Shattered glass, sculpted recovery
Epiphany co-owners re-think, re-work business after bike accident
Glass artists April Wagner and Jason Ruff, co-owners of Epiphany Studios in Pontiac, were forced to rethink their business model after Wagner was hit by a car while riding her bicycle.
Photo: Dustin Walsh
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April Wagner didn't feel the crash when a car slammed her at 35 miles an hour as she biked down Franklin Road. The co-owner of Pontiac's Epiphany Studios woke up in a hospital room with a closed-head injury, six broken ribs, a punctured lung and shattered occipital bones in her face.
“It was a nice spring day; I was doing the green thing, cycling instead of driving. I spent almost a full year bedridden. I had to re-learn how to stand while glassblowing, had to rethink everything I do in my business,” said Wagner, 36.
The 2007 collision and consequent recovery prompted Wagner and partner Jason Ruff, 39, to reinvent their business model. She could only focus a few hours a day, amid a rigorous therapy schedule; then came the economic storm.
Ruff and Wagner shifted from making affordable paperweights and vases to producing high-end pieces, reduced their staff from six full-time employees to just two part-timers and targeted private buyers and corporate leaders instead of galleries and wholesalers. A single piece can run up to $80,000.
Ruff said it was love at first sight when, in 1992, he worked with Wagner in a glassblowing class taught by Herb Babcock, head of the glass department at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit.
Within a year, they were working and living together because glassblowing often involves teamwork. They incorporated the name Epiphany Studios, and, in 1997 invested $1 million to open a 4,000-square-foot home/studio on the Southwest edge of Pontiac. They commissioned the contractor who built studios for glass masters like Dale Chihuly, Lino Tagliapietra and institutions like the Corning Museum of Glass to build their furnace.
With marketing and around-the-clock commitment Epiphany Glass pumped out at least 100 works a month to galleries across North America. A full-time shipping clerk sent installations to customers like Strategic Staffing Solutions, Pfizer Inc., even the former Russian President Vladimir Putin. Wagner's creative skills and business acumen earned her a place in Crain's Detroit Business' 2005 class of 40 under 40, when annual sales were $300,000 and trending toward $600,000. Then, everything turned upside down.
When Wagner was hit, friends rallied to support the couple, who played an active role in Pontiac's culture. Tim Travis, owner of Pontiac's Goldner Walsh Nursery, showed up to mow the lawn; others helped ship glass products and taught Ruff accounting skills.
“We used up all our reserves, but we learned to apply time to optimum value,” Ruff said. Their business and collaborative efforts survived, but their marriage collapsed in January.
Gift of the present
Wagner works limited hours because her battered body can withstand only four hours of work at a time. To compensate, she focuses on pieces that produce the maximum price for time invested.
“The gallery business went kaput with the recession,” she said. All items must be purchased in advance, no consignment or 30-day net. “We couldn't afford time and money to fly to California or Illinois to collect a $500 invoice. If we had limited energy to create pieces, we could better apply our talents to bigger, more elaborate pieces that clients demand.”
Wagner and Ruff began creating their own lines of work, collaborating on process. He makes lovely, off-center wine decanters priced at $150, and clay and glass vases at $4,000 and up. She builds installations of winged glass pieces at $5,000 or more.
They expect revenue to hit $150,000 this year.
“Glass is very popular with collectors of all income levels,” said Ferdinand Hampson, 37-year owner of the Habatat Galleries in Royal Oak, who — almost 30 years ago — helped launch Michigan Glass Month to highlight local glass artisans and galleries. “The most successful artists are able to market out of the state, even out of the country so they aren't bound by economic trends locally.”
Babcock, a longtime CCS professor, says the legion of successful glass artists in Southeast Michigan keeps growing, while the range of income varies widely. Among the local leaders are Albert Young, Michigan Hot Glass Workshop of Detroit; Andrew and Robert Madvin, Axiom Glass of Detroit; Chris and Michelle Plucinsky, Furnace Design Studio and Glass Academy of Dearborn; Janet Kelman of Ann Arbor; and Annette Baron, Baron Glassworks of Ypsilanti.
“April and Jason have a wonderful business format,” Babcock said. “They are adept at promotion and produce a beautiful line of work.”
Babcock thinks Ruff's new line of pottery and glass vases is innovative. Wagner's glass wall sculptures show high levels of technical accomplishment. Quality is precarious, he noted, because one flaw in a series of steps means scrapping the whole piece.
Andrew Madvin, co-owner of Axiom, said Ruff and Wagner are open to business trades. Collaboration is the name of the game among seasoned glassblowers.
“I've worked out of their studio, and they have recently worked out of mine,” Madvin said. “In the industry we're in, it is such a niche that we are better off sticking together than competing against one another.”
If art is completed in a studio, sometimes in the wee hours of the morning, marketing art requires visibility at prime time. Wagner serves on the Founders Junior Council of the Detroit Institute of Arts and the CCS alumni board.
“I met April at a Junior Council event and loved her enthusiasm for art. She invited me to her studio, where I watched her and Jason blow glass. I knew I had to have a piece of hers above my fireplace,” said Bill Burdette, partner at the Detroit law firm Boyle Burdette.
“She is very beautiful and yet tougher than nails. She is absolutely focused on making art and supporting the arts. She came to my house, completed numerous sketches and completed what I think is the finest piece she's ever done,” Burdette adds. He loves to chill out after work with a glass of wine, some cheese and hot jazz, watching the 100-plus pieces of glass change colors as the sun sets.
Such compliments excite the creative energy Wagner manifests in major proportions. She advises other artists to study business and marketing books, to step out of their studios and make themselves known to the broader arts community.
“Jason and I are big supporters of handmade art. People might say art is elitist but it is the living, breathing embodiment of culture. When someone buys your art they buy a piece of you. It is primal,” she said.
For more on Epiphany, go to epiphanyglass.com.