I met Penny back in the early 2000’s when I was working in the gallery at The Clay Studio in Philadelphia. She was a recent Alfred graduate who had studied both ceramics & glass, receiving her BFA in 2000. She was coming to Philly straight from an artist residency at Watershed, which provided her with studio space, a place to live, & covered basic expenses. She was looking to find a shared art community & studio space/time to continue to develop her ceramic & glass work. She volunteered in the gallery for me at The Clay Studio & also assisted our class studio technician in exchange for work space. Rakov states, “At the time, I was interested in making work that you live with. What I really loved about ceramics was how you interacted with it. I loved the simplicity of how something could just be beautiful & part of your daily life.” She worked on her pottery at The Clay Studio & also blew glass at Hot Soup (a glass studio/school in Philly) in exchange for teaching classes there.
Working in glass soon became too expensive & she felt her glass skills needed to develop further. According to Rakov, “At that point, I had never been as good in glass as I was in ceramics. So I applied to Tyler School of Art as a glass person w/ ceramic slides.” She was accepted in the glass department and paid for her tuition by teaching ceramic classes there. Her work at this time moved from being functional to more sculptural. She was only given 2 hours in the hot shop & the rest of the day she worked in her studio. She says, “I had not pulled cane [long strips of colored glass] before I got there. I loved color & I had intended on making functional glass objects in the same vain as making ceramic objects for the home. But it was just not as fun, or maybe I just was not as good at it. I also felt uncomfortable w/ all the judgment I was getting. When you blow glass, you fail a lot in public. Cane pulling wasn’t as hard for everybody & I could work w/ it. I could work w/ the scraps and build something out of it & make the color worth it. I could cut into it & fuze it back together & it could at least be interesting so [from there] I really just worked w/ pattern & color.”
She manipulated the pulled cane to create large color fields in a variety of forms. She states, “Color has a huge amount of information. If we look at red & green we think of Christmas; red and yellow -McDonalds. There are certain color combinations that have so much information, so I was thinking a lot about color combinations & what kind of information they conveyed. Conceptually I was thinking about things like lobster buoys, pharmaceuticals, etc. and how all those things are color coded so that they are instantly recognizable. I was playing w/ color combos & what I thought this combo would mean to me personally. So I made different fields of color, different forms of fields of color: some were flat, some were huge bundles, some were long troughs w/ scattered cane. Mostly what that was about for me was just having lots and lots of cane & being able to reassemble it and make something else out of it.” We asked if she was even thinking of making jewelry at the time. According to Penny, “I got requests for jewelry but I thought ‘how many crafts should I be making’. I was coming from an anti selling point at school & at the time, I bristled at the requests I got.”
After graduating w/ her MFA, her thinking began to shift. In early 2004 we opened Art Star & Penny had recently finished up at Tyler & was beginning to sell her work. We consigned some small, brightly colored “pocket sculptures”, which were small circles of glass. Each piece was visually striking & unique. Each one was layered with circles & dots of different colored glass, some raised & bubbling from the surface. They were reminiscent of sea creatures or something you’d view under a microscope or find in a Petri dish. Customers were mesmerized by them & began to ask if the artist would make them into brooches or necklaces. We approached Penny about this & the seed for her soon to be small business, Spot On Designs, a production glass jewelry company, was planted. She recalls, “You said, ‘Penny, we’ll actually sell this & sell it for more money if you’d put a pin back on it.’ We watched as Penny’s glass pieces evolved from a chain passed through a hole in the glass sculpture to being professionally set in sterling silver. Today Spot On Designs creates not only necklaces, but also rings, earrings, & cuff links in a variety of styles, colors, patterns & settings. Because each piece is handmade, no two are alike.
Penny’s studio is in the Crane building, an old plumbing warehouse that has been renovated to provide artist studio space & also houses the Icebox gallery space amongst others. Her walls & work tables are lined w/ hundreds of glass tubes in a vast array of colors. Her studio is where she starts to get creative with the glass canes that she has pulled & begins to play around w/ the colors to create patterns. She does this by bundling the glass strips together to see how they look. She says, “I will think of the colored canes that I’ve made & meditate on that, reacting to the stock that I have. I’ll mess around w/ the canes together & then bundle them. I’ll work w/ a specific color scheme that has been haunting me or that I think that I am missing from my collection or that I think will be popular with my customers”.
We were both amazed at how many steps were involved in the making of one piece (at least 7 steps) & were curious how she keeps her pricing so affordable. Penny reassured us that though it is a long, complicated process, she doesn’t make each piece one at a time. The canes that she pulls in the hot shop will be used for many finished pieces. She might not use them all right away, but she stores them in her studio until she can find a piece that they work w/. None of her materials are wasted. She states, “I couldn’t retail them for a price people couldn’t pay. If these prices get me to the next level [in my business] then it is okay – I can always raise them later. I love my customers, I really do & I want them to think that they bought something very special that will not disappoint them.” Plus, it will keep her customers coming back. Seeing her jewelry on a happy customer is her favorite part. She recalls,“There was this woman last year at Artstcape that purchased a piece that honestly, I didn’t like very much. Once she put it on I was like, that’s gorgeous!” This is when Penny feels her work is finally finished.
You can find Penny’s work in galleries & shops across the country. Visit her website for a complete list of shops that stock her work. Penny also does around 12 craft shows each year, including our own Art Star Craft Bazaar. And of course, you can find her work at Art Star year round!
by Megan Brewster