Orlando Artist Blows Glass, Minds
Charlie Keila laughed at me. I had just commented on how hot his studio gets, and he couldn't contain the amusement of a man who deals with it every day. Artists who work in glass spend a lot of time around 1,900 degree ovens – it's just part of the job. When you look at the work produced, though, you can see why it's worth becoming acclimated to the sweltering conditions. Keila can only be described as a master.
Keila's studio sits at the corner of Orange and Pine in Orlando, FL – just across the street from Corona Cigar Co. – in the City Arts Factory. In fact, the artist was in large part responsible for the location. After having learned the glass art trade elsewhere, he returned to the town of his teenage years, bringing with him a commitment to arts and culture for which Orlando had been desperate.
This is the Orlando that's obscured by "The Mouse" ... but it exists. If you look past the theme parks and set your sights on downtown Orlando, you can find a vibrant culture that deserves far more recognition than it receives.
For years, Keila says, Orlando has effectively exported its talent. Artists and business professionals alike grow up in Orlando and take their talent elsewhere. The community is deprived of the talent it creates, resulting in a cultural and professional vacuum. This is exactly the problem that the glass-blower sought to solve when he decided to return.
"It was my 'put up or shut up' moment," Keila explains. He saw the importance of contributing to and supporting the local economy. By investing his time and talent in this belief, he believed he could make a difference. This passion is of the same priority as the works that come out of his studio. "It's about keeping the money local," he continues.
Local talent, local product, local economy ... it all converges on the Keila Glassworks in Orlando.
The work produced is nothing short of astounding. There's a world beyond painting and sculpture, and it becomes evident from the moment you spy the pieces displayed in the studio's street-level window. Passing through the door, you enter a world where the aesthetic appears to reign supreme, but a quick discussion with the creator reveals the difference between appearance and reality.
"I'm more a craftsman than an artist," he says. "An artist is focused on the end product," he continues, "I am more interested in the process than the end result." This commitment becomes evident when you see the master at work. Behind the showroom, his studio – "it's more a science studio than an art studio" – is home to implements of fire powerful enough to turn glass to liquid, which eventually becomes clear or colorful, smooth and elegant or spiraled and complex.
Keila led me into the heart of his studio and walked me through the simple process of making a beer glass. We collected liquid glass on a large rod, rolled it, heated it, rolled it some more, blew it several times. There is plenty of room for error at every step, and plenty of projects must be abandoned and restarted from scratch. During his classes, Keila will sometimes drop a work-in-progress to the floor in front of his students and begin again. It's the nature of the craft.
The method is paramount of necessity, but Keila appreciates it nonetheless. His practical training in glass art came in Tucson, AZ. During the week, he would work with glass beads, and on Saturdays, he was allowed to explore his vision. As demand for his pieces increased, he realized that it was time to strike out on his own. He returned to Orlando and worked closely with the city to establish a place where artists could work and sell, leading to the City Arts Factory.
Today, he stays as close to the community as possible. Schools routinely schedule field trips to the City Arts Factory – last year, 400 kids came through his studio. The artist-craftsman does his best to show the children that, at a minimum, there is an important role in life for creative endeavors. For those with the talent and inclination, there's even a living to be made. Whether hobby or livelihood, though, Keila just wants them to know that the option exists.
But, make no mistake about it ... for Keila, this is his livelihood. Unlike many artists, he understands the importance of respecting the business side of his operation (which he prudently cedes to his wife). A small fraction of his time is allocated to the creation of the grand artistic pieces that sell for tens of thousands of dollars, with the bulk of his effort distributed among custom orders, smaller affordable pieces and conducting glass-blowing classes for tourists and area residents.
Though he sells his work around the world, Keila understands why locals come into his store. They are interested in unique pieces that were crafted nearby ... and they want to get to know the man responsible for them. His collectors take an interest in both the piece acquired and the process that yielded it, which includes the personality that conceived, constructed and refined it.
Last Christmas, he remembers, collectors came to his studio specifically to participate in this dynamic. With money tight because of the financial crisis that had gripped every corner of the world, people eschewed lavishness for meaning, and they looked for Keila. "Our sympathies were with everyone at Christmas," his jovial demeanor quickly turned serious. He saw that "more people made a point of saying, 'I want to buy something local for my friend, or my wife." A gift from the heart means more in a time of turmoil than one from the wallet.
"Love in a time of no money," Keila observes, "is better than money in a time of no love."