Go with the glow

Matt Dilling

Ever since glassmaking began 5000 years ago this craft has stirred the human imagination as if it were touched with magic.  – Alf Evers in Woodstock: History of an American Town

Jynne Dilling Martin, who has a house in Bearsville not far from MacDaniel Road on the north slope of Guardian Mountain, says that Lite Brite Neon Studio in Kingston is one of her favorite places to spend time. Martin, publicity director for Soho-based Riverhead Books in New York City, has an extra reason to like the former creamery on Downs Street in midtown Kingston. Her younger brother, glassmaker Matt Dilling, owns and runs it. 

If one drew a half-mile circle around the locations of the two Woodstock glass manufactories of the first half of the nineteenth century, Martin’s house would be close to where the circles overlap. When she decided to locate there, however, she had no idea about that peculiar coincidence. It must have been the good vibrations that brought her there. 

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Matt is a hands-on kind of guy, a craftsman. He’s a maker. He has gathered 15 similar-minded people, mostly art graduates, to the rambling brick former creamery on Downs Street next to the former Ulster & Delaware railroad tracks in midtown Kingston. His firm, Lite Brite Neon, makes glass there.

It’s what Lite Brite does with glass that’s the miracle. The craftspeople fill melted-glass shapes and objects with gas that when electrified lights up in whatever bright color of the rainbow has been chosen. The visual effect can be compelling, magical, unforgettable.

After chemists Morris Travers and William Ramsay first produced neon in 1898, Travers wrote, “The blaze of crimson light from the tube told its story, and was a sight to dwell upon and never forget.” Used soon after its introduction primarily to light up glass tubes in advertising displays, neon became an important part of American visual culture. A little bit of it could be used to concoct an exciting accent for roadside businesses of every description. A lot of it could be used to monopolize viewer attention in places like Times Square and the Las Vegas Strip. 

Contemporary neon is often used more sparingly to establish a brand image, make a one-word statement, set a visual mood, brighten a lobby or shop window or create a landscape. A little bit of magic goes a long way.

Fresh out of art school in Boston in 1999, Matt Dilling established a workshop in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn devoted to producing neon-filled glass. What Dilling and his crew produced attracted an increasingly wide commercial and cultural clientele drawn to what one reviewer described as  “a glow that’s both nostalgically risqué and genuinely romantic.”

That reviewer hit the nail on the head. The characterization neatly sums up not just the vast potential of the medium but also the reason that drew Jynne Dilling Martin to the artistic community of Woodstock. It’s a story of serendipity.

In the early years of the nineteenth century, the town was a hardscrabble rural community much like any other. According to historian Alf Evers, the German-speaking glassmakers at the factory, most from Bohemia, would make glass around a hot furnace for several days and nights. Their singing, dancing and partying would attract local youths from miles around. 

The small glass animal or toy pieces the glassblowers would make in their off time for themselves or local people were known as “whimsies.” Evers speculated that these first fun-loving Bohemians were the creative progenitors of the arts community with which Woodstock later became closely identified. 

The Woodstock manufactories were particularly known for a blue glass. Its now-prized relics became sought after by collectors. I believe the late Fred Johnston of Kingston, best known for collecting arts and crafts objects for the DuPont family, owned some Woodstock blue glass.

A couple of centuries ago as today, manufacturing was seen as a way of rescuing a rural local economy from grinding poverty. The Ulster Plebeian of August 8, 1809 noted “a glass house which is to be erected in Woodstock by the Ulster Glass Manufacturing Company,” using local sand and the plentiful wood required for the glass-making furnace. The enterprise, the Plebeian, proudly reported, was to be “of not inconsiderable magnitude.”  

Woodstockers’ knowledge about their glassmaking history is generally limited. A “glass village” of around 30 houses and other structures was located next to the Sawkill Creek in the hamlet of Shady. A few physical remnants remain. That last glass factory probably folded in the 1840s. The all-night parties were left to continue on a sporadic basis in other parts of the town.

Brooklyn’s an exciting place to manufacture things. Over time one builds networks of suppliers, expertise, employees and customers. But expensive and difficult New York City is losing its makers. It now has only about 70,000 manufacturing jobs in a total labor force of four million. For young maker families in particular, the locational calculus has changed.

Like many young people, Dilling and his life partner Erika DeVries explored areas outside the city for a second home and a possible part-time workshop. They drove upstate sometimes as far as the Adirondacks. The ideal place, they decided, needed to be close enough to New York City. They rented a place in West Saugerties. “I couldn’t have told you anything about Kingston,” remembered Dilling.

He learned. Kingston was a maker-friendly community with people working in an increasingly wide variety of creative fields. Kingston still had cheap industrial space and a creative workforce. The family had three growing boys (now five, twelve and 15). Still operating out of Brooklyn, Dilling said he began asking himself, “Do I want to go back and forth?”

He didn’t. Today Lite Brite Neon has converted the 15,000-square-foot Downs Street space into a humming glassmaking manufactory, doing almost all custom work for a diverse client base. Each artisan specializes in part of the process. The work’s not just making glass. A lot of the making is in support of the neon.

This particular arts-leaning making business is thriving. A Brooklyn space is being retained mostly for warehousing and a design studio to support the production in Kingston, Some of the employees are now buying local property in or near Kingston themselves. The kids attend the Woodstock Day School and the Mountaintop School in Saugerties. And Jynne Dilling Martin occasionally comes by for a visit.

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