The Shimmering Art of Blown Glass

29 Sep 2020

A center for creative enterprise in Star

By Ray Owen  »  Photos by Mollie Tobias

Nancy Gottovi always talks in terms of “we” and what people can create together. An innovative entrepreneur with a contagious laugh, she serves as Executive Director of Central Park NC and STARworks, an arts-centered nonprofit aimed at sparking community and business opportunity, located in Star, North Carolina.

Operating out of an abandoned school and hosiery mill, the refurbished facility is primarily a regional visual arts center, engaging the public with creative individuals of the highest caliber.

“Our mission has always been to integrate art and economic development,” says Gottovi. “One of the things that has drawn a lot of interest is we’ve been effectively showing how art contributes to a local economy through the arts-based manufacturing we do here.”

“We’re known for our glass studio and clay program,” she explains. “We also produce clay from North Carolina materials. We’re the only ceramic supply company that manufactures local ‘wild clays’ in the United States. It’s filter pressed, a very special way of making clay, and we’re the only ones in North America utilizing that process.”

“Providing resources and technical expertise for artists is a lot of what we do. We’re geared toward professionals and we bring in some of the best talent from around the world, hosting 50-60 artists for residencies and internships.”

In normal times, STARworks gallery holds two or three events each month, everything from artist talks to Hot Glass Cold Beer nights. Special activities often feature glass, such as Glassfest, a premier craft event showcasing artists from across the Southeast.

“Our annual FireFest, celebrating the role of fire in art, is one of the most fun things we do,” says Gottovi. “It’s a weekend of ‘community-fueled art’ where we invite folks to hear and watch and even work alongside some incredible artists producing sculptures and that sort of thing.”

“It’s usually held the first weekend in April and we couldn’t do it this year. So, at the end of October we’re planning an online ‘Best of Firefest’ extravaganza, and we’ll spend the weekend posting videos and artist talks. We’ll do a little bit of live streaming and talk about next year’s event.”

Covid-19 initially stopped all live programming at STARworks, a real challenge for a large organization that’s expensive to run. “It’s been difficult but we’re hanging in there,” says Gottovi. “We’ll get through it and we’re looking for all the help we can find.”

Their next event is a Glass Pumpkin Sale, featuring 3,000 hand-blown glass pumpkins produced in the glass studio. An annual fundraiser, this year’s sale will be a timed-ticketed event, October 3rd to 31st. Operating in an abundance of caution, the focus will be keeping it safe for everyone.

“We’re spreading it out over a few weeks and people will be able to shop online, or call to reserve a time,” says Gottovi. “We’ll allow a very limited number of people in the building every other hour. Curbside and personal shopping will also be available.”

Reflecting back on her work, she says with a laugh: “Honestly, I had no idea what I was doing when we got into this. As a cultural anthropologist, my interest has always been community change. That’s what anthropologists study, whether it’s material records, archaeology or evolutionary change through time and space.”

Communities like Star, Biscoe and Robbins have gone through massive changes over the past few decades due to global restructuring and economic development failures. According to Gottovi, they have got to come up with a new reason for being because they’re not going to be factory towns anymore.

“We think STARworks is an answer,” she says. “One of the things I worried about was I’d never worked in a factory. I came to realize that in addition to providing a job, these huge factories provided a social fabric.”

With a thousand people working multiple shifts, factories were where people came together and learned who was getting married, having children, or doing this and that. They were, in a sense, the community water coolers. With their demise, such places are often missing in small rural towns.

“At the beginning of STARworks, we were initially thinking it could be a little economic engine,” says Gottovi. “One of the things we discovered was that in addition to jobs, we needed a place where people come together and talk about real community issues and get to know each other.”

Among the biggest economic “leakages” in small towns is the loss of  “entertainment dollars.” If you want to go out for a concert, for example, you have to travel to an urban area. But if options are available locally, these potential dollars can be re-circulated and invested in the community.

“That’s why we do an awful lot of entertainment-type things,” she says. “Even though we’re a visual arts organization, Glass Magic and Hot Glass Cold Beer nights are total performances with audiences and we’re doing live music two or three times a week. We have a coffee shop and serve craft beers and really great wines. So, we’ve actually created a gathering place.”

STARworks has expanded to become not only an important economic driver, but also a community builder. “That’s what excites me about my work,” says Gottovi. “Of course, working with artists is always a blast. At their most basic, they’re problem solvers. They take various materials and make something meaningful.”

“We’ve often said this building is just a giant pile of bricks and metal and wood. We’re taking those materials, the structure, and trying to make something meaningful out of it. The whole project has evolved as we have learned to adapt and creatively provide what’s missing here.”

“What keeps me up at night? Money, sustainability. We’re very ambitious. Sometimes it scares me and I think maybe we’re trying to do too much. But I’d rather be on my deathbed thinking that I tried to do too much than not enough.”

“We’re doing ambitious, important work in a community that needs it but doesn’t have the resources to support us. We don’t get county support at all. We actually pay county taxes, even though we’re a nonprofit organization. It’s challenging to say the least.”

Looking toward the future, STARworks wants to do more with their local community college and attract more artists by providing short-term housing. “We’re really focused on quality,” says Gottovi. “To work and hang out with the best of the best is super important for local artists.”

“Like they say, a shark has to keep moving or die. We’re always thinking of new programming and different things to do, keeping within this spirit of STARworks.”

STARworks is located at 100 Russell Dr, Star, NC.

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