Tuesday July 31, 2018 | by Olivia Ryder

Mixing glass mosaic with painting, and her personal art practice with public participation, ShardWorx founder Mary Hong discovers a recipe for success

Mary Hong wears many hats - mother, wife, glass artist, painter, entrepreneur, businesswoman - and she seems to switch them effortlessly throughout each action-packed day. A 1980s graduate of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, with an undergraduate degree in interior design, Hong has always been involved in creative pursuits, which she has maintained with an extraordinary energy. She first started working in glass in 1999 in Hawaii with glass-bead and lamp maker Calvin Orr, where she says she learned everything she knows about glass. In a telephone interview with the GLASS Quarterly Hot Sheet, Hong said, "during that time I was entirely content, thinking I’ve found my happy medium" but, she explains, it was not to last. “Major life occurrences always change what you think is going to be forever - and being pregnant with twins will do that. So I put away my glass materials and took care of two babies.” As soon as her twin boys entered preschool, however, she dove back into art, turning from glass to painting, which she saw as a more parent-friendly practice she could do from home: “Nothing broke!” As her painting developed, she began to incorporate other materials to create collages. Eventually, she took out her stored glass beads and shards. “As a glass artist you are inherently expert when it comes to adhesives - I went crazy gluing things. When I pulled out this epoxy resin that had sat in my drawer, I poured it [over some glass elements on a canvas] and went to sleep, and when I woke up I saw my future in front of me.” 

Inspired by the unexpected glistening, overnight transformation of her painting into a richer, more complex work, she now paints in acrylic on traditionally stretched canvases and then adds dimension, depth, and shimmer with glass shards artfully adhered with resin. After doing a few art shows, she found enough collector interest to open her own exhibition space, Mary Hong Gallery, in Grayton, Florida, in 2011. She has since expanded and currently owns three galleries in addition to the Grayton location -- in Nashville, New Orleans, and Destin, Florida. Her work, quickly rendered and often playful, is a reflection of her environment. She is fond of sea-inspired subject matter depicted in cheerful colors, the kind of work you might find on the wall of a beach home. On her website, she organizes her works into simple categories: Abstract, Flight, Flower, Mirror, Other, Sea life, Sea/Landscape, Seasonal, Still Life, and Tree of Life Art, all of them effectively employing glass elements to add depth and texture. 

Mary Hong, Bessie the Cow, 2018. Re-purposed glass, painted framed wooden board. H 49, W 36, D 2 in. courtesy: Modus Photography.
Mary Hong, 12x12 Flowers. Re-purposed glass, painted canvas. H 12, W 12, D 1 1/2 in. courtesy: Modus Photography.

Inspired by her father, a professor at Edgewood College in Madison, Wisconsin, who instilled the value of teaching and sharing, Hong soon began to add classes to her gallery. The response was overwhelming, and soon became too large for her to manage. So she rented a space next door and trained employees to spread the joy of working in this unique glass assemblage technique. Hong quickly discovered she had stumbled on a new business model where people of all ages can come and create their own expressive pieces in an accessible "Do-It-Yourself"-style art boutique she calls the ShardShop. Her students are given safety goggles and gloves and then peruse the color coordinated crushed glass “ShardBar” for the pieces they wish to use. “[The ShardBar] looks like a bunch of jelly beans from afar,” Hong said. There are currently two of these ShardShop locations in Florida, and one in New Orleans. In July 2018, in response to a growing interest and demand in her product, she launched an online version of the boutique - ShardWorx - her new name for the process she works in since as she describes, “It’s not a mosaic, and it’s not glass art because when you say glass art you think blown glass”. Three different art kits are available for purchase - the "Mini", "Foundation", and "Premium" - so you can work in this material at home. More sophisticated than a coloring book, ShardWorx provides assorted tools such as nippers, dyed and crushed glass, canvas and either non-toxic glue in the "Mini" and "Foundation" kits or resin in the "Premium" package in addition to à la carte items and online tutorials.

Mary Hong, 37x26 Flowers w/Rustic Frame detail. H 37, W 36, D 1 1/2 in. courtesy: modus photography.

The glass she uses is all recycled and re-purposed glass from donations and thrift stores as well as from estate sales where she finds buckets of old glass for a dollar. She also sources scrap glass from local glass blowers or on eBay. “You can use anything!” explains Hong, “It doesn’t have to be high quality or specially sourced. You can bring in jam jars or wine bottles - people have a lot of those”. Her work does not hide the recycled quality of the glass combining sometimes clunky and sometimes delicate pieces to sit atop a painted scene, inspiring viewers to never look at a broken piece of glass the same way. 

Mary Hong has found a creative way to support herself in her many roles. All her enterprises are closely intertwined; she uses this moment in her life to teach her boys, who also participate in classes, about small business and that “what they can create with their hands can turn into money that goes into the bank; they see the reward to the labor”. In addition, Hong hangs her own artwork in the classrooms, inspiring students who may just be beginning their journey in the art world, and providing insight into her own process.

Mary Hong, Beulah, 2018. Re-purposed glass, painted canvas. H 36, W 60, D 2 in. courtesy: the artist.

Mary Hong estimates she creates about 2,000 pieces a year, an astounding number, although she praises her assistants who "keep the studio well planned out and organized so that when I am creating I can be very fast." She has just finished 40 pieces that are going to Ki’i Gallery locations on Maui, Hawaii, and is currently working on original artwork for John-Richard a luxury home furnishings manufacturer that reproduces her pieces in large quantities as affordable decorative artwork. Although she produces an enormous quantity, she prefers those pieces that incorporate unique pieces of glass. Her favorite at the moment is a large 3-by-5 foot ShardWorx of a pig name Beulah that uses a distinct pink floral china set currently hanging in her gallery in Grayton, Florida.

Glass: The UrbanGlass Quarterly, a glossy art magazine published four times a year by UrbanGlass has provided a critical context to the most important artwork being done in the medium of glass for more than 40 years.