. So we are a little scrappy. Being desperate means you have to solve these kinds of problems.
Having my own mission for Fine Arts and making a painting for the sake of making a painting that I thought was valuable, that doesn’t lead to a career unless it’s one of the those rockstar people, which does happen. But it was never going to be me. So if you want to do what you’re dreaming to do, you need to drive to do it. It’s hard.
In order to be viable in this economy, you have to be a part of it. Either as an employee, but ultimately as an employee, my value is going to cap. I’m usually the only woman on the floor, in a glass studio or in a fabrication studio and I almost always get offered a job as an assistant first.
Having been out of school for almost ten years and I can’t say that I’m doing better off but at least I know that I have the control of that career. A resource like the Corzo Center is teaching you how to take that control and take steps with that control, even if it’s your side gig. Even if you have an idea and you want to see it play out.
C: Remark’s use of recycled glass was born out of necessity but ended up being a much more clever way to work. Is having an eco-friendly operation something that is important to you?
R: Absolutely. We genuinely are interested in that. We are younger business owners, we live sustainable lives. We eat organically, we are co-op members. We really are those people. We really care deeply about this. And now we are spokespeople for waste reduction in Philadelphia.
[Glass] is everywhere, it’s such a part of our lives and rarely ever recycled in the way that we all imagine. It just doesn’t happen. For lots of reasons, mainly contamination. But we can say, “no, we grabbed those bottles from the bar, the labels were still on them, we knew the brand, we can guarantee it was glass,” which is the biggest problem with glass reuse and recycling nationwide and beyond. We clean it, so it’s clean enough for us to use it. We can guarantee it’s the right material and we just use it like it was supposed to be used.
C: So you work with restaurants to pick up their glass?
R: Yeah, absolutely. Individuals and small businesses. [With] small businesses, we are usually like, “we need a specific color. Oh, you guys are serving Bombay Sapphire, we love that glass. How much do you use? Would you be willing to save it for me? And then please just email me when there’s too much for your own ability to stock here for me and we’ll come get it.”
Individuals are more willing and able to come down here. They just bring it here to the shelving outside. Especially the tenants in the building. We find that they’ll just stand and sort it out all themselves. As soon as they realize that there is a use for it, their perspective changes so much that they are very happy to do that for us.
C: What are you doing now? What are the big projects you are working on?
R: We are doing some retail at the Flower Show so that’s on my deadline. We have a show up right now at a gallery called Show of Hands on Pine Street. We have a show going up at a place called the Cosmopolitan Club in Rittenhouse, that’s within the next week or so. We just finished a project that was lighting for a restaurant called Ether in Fishtown.
At the end of our conversation I exited the cozy office, walking past two towering shelves filled with assorted glass bottles and containers donated from Bok tenants. I couldn’t help but think about the ecosystem that Rebecca and Danielle had created for themselves, working with restaurants, neighbors, and friends to melt down the old to create the new. These are two women creatives forging a new professional path using fire and a whole lot of old beer bottles.