Carey Gustafson is a single mom. She and her 4-year-old daughter, Lucy, live together in a 1920s ranch in Ferndale. That house is also home to Gustafson's glass studio. The basement space, complete with a solder gun, light box, foil tape, and stacks and stacks of glass, is where she creates all the works sold under the name Glass Action.
Gustafson has been working in the medium since she graduated from high school. Back then, she was doing stained glass in homes, "mostly in Bloomfield Hills," she says. She did that work for 15 years before she was laid off and decided she didn't want to go back to working for someone else.
It's a pretty classic story, really.
So she started bartending and making things out of glass in her spare time at home. At the same time she was getting her business off the ground, Handmade Detroit was also just getting started.
"I've kind of always looked at them as twins," she says of her business and the organization that spawned events like the Detroit Urban Craft Fair.
"I would sell my stuff at the rummage sales at the Garden Bowl, and one day Stirling [Silver] came in and just cleaned me out," she says. "He was like 'I'll take one of those and two of those and some of those.'
That big sale to the Detroit rock 'n' roll promoter was something of a turning point for Glass Action, and nowadays Gustafson sells at craft fairs and on Etsy. But she says it's Facebook that really keeps her afloat. She does commissioned work (full disclosure: we own a Glass Action nightlight in our own likeness). Oftentimes it's portraits, in memoriam panels, wedding gifts, cake toppers, or other special pieces. She says she tries to keep her prices reasonable. For example, commissioned to create a keepsake box for a wedding present, she'll keep the price between the $65 and $150, a typical amount to spend on such an occasion. Cake toppers run about $125, and a portrait nightlight is $40 for a single person and $90 for a couple.
Making those special, personalized pieces seems to really touch Gustafson. Recently a news story was done on Glass Action, and she had a rush of messages just minutes after the spot aired. Many of those reaching out to her hoped for special memorial pieces for loved ones who'd passed.
"I got pictures of soldiers and young people," she says. "It was very emotional."
On a lighter note, she also makes Nick Cave, Alice Cooper, and David Bowie nightlights, to the delight of many of her customers.
"People will see them at fairs and say, 'I have to have that Prince nightlight for my bathroom!' It's so weird, but great," she says.
Gustafson gets much of her glass from local sellers. Colors, like skin tones, she purchases online, due to her high-volume needs. But she also hits local estate sales looking for glass.
"I have my eyes and ears out there," she says. Discovering a sale where the owner was also a maker or a crafter is like hitting the jackpot for Gustafson.
"If I find a piece that they made, I have to buy it," she says. "It's like a good luck charm."
While she's usually asked to do single pieces for single clients, Gustafson has been asked to do bigger projects as well. Last year she made all the trophies for the Turkey Trot, and she says there's talk that she'll get the job again this year. She's also done place settings for office Christmas parties, making a lot of similar pieces in different color patterns, which in turn serve as a special gift for each employee to take home.
Gustafson will sell at Ferndale's DIY Street Fair, and after that she'll buckle down for the holiday season when her agenda gets filled up with making personalized gifts, Christmas ornaments, and enough goods to take with her to the few craft fairs that set up shop that time of year. She says it takes her about three weeks of lead time to get a piece down, so it's important she gets all her orders in early.
While she doesn't teach yet, she says that one day she'd like to take on a class at a community college or perhaps an art organization. If her business grows, she'd eventually like to bring on another worker, which would also allow her to focus on painting and pattern making. For now, though, she's content with her one-woman business and the connections it allows her to make. — mt