Let me introduce you to Thom Lillie of Lille Glassblowers, Inc.
Let me introduce you to Thom Lillie of Lille Glassblowers, Inc.
A couple of years ago I was sitting on the patio reading the morning paper and I noticed an article about a glassblower who had a studio in Smyrna, Georgia. At the time I was looking for someone or something to photograph and I thought that the art of blowing glass could be a great subject. I googled the name of the glassblowing studio, and when I contacted them to tell them what I was interested in doing I was told to come on up.
I threw a flash kit, tripod and camera bag on the back of the Road King and headed on up I-75 to see what I could come up with. When I arrived I entered a studio surrounded by work tables full of ongoing glass projects.
At a table in the back a tall guy wearing sunglasses and a bandanna had a big ass flaming tool in one hand and a piece of red-hot glass in the other. He was in the middle of a project and couldn’t really stop to meet and greet properly, so I set about getting some shots of him in action. While he kept working to form a glass rod into a perfectly shaped golf club, we chatted as I started taking shots of this artist at work. I could tell this was going to be simple to find wonderful photographs of this subject, but I soon realized there was a story that went along with the pictures. My whole career I’ve met so many people with great stories when I thought I was only there for images, I should have learned to expect it by now.
As we chatted while Thom continued to work the glass, I mentioned that I rode my bike up from my loft apartment in downtown Atlanta and he said he rode, also. At first, it was just something that we had in common, but over time I saw that Thom is another one of those Georgians who can come from all walks of life and just happens to ride motorcycles.
Thom’s first bike was a little red Honda 50 cc he received when he was just 7 years old. That’s another thing we had in common, my first motorized bike was the same model. He’s ridden many different bikes since that first red jewel, but now he sits atop a ’96 Yamaha Royal Star that he bought new. At the time he was thinking about purchasing a Harley-Davidson Heritage, but when he sat his 6’2” frame on the Royal Star, it just fit him perfectly. But as we know, usually one is not enough, so as of this writing Ideal Customs out of Clarksville, GA is building him a Café Racer from a Yamaha 750.
Thom is a second generation glassblower. His father, Don Lillie, began blowing glass in 1949, when he started an apprenticeship at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. Afterwards, Don got a job at Georgia Tech as a scientific glass blower, where he worked for 33 years. After perfecting his craft, in 1965 Don opened a small shop of his own at Six Flags Over Georgia and then one at Underground Atlanta. The first time Thom blew a piece of glass he was 8 years old and he burned his finger pretty badly, so at the time he didn’t want any part of this flaming hot business. And it didn’t help that most sons don’t want anything to do with what their fathers do for a living anyway, it’s the rebel in many of us. But as he got a little older, he saw the potential and realized he may have the talent that could help give him a vision of what he wanted to do with his own life.
So in 1981 Thom signed up for classes at the University of Minnesota to study scientific glass blowing like his father had done 32 years earlier. In 1986 he moved back to Smyrna and together with his father they opened Lillie Glassblowers, Inc. Thom feels that getting his degree in scientific glassblowing helps “you understand what is happening to your material when you’re working with it, it really gives a good boost to your foundation of knowledge … there’s a reason behind it. It’s not just putting glass together and getting a figure out of it, what this does is really opens up the design possibilities and techniques.”
Much of Lillie’s contract work is for corporations and special events held around Georgia throughout the year, such as Petite Le Mans and the Vintage Motorcycle Races, both held at Road Atlanta. His work also decorates the homes and offices of personalities such as Elton John, Michael Jordan, the late actor Jimmy Stewart, President Bill Clinton, Dale Earnhardt and also is on display at Charlotte’s NASCAR Museum, just to name a few.
Making the most unique piece of art possible for each project is important and is what helps carry on the excitement from day to day, from project to project. To Thom, “The satisfaction that you get afterwards becomes an addiction, so you look forward to the more challenging pieces. It’s more than just a business, I enjoy when a customer comes in and they’re ecstatic … ‘Oh my gosh, I haven’t seen anything like that before.’ You look to make the customer happy but then more important, I want to be happy with it.” He then adds, “There’s a quote that can be read when you’re coming in the building that my old man came up with about 30 years ago, ‘An award shall reflect the achievement it recognizes.’ If a guy wins the Nobel Peace Prize you don’t give him a plaque … you should give the recipient something that’s worthy of their accomplishment.” When comparing his work in the studio to riding a motorcycle, “The first thing that comes to mind is when I’m making something, there’s going to be something tangible at the end of the journey. In glassblowing it’s something I can see, something I can look at. And on motorcycles it’s about memories but the journey on both can be very stimulating.” He also adds, “I’ve come up with some of my most creative designs while riding a motorcycle … the problem is I’m having such a great time on my bike but then I get a certain design and I want to get back to the studio to start on that design.” That could be a tough dilemma … to ride on or create.
But Thom’s creativity isn’t limited to the glass blowing studio. He also is pretty handy with a blow torch and a few wrenches and pliers. To me, the most interesting motorcycle he has truly is a bicycle that became a motorcycle, in the true fashion of the early motorcycle pioneers who did the same thing which eventually lead to what we all ride today. Thom was surfing around eBay one day and found a thrift store type reproduction of an older model Huffy cruiser bicycle, with the original tires and turned up handlebars. He then found a 49 cc gas powered engine that he knew would fit just perfectly. With a blow torch, he has to use fire in his work it seems, he welded a bracket on the bicycle that allowed the seat to be pushed back on the bike and then he turned the handlebars down in a Café Racer style. He mounted the 49 cc engine inside the frame, mounted the gas tank, painted it all black, moved the Huffy sticker to the tank and then with a few other modifications he had a ride that I think William Harley and Arthur Davidson would be proud of. In a single Saturday afternoon and for around $200 he had a bike that on first glance looks like it belongs in a vintage motorcycle museum.
Another one of those creative engineering twinges that Thom gets from time to time lead to a giant-sized tricycle that he painted bright red and stands almost 10’ tall and seemed to make even Thom look like a little kid out on his first ride on the street. Like most creative people, the process never stops; it just keeps refining itself and morphing into something new.
If you’re interested in seeing if Lillie Glassblowers can do something special for you or an organization you work with, look them up on the internet at www.lillieglass.com or on Facebook at facebook.com/LillieGlassWork
By Eric Albright