[Originally published in the Rutland County Express on 8/5/10.] Take a stroll around the Downtown Rutland Farmers’ Market on any Saturday and you will see much more than fresh veggies and local cheeses. Tucked within the increasingly widespread and winding aisles of the Summer Market (seriously, it’s huge this year), you will find a number of local artists and crafters eager to show off their wares.
Mark “Les” Leeson is one of those artists. If you’ve been to market, then you’ve no doubt seen his work. He works with glass, manipulating its shape and texture in a process called kiln slumping. The results are limited only by Leeson’s imagination.
At the farmers’ market, you will find sleek, yellowfin-ready sushi plates; slender, elegant olive dishes; and his signature cheese platter, which looks like it was just carved from a block of ice. The latter, with its blazing red-orange maple leaf, has become the flagship item of Leeson’s home collection.
Originally from Stourbridge, England, Leeson has been working in glass for over 15 years. However glass wasn’t his first choice.
“I had an interest in spatial design, and I wanted to be an architect,” Leeson said.
But after attending art college for three years, he decided to focus on ceramics and glass, which he studied for another three years.
Leeson was hired right out of college; a feat, which he jokes, is fairly remarkable for an art major. He started doing glasswork for a popular studio in London.
“My first job was making glass sinks for Ringo Starr,” he said, adding that it was at this point when began to see the possibilities of his work – how glass can be both functional and artistically expressive, a marriage of his interest in spatial design and his creative zeal.
Leeson’s work soon got him hired by Fusion Glass, one of Europe’s biggest glass design companies. At Fusion, Leeson had the opportunity to work on a much larger scale, doing projects for Gordon Ramsey’s restaurants, Harrods department store and other large installations around London.
While the experience was one of a kind, Leeson grew tired of working for a large company.
“The enjoyment was going out of it,” he said. “I began to realize that I couldn’t go any further with them professionally.”
In 2003, he joined a smaller London company called Saper Glass. The move was an improvement, however, he soon found himself getting bored. After working on so many big projects with Fusion, to transition back to small-scale projects wasn’t exciting enough.
Finally, Leeson decided to make a radical change.
“I realized that I should be doing this for myself,” he said.
Some friends living in the States invited him to move to New York. So in 2006, Leeson packed his bags and headed across the pond. He set up shop in the city, building his business and adjusting to a new life.
Around this time, he met his future wife, Jen, a Rutland native. They tried the long-distance thing for a while, until Leeson made yet another big move – this time to Vermont.
“I’m inspired by Vermont – the fall foliage, the ice in the winter,” he said.
One look at his work and this influence is evident: at first glance, the pieces are sleek and modern, but there is something inherently pastoral about them, too – a dynamic reflection of Vermont’s natural beauty.
Arriving in Rutland in 2007, Leeson decided to continue with his plan to go into business for himself. However, the timing couldn’t have been worse; Leeson Glass opened its doors practically on the same day that the economy decided to go south.
Leeson soldiered on. Despite his desire to work on larger projects, he started small. He bought a small kiln, and rented a simple storage space on Curtis Avenue, which he converted into a studio.
That winter, he began selling his home pieces at the Rutland Winter Farmers’ Market. The response was immediately positive and demand was high.
Earlier this year, Leeson purchased a large glass kiln (according to Leeson, the largest in the state) with the aid of a small business loan provided by the Rutland Economic Development Corp. The massive kiln, which takes up about a third of the studio, has allowed Leeson to increase his capacity.
He is now able to cater to the high-end domestic market, creating larger pieces like shower doors, countertops and signs. In this economy, demand for these projects waxes and wanes. Leeson has been getting requests for designs from several architects, but also noted that business from some of his clients in New York has been quiet.
Locally, however, interest in his pieces continues to grow. In addition to the Farmers’ Market, Leeson also sells his pieces at Truly Unique in Mendon. And recently, he was contacted by the president of the PGA, who commissioned 50 customized cheese platters.
Such a big order means a lot of work, but Leeson has the process down. He cuts all his own glass, which he purchases by the foot from Countryside Glass in Rutland. Next, he smoothes the edges and cleans the surface. He uses ceramic board for the basic mold, then, cuts designs into ceramic paper that is laid over the molds.
Finally, the glass and mold are put into the kiln where the glass is heated for 10 hours. When cool, the piece is cleaned, smoothed again and ready for sale. This hand-made process means that no two pieces are ever the same, a quality that Leeson takes great pride in.
Leeson attributes his success to his fair prices, unique designs and to the fact that he is the only person in the area doing this kind of work. Despite being a popular art form in Europe, kiln slumped glass is not widely known in the U.S. Leeson noted that most of the companies are located on the West Coast, which makes him one of only a handful in the East.
Leeson is optimistic about the future and content to expand his business at a steady pace. Indeed, in Rutland and through the Farmers’ Market, he has found a distinctive niche where he can pursue his creative passion while continuing to grow professionally.