For some, electing to spend day after day locked in a room with a behemoth of a furnace habitually burning at roughly 21,000 degrees would be the worst form of punishment imaginable, but the Riley brothers would not dream of doing anything else.
Charles Riley started blowing glass 14 years ago after deciding to drop out of business school and pursue his artistic calling. Three years later, his brother, Michael, followed suit, and today they own Riley Art Glass Studio at 710 W. Grand Ave.
“The creation process really (caught my eye). I was always building things and doing things like that. … Honestly, it came down to a bit of jealousy. I thought if he could do it, so could I,” Michael said.
It is the only glass blowing studio in Hot Springs, and the Rileys offer live morning demonstrations Tuesdays through Saturdays.
The pair grew up in a home that fostered their creative nature. As boys, both were active in the community theater and fond of oil painting. All of that creativity eventually led Charles to Penland school of craft where he learned the Venetian style of glass blowing, a method widely practiced in Murano, Italy.
“I never saw any of this stuff until I got to college, then I was hooked instantly,” Charles said. The first time he saw glass blowing, he could not help but keep asking questions. That experience later inspired him to open a live studio.
They started out working late nights and early mornings in their studio in the county, but countless requests to observe their work, paired with Charles’ first encounter with glass blowing, led them to open their studio to the public. They were also able to include a gallery at the new location.
Initially, they intended to stay open a few weeks at most, but they immediately realized the days of working in the dead of night were over. That first week they opened to the public there was someone in their studio observing every single day, without fail.
“We decided we couldn’t just go back to a night shift kind of thing. Glass is like a mystery to most people, so if you watch someone make something and they explain it to you, you’ll learn more in 20 minutes than you will watching videos on YouTube all day,” Charles said.
“Having the opportunity to allow people to see what we do and ask questions was definitely a factor in deciding to make the studio (open to the public),” Michael said.
After a great success in the county, the brothers decided to pack up their 2,400-pound furnace and move within the city limits. Now, they are located in an old fire station off West Grand.
The Riley brothers bought the property just three days after it was listed and began renovations immediately. Their nonstop work paid off, and they were able to be more or less moved in and ready for business as usual toward the beginning of July, according to their website.
“We are proud to be a part of the new revival in the downtown area. For years we have driven into town via ‘uptown,’ and the small businesses popping up all over have transformed it drastically,” Charles said.
“‘Sidetown’ is no different, with all the changes on Ouachita Avenue and Grand Avenue. We are just a tiny drop in the bucket of money invested, but are proud to be a part of it,” he said.
The studio may be new, but the technique and care they put into each piece remains steadfast. The process from start to finish varies on the size of the piece, but they are able to make some of the smaller, simpler pieces in as little as a few hours.
They start with glass that is completely clear and draw it from the furnace to manipulate into various shapes for bowls, platters and even the occasional chandelier.
The glass drawn from the furnace is essentially molten, but Charles prefers to compare it to honey. That makes sense because the consistency seems about the same.
A metal rod is dipped into the honey bucket, gathering just the right amount. The piece is shaped with special tools, powerful lungs and sometimes a bit of spinning. Colored glass is then added to the mix, and the composition begins to come together as a whole.
No two colors react the same once heated and mixed, not even colors that profess to be the same shade. How it reacts all depends on what was used to make the colored glass. Once a glassblower learns how much to mix in and what colors mix well with others, the possibilities are endless.
In the coming months, the brothers will start making holiday appropriate pieces to sell to the public. Before long, they will have pumpkins and tree ornaments scattered about the studio, waiting to become a staple in someone’s holiday decorations.
Despite being featured in galleries across the state, the most notable being Crystal Bridges in Bentonville, the brothers have maintained a very down-to-earth mentality. Their laid-back nature and genuine love for their craft is reflected in the beautiful works of art they create in their studio.