‘Something to make you smile’: How Dearborn’s Glass Academy got creative to reach a new audience

When life gives you lemons, as the saying goes, you make lemonade.

But what are you supposed to do with the coronavirus?

Well, if you’re like the Glass Academy in Dearborn, you get creative. You make art.

At the beginning of the pandemic, with classes and events halted because of COVID-19, “the glass shop was still running. You're still paying your energy costs, for the furnace. The glass is still hot,” says Michelle Plucinsky, co-owner and co-founder of the Glass Academy.

“So we started having our dinners in there and then just started going around, playing with new ideas, working with the glass and experimenting. So as the days clicked by — the COVID virus itself is actually really pretty, it's kind of a unique shape. It's kind of interesting. So we made glass COVID sculptures.”

As the product pages for the COVID sculptures state, their purpose isn’t to make light of a serious situation. But an artist’s role is to document, to shed beauty and light on the moments that shape our culture — even the ugly ones. Plus, once a sculpture is purchased, you can do with it whatever you want. Take your frustrations out and smash the virus against a wall even.

And if purchased in 2020, throwing a COVID sculpture at the wall wasn’t just throwing money away.

Coronavirus-inspired glassware from the Glass Academy“We knew after 2007 [and the recession] how hard something like this can be for a small business. So we charged $75 a piece with $25 straight-up going to a small business or nonprofit in our neighborhood, someone we worked with or someone who we knew their cash flow was being impacted,” Plucinsky says.

“So people bought ‘em for $75. Every week, we started doing a live show and we would announce the charity or the donation that we were giving to. We ended up giving about $9,000 to charity and small businesses with the sale of this little COVID sculpture.”

‘The Gathering Point’

The live shows that the COVID sculptures — and, technically, the virus itself — have helped to create illustrate the ways in which the Glass Academy has been able to pivot in these times of crisis, to create new ways to reach their audience. Prior to the pandemic, the Glass Academy earned around 50 percent of its revenue from classes, events, and other experiential-based packages. The other 50 percent was made from the sales of Plucinsky and husband Chris Nordin’s own artwork. Plucinsky and Nordin first opened the Glass Academy in Dearborn in 2004.

In 2019, the couple set a goal to alter the business model a bit, placing more of an emphasis on the experiences that they offer. The goal, Plucinsky says, was to grow the experience-based side of the business to account for two-thirds of the company’s revenue. And then came 2020.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the Glass academy to shut down their classes that March. They wouldn’t begin again until September, limiting capacity to just four people per class, at least half of what a typical class would have. 

The informal Facebook videos evolved to become a weekly event: The Gathering Point. Each Tuesday, from 6 to 8 p.m., the Glass Academy broadcasts live on Facebook and YouTube, providing glass blowing demonstrations and showcasing the pieces that they can then turn around and sell. The events have grown in popularity, garnering thousands of views for each one.

“So another thing that happened in the last year was that every venue that we go to was canceled. How we would make our money was we take our mobile unit and we go places. We were the glassblowers at Cedar Point, we were the glassblowers at the Renaissance Festival. So all those events are exposure for us, and none of those happened,” Plucinsky says.

“So basically, when we're at Renaissance, it's the same idea. But what’s happening this time is that now I have a camera. And instead of being on stage and looking at the audience and talking with them, we're conversing with people on Facebook, and we're just getting right up in the action.”

The Glass Academy began livestreaming glass blowing demonstrations over the course of the pandemic

‘Something to make you smile’

The shutdowns allowed Plucinsky and Nordin the time to experiment with their own line of products, à la the COVID sculptures or a line of glass slugs, a riff on everyone feeling a little sluggish over the course of these pandemic shutdowns.

“They kind of became a symbolic little item for us. They’re super cute. The eyes utilize this Italian-style technique so it's an ode to our craftsmanship. It was something challenging and fun for us to make but affordable for our customer. And something we felt significant,” Plucinsky says.

“There were a lot of times in this period where you needed something to make you smile.”

“There were a lot of times in this period where you needed something to make you smile,” Plucinsky says.
They’re starting to open up classes a little bit. While capacity restrictions remain in place, they’ll be adding Sunday classes in April.

2020 also altered the Glass Academy’s plans for their gallery, Batch Gallery. In 2019, Plucinsky had plans to rebrand the gallery with a new logo, color scheme — the works. There seemed to be a misconception that the gallery sold student-made artwork. But Batch Gallery exists to sell Plucinsky and Nordin’s own original pieces, something that the Gathering Point livestreams have helped with over the last year, too.

Over the course of the pandemic, the Glass Academy has taken the opportunity to officially rebrand the Batch Gallery. It’s a slightly smaller but more focused space. They’re adding new products like candles, puzzles, and other items that complement Plucinsky and Nordin’s own glass pieces and sculptures. They’ll eventually add items from other local artists, too.

While a celebration will be held at a later date, the new Batch Gallery has opened.

“We decided to have a gallery that featured, year-round, all of our pieces. So now it's a smaller, more permanent space that matches our website,” Plucinsky says.

“In 2020, we weren't able to open up with a grand opening or anything like that or do a customer appreciation event in the summer. But what we started doing with COVID, what happened with our livestreaming shows: now we sell internationally and 50 percent of our market is outside of Michigan. That's pretty cool. So Batch Gallery becomes the place to buy inside the Glass Academy.”

The Glass Academy and Batch Gallery are located at 25311 Trowbridge St. in Dearborn.

Read more articles by MJ Galbraith.

MJ Galbraith is a writer and musician living in Detroit. Follow him on Twitter @mikegalbraith.