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Communique: Glass Turtles For Pleasure Island Sea Turtle Project | Jim Downey

Jim Downey
Green sea turtles by Jim Downey

Glass artist Jim Downey is holding an Open House this Saturday, July 15 at his studio at 2925 Boundary Street in Wilmington, 10:00am-4:00pm. It's summertime, so Jim is creating sea turtles (come fall, he'll be in Christmas mode). A portion of his profits for this month's Open House will benefit Pleasure Island Sea Turtle Project, and the turtles he's making reflect an unusual happening on the shores of Pleasure Island: 2 Green Sea Turtle nests. Listen to my conversation above and see an extended transcript and photos below. 

Gina: So Jim, you're having an Open House on Saturday, July 15th, that's this Saturday,10:00 a.m. till 4.


Jim: That's correct. It is at 2925 Boundary Street, unit number 3, Wilmington, 28405.


Gina: And this is to benefit the Pleasure Island Sea Turtle project.


Jim: Yeah. They're having a good year. They got a lot of nests this year and they have two Green sea turtle nests, which is very unusual.


Gina: Oh really.


Jim: Yes. Typically the sea turtles that nest in this area are loggerheads. But every once in a while they'll get a green sea turtle. And this year, they have two of them and they haven't had them in like 10 years so it's a big deal. They're all excited. And the little baby turtles look very different than a loggerhead. They've got white bellies and black tops, as opposed to loggerheads which are black bellies and black tops.


Gina: How is the Pleasure Island Sea Turtle Project going?


Credit WHQR/gg
Jim Downey

Jim: Well, I would say that it is. I mean I think all the sea turtle groups in North Carolina, I mean their job is to find the nests and make sure that the baby sea turtles get out to the sea. So yeah, I mean there's a lot of volunteers and they got to they've got quite a few nests.


Gina: And so Jim, tell me about you as a glass artist, and you can tell me a little bit about what kind of work you're going to have at your Open House this weekend, and it maybe a little bit about how you create it.


Jim: The type of glassblowing that I do is called flame working. It's different than the hot glassblowing, which is the type of glass where you have a big furnace with a liquid glass and you go in with a long pole and you pour the glass out and you manipulate it and you know and then put it in an oven to cool overnight. That type of glass blowing I do is flame working, which is basically done with torches and I'm using glass rods and glass tubes and shaping that inside of a torch. And so I do things that are smaller than than what some people associate with glassblowing. I do bigger work than like a bead maker would make, bead makers are usually making small little glass beads and I'm making, one of the things I'm going be making for this open house are little sea turtle pendants and typically they're about an inch and a half long and an inch and a half wide. And I make those you know with glass rods and a torch and then I stick them in the oven and engrave the bottoms of them with the date that I make them. And people wear them and it's a nice little thing to have and the ones I'm making for this open house are going to be like little baby green sea turtles, so they'll have white bellies and then they'll be different colors on the top because I try to make them his artistic as possible. And for this open house they're going to be sold and this Pleasure Island Sea Turtle Project will get 50 percent of all the ones sold. So it will benefit them.


Gina: Are these all going to be necklaces?


Jim: They're mostly going to be necklaces. But I am making some turtles a little bit larger that will not be necklaces because some people like to put them in little terrariums or you know in different places in their house where they don't want to wear them but they want to see them. So I will be making some that are just sculptures, glass sculptures. And I'll be making some that are smaller but inside of a clear ball which can be used as a hanging ornament. I have some that are free standing for people that don't hang ornaments. And then I'm also going to make some little hatchlings where I make a little glass egg and then I'll have the sea turtle climbing out of the egg. So they're very popular.


Gina: I've seen those, those are really cute. And Green sea turtles is the theme.

Credit Jim Downey
You can see the white bellies of the green sea turtles

Jim: Yes, they’re very excited about these these Green sea turtles and they asked me to make some pendants that are specifically like these little green ones some pendants that are specifically like these little green ones.

Gina: So this is an unusual situation where we have the Green sea turtle, so next year it probably won't be the green sea turtles.


Jim: Yeah and I asked the coordinator for Pleasure Island if this is like a regular occurrence or this has happened before and she said it hasn't happened in over 10 years that they've had a green sea turtle. And I contacted the Wrightsville Beach Sea Turtle Project coordinator, and the last green sea turtle nest at Wrightsville Beach was in 1997. That's 20 years ago. So that's pretty unusual.


Gina: Is this because the they are more endangered or is this because they just don't come around here?


Jim: Yeah, I think it's because they don't come around as often. Green sea turtles are further south for the most part, their nesting is more like in Florida in the Caribbean. So they are venturing more north. In fact. I heard that there were some leatherback sea turtles spotted off the coast of Murrells Inlet. They have not come to nest. But leatherbacks are another big sea turtle that are primarily found in Florida and in the Caribbean. So it could be that ocean waters are getting warmer. And so all these sea turtles are venturing further and further north. What I'd like to see is some loggerhead sea turtles, which from what I know, they nest as far north as the Outerbanks but not quite into Virginia Beach or up into the Delmarva Peninsula. But I would like to see some loggerheads nesting in New Jersey where I'm from. I think that would be pretty amazing.


Gina: That would be terrible!


Jim: That would be, that would be-that would mean something for sure. Good or bad. I don't know.


Gina: I don't think they're going to like Jersey Shore.

Jim: Well Jersey Shore is the Jersey Shore.

Gina: Jim you didn't start it being a glassblower because of sea turtles. But you have become such a an artist with a mission for these for these animals. How did that happen?


Jim: Well, I went to a glassblowing school to learn scientific glassblowing, to learn how to make chemistry apparatus, vacuum tubes and glass products used for industry and science. I did that for 30 years and I always did artistic work. I would make Christmas ornaments and wedding cake tops for people and I started making jewelry. Little glass pendants. And when I moved to Wilmington six years ago, I was at a farmer's market and I was selling these little pendants and someone

picked one of them up and said, Hey do you ever make sea turtle pendants? And I looked at the pendant and I thought, well all I need to do is add a head and some flippers to this and it looks just like a sea turtle. So I started making them in 2011 and they seem to be pretty popular and I got better and better at it, and I started buying gift boxes to put them in. And when I buy the gift boxes, I buy them in like a case of 100. And so I started out buying five cases. I figure I make 500 these things and see how many I can sell. Well, I'm closing in on 3000 of these things that I made in the last six years.


Gina: Wow.


Jim: And I seem to get better and better at it. So I think like what got me was the first time I went to see Turtle nest excavation at Wrightsville Beach. Typically, the sea turtle comes up on the beach lays its nest. Sixty days later, it hatches, all the sea turtles come out of the sand they go to the sea. And here in North Carolina, they monitor this. They have volunteers sitting there waiting. And then the next night, they wait and see if any more turtles come out. And sometimes more come out and on the third night they dig up the nest and they count the empty eggs. They count them, and sometimes in the process of counting all the empty eggs at the bottom of the nest, they'll be like one or two or three eggs that they couldn't get out. So they're set free. They're called stragglers. And so they put them on the beach and you see these little things run down the beach towards the water...and soon as I saw that, I thought, ahhh man, I've got to support this somehow so..I've been giving them money ever since.


Gina: You do you make other stuff, but you really make a lot of sea turtles.


Jim: I make a lot of sea turtles. Now what I typically do is I have an open house once a month starting in April and I will donate money from my open houses to different sea turtle projects, either the Sea Turtle Hospital in Topsail, Wrightsville Beach Sea Turtles, Pleasure Island Sea Turtles, there's a sea turtle group up in the Outerbanks called Nest. And then I just got connected with another sea turtle group down in Murrells Inlet. So I give them, these groups, money typically, April, May, June, July, August. And then in September, I'm in Christmas ball mode, so I'm making Christmas balls. I'm not making sea turtles anymore. And when I have open houses in the fall I donate money to Nourish NC, the Good Shepherd Center, Kids Making It, WARM, all groups that I've met by my relationship with WHQR.


Gina: And we should also say that you always help WHQR with Christmas ornaments.


Jim: Oh yes. When you guys have your Holiday Shorts program, that night, I usually bring a bunch of ornaments in, decorate your tree and donate all the sales of that event to the station.


Gina: Yeah, that's pretty cool.


Jim: I like doing that.


Gina: We like it too. Yeah.

Jim: People ask me how I got into being a glassblower, and the story is...when I was in high school, I kind of knew myself well enough to know that going to college it was not going to be a good career move for me. So I did not know what I was going to do and my father got a little worried. My father was a chemist who worked with glassblowers earlier in his career. And he talked to these glassblowers and found out that there was a school in South Jersey at Salem County Community College. They had a glassblowing program and he said, why don't you go try this? And I went there and it was-- it was like, it just clicked. It was perfect for me. So I went to that school for a year, I learned the basics of glassblowing and then I got a job working in Princeton New Jersey for an electronics company. And I got a 30 year career out of it. And now I'm retired and I make sea turtles.

Gina: That's great. It's funny how we find the things that we're supposed to do in the world.

Jim: I'm lucky that I found mine early. Some people it takes awhile to find exactly what you're supposed to be doing. And I feel really lucky that somehow glassblowing and me just collect and I'm really I've got a great career out of it and I love doing it. This is the great thing about what I do is I mean I'm retired. I get a pension. I don't have to work really. But I opened up my own business and I go there every day. And I just love going there and I love working with glass every day. I'll probably do it for as long as I live. I can't imagine doing anything else.


Gina: That's the perfect life right there.


Jim: I'm very lucky.