How fortuitous is it that Eli Zilke held the same fascination with fire that seemingly every 10-year old kid has. Even more fortuitous for the art world is that his early fascination has transformed into a full-tilt avocation and he’s drawing a regular paycheck because of it.
Eli Zilke, you see, is one of the 201 featured artists who earned his way through the arduous gauntlet of the Krasl Art Fair jury and is a first time presenter in this year’s Krasl Art Fair on the Bluff. He has applied before but been turned down.
What makes this year’s acceptance for Eli especially sweet is he grew up in Michigan’s Great Southwest and moved through the ranks of the Water Street Glassworks and its after school Fired Up! program for students of the area at the studios in the Benton Harbor Arts District.
I caught up with Eli who is in the very first booth on the bluff side of the sidewalk at the north end of Lake Bluff Park in the shadow of the Maids of the Mist Fountain. His booth is #200, and he is with David Lee’s Hot Shop Valpo out of Valparaiso, Indiana, and this is their inaugural run at the holy grail of the Krasl.
A graduate of the Water Street Glassworks Fired Up! program, Eli is anything but a stranger to art fairs. He says they do about ten art fairs a year, “But this is the hometown deal, and we’re really, really excited, because the Krasl is always the goal.” He adds, “You grow up, you see it, you’re part of it in a small way with Fired Up! and now I had the opportunity to show this year, and I’m really excited to be here.”
Eli, who is 25 now, started in the Fired Up! program at the age of 12. He says, “It came at a really great point in my life that I could have gone one of two directions, and it really focused me and I fell in love with it immediately. From then on out, that’s all I could think about. That was it. It was glass from then on out.”
Besides learning great things from Water Street Glassworks artist Jerry Catania, Eli traveled to, and watched, the masters work in Verano, Italy, and worked with a guy in Wisconsin that does it professionally, and he also mentored Eli. Then almost four years ago, he opened the shop in Valparaiso with Lee and a third artist Bryan Lee, and he tells me, “That’s been a great opportunity for me to make work, and design, and also to make a living doing it, and get a steady pay check. It has kind of freed me up to do all that.”
The shop, called Hot Shop Valpo, is located right in downtown Valpo a little bit east of the town square, at 864 Kinsey Street.
Eli Grew up in Benton Harbor, graduated from Lakeshore High School, went to SW Michigan College after high school, and still lives in the Fairplain area.
Eli tells a great story about how it all got started, saying, “My mom took a glass bead-making class somewhere up north in Michigan, not sure where, when I was nine or ten years old, and she brought all the materials home and set it up on the kitchen table. Now, every ten year old wants to play with fire, right? So, it was one of those opportunities and from then on I knew that that was in the realm of things I wanted to do. Once I touched it on a larger scale and started working with blown glass rather than beads, that was it. That was when I knew immediately that that was what I needed to be doing forever.”
Asked about his style in glass, Eli explains, “What I strive to do with glass is capitalize on its immediate advantage of transparency. I try to build in layers, and really take advantage of that transparency, that light, and try to really make glass glow. Ceramacists and glassblowing are not that different, but we have the advantage of letting that light through, so I try to really hone in on that.”
Growing up at Water Street, Eli worked as their studio tech for at least eight years, and part of his job involved taking care of visiting artists. He says, “I got to make them feel at home, make them be comfortable and then assist them. So I got so see how about 30 or 40 different glassblowers throughout that time work. That was so instrumental now in that the way I work is that I take a little bit away from each of them. For example one might do something more efficiently, or another might do something else unique and that kind of shaped how I work.”
Now, Eli creates in series, doing about 7 or 8 different series, while trying to narrow it down every year. He adds, “I try not to over do anything. I’m not going to create a thousand of any vessel, I try to limit the series and then switch it up and do something new.”
Regarding his success, Eli says, “I have been so lucky. I run into people at virtually ever show that will say, “Oh we picked up a vessel at this gallery or that gallery,” and then they show me the item’s photo on their phone, and that’s the most rewarding thing, seeing my work in their homes and such.”
At last count Eli says his work is in at least 14 galleries across Indiana and Michigan. Hot Shop Valpo itself does not have any gallery established in brick and mortar, but they do have a little gallery space in the shop, “just kind of tucked into the corner,” but that’s really all the work you’ll see in the studio.
As for his debut at the Krasl? After less than four hours of the two-day show Eli says, “We are completely out of re-stocking material, so what we have out is what we have left, and we were kind of unprepared with how well it would go.”
So…if you want to see a hometown super talent who has made the cut into the biggest show in the region, you’ll do well to get there soon. He’s got a great story to tell, and some pretty remarkable talent on display and up for sale this year.
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