Made in Topeka: Prairie Glass Studio
Kymm Hughes will say she’s an artist who’s learned to make her own luck.
“It is really important to put things out there—to say, ‘I’m looking for this. I’m struggling. I need help.’ That’s helped me blossom and fill in my weak parts,” Hughes said.
Anyone who walks into Prairie Glass Studio in downtown Topeka and gazes at the sun gleaming off the kaleidoscope of fused glass creations would agree that it’s had beautiful results.
THE SELF-SUFFICIENT STARTER Hughes grew up in southern California, honing her artist’s eye and can-do attitude.
“I always wanted to do it right and good,” she said.
Hughes has loved art all her life. She studied graphic design at Pasadena Art Center, and dabbled in all sorts of areas through the years as she married, raised a family and worked other jobs, including sales and customer service.
Eventually, Hughes found her way to Kansas where, as the saying goes, life happened. Divorced and with young children, Hughes says she needed to find a way to support herself. It brought her back to art classes at Washburn University. In particular, she ended up in a class taught by Glenda Taylor, who had recently returned from a summer workshop on fused glass.
“It was a light bulb. It was literally a light bulb—that’s what I was going to do the rest of my life,” Hughes said.
Hughes says fused glass provides the perfect combination of artistry and challenge.
“Glass has certain properties. It won’t do certain things,” she explained. “How can we stretch that medium and make it work—and it doesn’t always work. I just like (to) figure out what I can do that’s different.”
Hughes credits Taylor, who was killed in a bicycle wreck this past spring, with helping her develop her craft through independent study. From there, Hughes says she started to work from home, teaching summer camps and classes to children in various artistic mediums. Their parents would see her fused glass work and inquire about it, leading to her first sales.
“It’s been little baby steps the whole way, small triumphs at a time to get me here,” Hughes said.
THE ENTREPRENEUR “Here” is her own shop, which she opened three years ago in the lower level of the Thatcher Building, 110 SE 8th Street in downtown Topeka.
Prior to the move, Hughes cared for her parents, and their large home had space for a studio. When her parents moved to an assisted living facility, Hughes knew she needed to downsize her living arrangements and give her art a new home. There was just one problem.
“I do one thing well—the art. I’m not a businessperson at all,” she said.
While Hughes always relied on herself, she also fell back on faith and the realization that people come in and out of your life for a reason. The group surrounding Hughes as she looked to launch her own space was a perfect fit. Hughes says Kathy Smith, who was director of ArtsConnect at the time, introduced her to Jeff Carson with Gizmo Productions, who was looking to rent out the lower level of his building. It turned out to be ideal for Hughes’ needs.
A short time later, Hughes mentioned to a group of ladies with whom she regularly had dinner that she needed new equipment for her new space. Among the group was Adrianne Evans, who worked for the Greater Topeka Chamber of Commerce. Evans mentioned the GO Topeka's Entrepreneurial & Minority Business Development, which then led Hughes to Washburn University’s Small Business Development Center.
“Resources led to resources,” Hughes said. “It was very humbling to learn to ask for help and ask questions. It’s really freeing when you let go of that control.”
Letting go also has allowed Hughes to rely on a supporting cast who offer to help just because it’s what they enjoy. The group includes her step-daughter, a neighbor and various friends. “I never know what’s going to walk through that door,” she said.
THE FIGHTER An art-related business in an economically-challenged environment can be a tough sell, but Hughes isn’t one to easily let go of her dream. She has made her shop a balance of form and function, offering the beautiful alongside items both pretty and practical.
“Stuff isn’t as important when money is tighter,” Hughes said. “It (has to) function in some way. It doesn’t just sit there or hang.”
You’ll still find decorative items on Hughes’ shelves, and she does commissioned projects and custom awards. But you’ll also find business card holders, napkin holders, wine and oil bottles, wine stoppers, trays, ornaments and even pet food dishes and canisters.
“You have to make things that you can still feel good about but will sell,” she said.
Hughes also considers price. She says she realizes people want unique gift items, but they cannot necessarily afford to pay a lot. Shoppers will find many items in the $10 to $30 range to fit the bill.
“I don’t want to miss that customer because they might be from a business that generates more customers and more purchases,” she said. “The best (advertising), that’s free, is word of mouth.”
Beyond shopping, Hughes offers an artistic experience. People can take classes or book parties to make their own fused glass creations. As for the future, Hughes says she’s ready for whatever challenge comes around the corner next.
“Like a person who jumps from the airplane gets an adrenaline rush when he falls,” she said, “I get that when I get a new idea and see if I can make it work.”