Southern women have taken a proverbial sledgehammer to the professional glass ceiling, but what about those women quite literally yielding powerful tools? From woodworking to glassblowing to metalworking, we’re captivated by the stories of these four strong, artistic women who are breaking barriers in their fields and pursuing their crafts, often as one of the only females in the room.
Sallie Plumley | Sallie Plumley Studio
Growing up, Sallie Plumley, a native of eastern North Carolina, often found herself following her granddaddy around his woodshop. Little did she know that one day she would truly follow in his footsteps. He passed away when she was 16 years old and left both his woodshop and tools to Sallie. For several years, those tools sat, unclear of their bigger purpose. But, while she was away at art school at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in Richmond, VA, Sallie fell in love with furniture design and woodworking and earned her BFA in crafts and material studies. And her granddaddy’s legacy woodshop found a new life.
Sallie has made her home in Richmond, a city with a vibrant creative community. “It is such a fun city, and there is a large craft community that really joins together to support all of the makers,” Sallie says. “I love living and investing my life here and look forward to growing my business in Richmond over the years to come.”
In her studio, the eponymous Sallie Plumley Studio, she now designs custom pieces that will become part of her clients’ fellowship and life stories — part of both their quiet weekday mornings and their celebrations of family and friends. We’re daydreaming of a Thanksgiving dinner gathered around one of her gorgeous walnut tables with its subtle epoxy detailing, or children playing with one of her heirloom-worthy block sets.
Who were influential mentors or inspiration sources both early in your career and now?
I’d say the first two that come to mind were two of my professors in college: Heath Matysek Snyder and Ben Stout. They really pushed me to the limits, saw a creative spark in me, and encouraged me to grow in all sorts of crazy directions. Now, I would have to say that all of my shop mates inspire me every day! Mark Rickey, Reid Beverly, Jack Cowardin, and John Smith all share a shop space with me. We run separate businesses and specialize in different kinds of woodwork, so it’s fun to bounce ideas and challenge each other in healthy ways.
What words of advice would you have for other women looking to break into your field?
Work hard, pursue intentional relationships with other makers, ask thoughtful questions, and work out. I’m serious about that last part. Strengthening your body is the only way it can sustain physical labor at the levels that it will be expected to maintain!
Where do you see your work evolving in the future?
I’ve got huge dreams for the future of my woodworking practice. We will have to see where those dreams lead, but I’d love to own a space, teach women’s and girl’s workshops, and continue making fun work for fun clients!
Katie Plunkard | Ghost Pepper Glass | Austin, TX
At 11 years old, Katie Plunkard was on a Mediterranean cruise with her family. Most children would have been captivated by the water, the cruise ship activities, or perhaps the food, but Katie found herself entranced by a small studio in Malta, watching glassmakers through a window in their workshop. That was the moment Katie told her parents she would one day become a glassblower. Five years later, she took her first glassblowing class and was hooked.
Now, Katie runs Ghost Pepper Glass, an Austin-based public glassblowing studio and retail space offering classes for beginners through experts. She makes this craft, which involves temperatures roughly 1,600°F to 1,900°F and fragile glass, seem welcoming and fun. “What I noticed from day one was that people were saying how our space felt very ‘safe,’ which I’ve taken to mean ‘inclusive,'” says Katie. “Even some advanced makers have mentioned that they feel really comfortable making mistakes in our shop, which is, oddly, one of the biggest compliments I could receive as the shop owner.”
Who have been influential mentors or inspiration sources throughout your career?
Both of my parents are huge inspirations. My dad is an architect who started his own practice around the time I was born. My mother worked her way up in commercial property management while raising my older brother as a single mom. She also started a clothing business before my time. Neither of them seemed to raise me with gender in mind. I was this little unicorn of a child who loved art but was great at math and science, so my dad would teach me to draw animals and shape clay, but they’d also give me Lego kits and puzzles. Both worked long hours, so I spent my time after school at their offices figuring out how to build forts or paper launchers out of cardboard tubes and rubber bands. They worked really hard and let me be whatever I wanted. I think I always put pressure on myself to be successful because of how hard they worked to give me that choice.
As for glass artists, I have had so many amazing mentors: Gabriella Bisetto, Karen Willenbrink, Rik Allen, Shelley Muzylowski Allen, Netty Blair, Tom Moore, Tom Rowney, John Miller, Devyn Barron, Amy Rueffert … I could go on and on. Some of my best inspiration, early on, came from students who were just a year or two ahead of me but needed an extra set of hands and saw that I was eager to learn.
These days, I am more inspired by artists who are keeping it together on the business end and managing some semblance of a work/life balance. I know a lot of insanely talented glass artists who have packed up their tools and changed careers because their work was so good that they priced themselves out of the market. I also know plenty of glassmakers with average skills but a great design sense who are killing it! I am inspired by those clever artists who come up with an ingenious technique that sets their work off but keeps it affordable.
What words of advice would you have for other women looking to break into your field?
Amy Rueffert told me very early on to not be afraid to be the least-skilled person in your class because you’ll learn the most. I think that was very empowering for me to be able to embrace my status as an amateur. Don’t be afraid to fail because if you’re not messing up once in a while, you aren’t pushing yourself and you aren’t growing. Also, in the words of Taylor Swift, “Haters gonna hate.”
Where do you see Ghost Pepper Glass evolving in the future?
I’d love to grow the space so that we can offer more of everything and create more glassblowing jobs. Right now, we teach off-hand glassblowing and have started with some sand casting and fusing classes. I want to expand those offerings and create a classroom for flameworking, as well. Being able to grow the size of our classes in a larger space would help us to keep costs lower and stay accessible. If we could fund some visiting artists to demo and lecture for the community, that would be amazing. And, better yet, if we could find a way to put all of this online and livestream our processes, we could reach a broader community of glass enthusiasts.
Jennifer Gordon | PD & Product | Leesburg, GA
Jennifer Gordon and her business partner, Kristin Smith, built PD & Product, a custom woodworking studio in southwest Georgia in the shadow of historic homes, sprawling farmsteads, and structures built with character. These two makers draw inspiration from their locale, just as they draw upon the abundance of reclaimed wood and building materials readily available in a rural area.
We spoke with Jennifer, the aesthetic dreamer behind the operation, and learned how a childhood fondness for the TV show “This Old House” led her to woodshop class in high school. “I remember watching so intensely and thinking I HAVE GOT TO DO THAT!” she says. She also shares how she found herself in Georgia, taking a risk with a fellow female woodworker, launching a business, and taking on projects that connect them both to the history of the region and to their local community of strong, capable doers.
Who were influential mentors or inspiration sources early in your career?
Without a doubt, it would be my dad’s and stepfather’s influence that gave me the courage to just try. They never treated me “like a girl.” I had legs and arms and, just like my brothers, could swing a hammer or use a shovel or mow the lawn. If a doghouse needed to be moved or concrete needed to be mixed and I was around, I was “the man for the job.” I imagine that being handed tools by the men in my life led me to take woodshop in high school. It really never occurred to me that it wasn’t a class that I should be taking even as my female counselor was telling me that it was traditionally for boys. I was lucky to have had a great teacher that treated me, one girl in 30, like everyone else. In fact, he leaned in and made me speak up when I knew the answer or had an idea. He encouraged me to push my elbows out and make room for myself.
As for current day, social media has been a phenomenal resource. Whether it is having an opportunity to ask master craftspeople specific questions on the technical side of the job or learning how to properly charge for your work. Instagram has offered up an epic community to those of us that spend our days persuading wood to do what we want it to.
I’d be remiss to not mention the men that I conduct business with on a daily basis. I have by some stroke of good fortune had the opportunity to meet some amazing folks in all facets of the industry who gave me a chance to show I belonged and now treat me like just another one of the guys. I can call them for advice, and they often call me for the same. There are too many of them to list but I’m grateful for each of them and even get to call some of them my friends.
As a studio with two women, how did you initially come together? Have you found that the studio has been able to introduce more women to the art of woodworking?
Kristin Smith, my business partner, posted to Facebook that she was looking for a shop. I had recently moved out of a space I’d been renting for the previous year and was evaluating my next move when a mutual acquaintance put us in touch with one another. Without really knowing each other, we loaded up and drove around for hours looking for a place to rent. Through Kris’ determination, we finally ended up in a former social hall of a Methodist Church in Sasser, Georgia, where we started as individual businesses sharing space. It didn’t take long for us to realize that we were definitely a force to reckoned with, and we merged our respective names, creating PD & Product in 2014. Her upbringing was very similar to mine and her Dad was a massive influence in her ‘roll up your sleeves and figure it out’ attitude. We joke that we weren’t smart enough to not try things, and that attitude has brought some really cool projects to the shop. It’s a very powerful experience to have found another woman who doesn’t even consider that we might not be able to build beautiful things because we happen to be women. Where I fall short in the nuts and bolts of running the business, she makes up for it, and I in turn offer solutions to design and execution of builds.
We have been very fortunate to have some college-aged girls work for us over the years and I believe that, while they may not pursue a career in woodworking, they’ve certainly realized that the trades are an option and a viable one. Feedback from those previous employees and their families about the confidence that the job helped instill make for a fantastic feeling of building a community of doers. We’ve had many women reach out over the years for advice and we never shy away from encouraging them to simply try the task on their own. I’ve heard more than once that someone’s husband has told them XYZ can’t be done, and I feel like it’s partly my job to give women the courage to say, “Hold my beer and watch this!”
Kris Albro | Meltdown Metal Art | Charleston, SC
Charleston, SC-based metal artist and U.S. Air Force Veteran Kris Albro has always been creative. But, for years, her medium of choice was a bit more fluid: paint. Then, when she found herself craving something that would stretch her artistically, she looked to what she had on hand. “I picked up some old chain I had in the garage and began tack welding it together with a small welder I had bought,” she says. “I made different shapes and animals using chain, and that was the start of my love of metal art.”
In 2019, Kris launched her business, Meltdown Metal Art, where she creates pieces that live at the intersection of masculine and feminine; organic floral shapes created under extreme heat, sculptures that at first glance could be flitting in the wood but, in fact, are formed by the fortitude of metal.
Who were influential mentors or inspiration sources in your career?
A big influencer of mine was my welding instructor at welding school. He was the one who taught me how to make my first flower and the one who pushed me to pursue not just welding but fabrication as well. Once I was in my first job, my mentor there helped hone my skill set and was able to show me just what I was capable of doing.
As a woman paving her way in a male-dominated field, did you feel welcomed into the community or did you build your own?
I have always worked in male-dominated fields. Being a former volunteer firefighter and crew chief in the Air Force, I’ve been comfortable working with men. I’ve learned how to gain respect and the to-dos and not-to-dos of being a woman surrounded by men. So walking into welding school was second nature to me. I immediately clicked with my classmates and fell in love with the atmosphere.
How has being a creative woman in South Carolina played into how your career has taken shape?
Being a creative woman in Charleston has been amazing. There are so many opportunities for us. We have tons of open-air markets that are extremely welcoming as well as galleries in the historic downtown and surrounding islands. Being on the island definitely gives my art a beach flare. I draw a lot of inspiration from nature and sea life.
What words of advice would you have for other women looking to break into metalworking?
Just jump in! Look for a local welding school, follow metal makers on social media, ask all the questions. The social media community online is so open and helpful.
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