By Nancy Henderson
Last December, an awestruck Susan Parry watched from her seat on the Ellipse park near the White House as the National Christmas Tree lit up, along with 56 smaller ones representing the American states and territories. Knowing that 25 of her blown-glass ornaments were glistening on the Tennessee tree, with 100,000 spectators looking on, was a thrilling experience for the award-winning Signal Mountain artist and Hamilton County Farm Bureau member.
“All the people were jumping up and down and cheering,” she recalls. “It was just so exciting.”
Just as magical was her discovery at the White House Visitor Center, where another of her creations hung on the holiday spruce. “Until I went over there I didn’t know which of my ornaments they had chosen. And this is the honor,” she says, pointing to a photograph of her “Tennessee Landscape” adorning the tree. “Mine was hung at the top.”
The vivacious, fast-talking redhead, who moved from New York to Chattanooga at age 13, began blowing glass nine years ago after dabbling in painting, candle-making and other art forms. During a glass-working course at a lapidary school, she showed a knack for small sculptures, such as dragonflies and snowmen, instead of the beads the other students were making.
“I couldn’t help it,” she says. “They weren’t the best, but they were starting points.”
These days, Parry is best known for her “wearable art”: delicate vessels, glass hearts and whimsical faces with wiry beaded hair. Using a blend of propane and oxygen gases, she melts thin, colored glass rods and, carefully twirling the red-hot glass in all directions, crafts her signature penguins, mermaids and other fun pieces.
“It is thrilling to the core of my being,” she says, “when I see something come to life before my eyes.”
In 2010, a year after Parry applied for the coveted post as the Volunteer State’s sole artisan representative at the National Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony, she learned she’d been chosen by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, and Tennessee State Parks.
“At first I thought we were just talking about an ornament, singular,” she says. “And the next thing I know I get an email asking for 15. Then it goes to 26. They hadn’t had anybody do glasswork before.”
At the request of then-Governor Phil Bredesen, Parry asked for ideas from seventh-graders at Signal Mountain Middle/High School. The kids came up with lots of suggestions, from cookies and snowflakes to Santa Claus strumming a guitar. Parry ultimately decided on two designs: “Tennessee Flag,” a fused-glass takeoff on the state banner, and “Tennessee Landscape,” a torch-formed interpretation of the state’s green, rolling hills.
The landscapes were tricky to make, fashioned via “lampworking,” an ancient process originally done over oil lamps with assistants fanning the bellows.
“The turquoise river would turn gray if I didn’t put enough oxygen into it, just as the [blue] sky was turning black,” she says. “It’s harder to do than people realize. I had to think about the colors I was using … and keep the piece from breaking.”
After attaching each finished ornament inside a “wreath” – a thick slice of green glass from a recycled bottle – she let the students assemble them in plastic globes to protect them from harsh weather.
Parry, who donated her time in the middle of her busy holiday season, admits the project was time-consuming and the deadline was tight. But it was worth it. “I felt so honored,” she says. “It was just an amazing experience.”
Hot Holiday Gifts
Susan Parry’s glasswork can be found at torchedinthehead.com, Gallery 202 in Franklin, Tennessee, and art shows throughout the country. Each collectible comes with a poem or bit of trivia or folklore.
Replicas of her National Christmas Tree ornaments are available for $75 each, and Parry includes a certificate describing the process. “I give them the whole package just like it was in Washington – the same silk, the same ribbons,” she says.
For special requests, email the artist at email@example.com.