John “Sleepy” Moran is an American artist living in Gent. He runs Gent Glas, which is self-described as “a unique glass studio, gallery, shop, and café located in the heart of Ghent, Belgium.”
His artists’ website, Back Door Art, says that “John Moran is a politically and socially engaged hot glass sculptor, mixed media artist, studio co-founder and operator at Gent Glas, and all around nice guy.” I found all of this to be true in a recent conversation I had with him to learn more about his work and the contribution Gent Glas is making to the Gent community.
Here is a summary and some excerpts from our conversation.
About John “Sleepy” Moran
Perhaps the obvious first question for John is, why is he “Sleepy”?
He earned the nickname in the very first glass class he ever took. At the time, he was working a night shift job and going to school during the day. The exhaustion would catch up with him in the warmth of the glass demonstrations and he would fall asleep.
“A professor and a friend of mine gave me the nickname and … it stuck for a long time, and I’ve never been able to get rid of it, even though I’ve tried.”
In our conversation, John more frequently called himself a nomad. Whether we call him an expat or a nomad, moving has appealed to him. He grew up and attended art school in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the United States. Following art school, he traveled all over the U.S. He then spent a year and a half teaching English in China.
After returning to the U.S. to resume work blowing glass, he befriended a Belgian glass maker. She invited him to do a residency and to teach in Belgium in 2010. He traveled between Belgium and U.S. frequently, finally moving here in 2013.
John has brought with him some characteristically American traits: a sense of openness and hospitality, a creative and entrepreneurial approach to his business that fuels his artistry, and a community-building spirit. These traits may stand out in Belgium, but they are the driving force making Gent Glas successful.
About Gent Glas
After moving to Gent in 2013, John co-founded Gent Glas with three Belgians to have a place to create his art. While some of the colleagues have changed over time, John has remained the consistent operator, and heart and soul of Gent Glas.
How and why was Gent Glas founded?
“Pretty shortly after I came over here we started this place up … It was just because there wasn’t other glass studios around. I am a glass maker and an artist. It’s what I’ve done for a long time and what I knew, so when I got to Europe I kind of started looking around, and it’s not open like it is in the States … When we started this place, the idea was that it would be open really to the public, but also to other glass makers to come through … So, it was founded by me and three other Belgians and two of those people have since left … and it’s now with several expats … We always have an international team.”
That team now consists of about 20 artists. They are a group comprised of full-time, part-time, and temporary artists and interns, currently hailing from Belgium, France, Netherlands, Poland, South Africa, and the U.S.
“So, the founders are still in contact, but we have a different team basically than we’ve had, we’ve been kind of always evolving.”
How else has Gent Glas evolved?
“We pretty quickly started pulling people in, like very early on, we had a lot of interest from all over. We had a lot of people who wanted to come be a part of it, even just once or twice, to make glass here because of the community aspect … Now that we’ve been open for a while and we do the Friday nights [details below], we started to build a community of Gent locals who are doing glass, kind of starting from the idea of this place, rather than from starting from a University idea. So, it has changed really a lot of ways. We have probably more people that started here and have continued than we have from the contact of people who have been doing it for a while.”
How can people experience and support Gent Glas?
“First and foremost, we are artists. Everyone that works here has their own work that they do as well, and we do this to kind of help sustain that, because the cost is very high. So, one of the ways we do that, to kind of introduce people to it and for people to understand why the costs are high, is by the public events.”
“We do the Fridays [Friday Night Live, open café and live glass demonstrations on Friday nights from 20:00pm – 1:00am]. We also started doing the first Sunday of the month [Shop-Op Zondag], and we do extra opening days … We did that really to kind of introduce people to it because nobody had seen it.”
“And from there we started doing workshops. So, we offer very basic beginner workshops which are just hands-on, really, to more advanced workshops that we are offering now that are weekend workshops for sculpture or learning specific techniques.”
The studio is also available to rent for special occasions, team-building, parties, and more.
“We also offer memberships in order to gain benefits and support the studio.”
“When we started it [Gent Glas], the idea was that we’d be making glass all the time, but that doesn’t happen just because of cost overhead, but we are getting there from making the products that we make. We do beer glasses and wine glasses, which have become relatively popular, and then we also started making sculptural lines of work that’s individual based on the people who work here, and those are shown here but also in some galleries, so that also comes to support the studio.”
I love your Inferno beer glasses. I drink everything out of them!
“We spent time researching them, you know, like we made them and were like, okay, these ones, it feels better like this, you get enough head and it doesn’t overflow.”
You offer a lot of activities and services. Is there anything else people should know about Gent Glas events?
“People can also keep up to date on our Facebook page as we may host some pop-up events.”
As artists, do you differentiate between your personal art and the products for Gent Glas?
“All the full-time artists here are trying to support the studio also through works that we’re making for the studio. So, there’s like our signature works which are like stuff that’s made for Gent Glas by the people in Gent Glas, though we do show them in some other places, but they’re very much this series of work that we’re doing together. But the larger works, all of us have our own stuff we do as well. But there is becoming more of … an integration than there was in the past, and partially that’s because it does give us a lot more credibility in the art and glass world, too, as an organization, that we have full-time artists working here who see the studio as their studio in a way too.”
“The glasses … I don’t put my name on them even though I did design them and worked on them … We put a lot of time into designing them … and getting them to where we need them, what we liked about them and we still have high quality control, but in a way, it’s more like a production work, and that’s something that we do want to find, is a way to have more production style sculptures that represent our work but … are on an affordable scale so that we can disperse that and have that also support the city.”
“That’s the idea is that it becomes product lines so that we can support the studio … it’s the design side of it that we have more input in there just to be able to create the object itself. And then from there, we make them sometimes, we also have the interns make them, and we make them for the studio, so it’s not an ownership … it’s a collective thing and that sense for the group of us that did that.”
You offer a variety of ways for consumers to support your business. I would say that is a very American approach to business, would you agree? Is it working here in Gent?
“Everything we do has a double purpose. Even though we use the glasses to support our own art, we also do it to support a whole community of people who are now a part of this.”
“In the group of people that we work with there are some people with the entrepreneurial idea, but I wouldn’t see it as a normal thing we run into. And the more that we have to deal with taxes and paperwork, the more I understand why, because they definitely don’t make it easy.”
How has Gent been for you as an entrepreneur? and small business owner? and freelance artist?
“Because we are a VZW [Vereniging Zonder Winstoogmerk] we’re a nonprofit, we don’t operate as a business in a way … as a nonprofit, Gent has been quite supportive for us.”
“We have the building subsidy [that will allow them to stay in their current location until at least 2020] … They often give us some project subsidies, so we are able to do a couple of projects a year.”
“They’ve also been more supportive as far as, we’re on the cultural website, they see us as a cultural organization. They really recognize more and more what we’re doing and have become more and more supportive even … They’ve been more forthcoming in coming to us.”
“As an expat and also as a group of expats … we decided we’re here, we want to be here, and we made that shift, and in a strange way all of the stuff started happening. The city started contacting us and it really felt like we were a part of the city, rather than being people who relocated here, and they saw the importance of us choosing to live here rather than being just born here or moving from Melle to Gent. And that’s made Gent feel much more at home, I think, for all of us.”
That said, starting a business or organization in Belgium is not without challenges. (The Square.Gent has some tips for overcoming some of these challenges in our section for entrepreneurs and freelancers!)
We talked about some of those challenges, including language barriers, complicated tax laws, confusing paperwork, and limited opportunities for artists. John has experienced all of the above.
“[A VZW] is very easy to start but it’s hard to maintain if somebody doesn’t know what they’re doing … But I feel like that’s just the way the systems are.”
“What there is not a lot of here is galleries or even like, for all the art in the city, there are no public art calls. There’s no way that the city put[s] out a call and say[s], ‘we want artists to submit an idea for a public work.’ And I’ve been trying to propose a public work for two years and I don’t know how to go about it, and I don’t know who to ask to go about it … There’s not very many galleries here, there’s not very much as far as contemporary art happening in Gent, as like big shows. There’s some stuff, but it’s not like in Brussels, there is a bigger art scene, so you have to not limit yourself to Gent in that stage. Which is easier said than done.”
Despite these challenges, it seems like Gent Glas is doing well?
“Even if we struggle it’s awesome because it is a place where … we spend all of our time because we like it, and then other people come and spend time here too. It’s awesome, and we get to share everything with them. For a lot of artists, it’s very intimate to be in your studio and we are often sometimes like that too, but we can open that up to the public and that’s pretty cool.”
“So, it’s crazy to think that we are doing this even though there are pitfalls you run into with taxes … it still ends up working. It’s like, I know we are going to get through it because too many people now are behind it now for it to not. Too many people believe in it, and it just makes it feel like we are doing something worthwhile, and then the city is also recognizing that, so it’s hit a point where we feel successful in it.”
As a cultural organization, how does Gent Glas contribute to the city and community?
“We’ve brought glass blowing to a place where it didn’t exist, and we can pull in like, on a good night we have 60 or 70 people here, and even on a slow night we have 20 people. A couple of weeks ago we had a slow night where there was 20 people, but in the crowd, there was people from 7 countries. And that is really nice because it does become then a meeting place where people feel comfortable. Because we’re expats but also because we’re locals, so it is a local meeting place for expats and locals, and I think that’s really cool, and … the focus isn’t just that it’s an expat meeting place. The focus is about glass and people coming together and finding something to talk about even through that, without it being just about living from another place or something … I am happy this place has become something that is alive in its own way.”
“There’s this kind of community that’s happened. And then we also have a group of Belgian people who we also are really attached to because of this place. And It’s cool because it’s locals and international, and then this glass scene that has its own kind of subculture, and it’s quite popular in this underground glass scene, too.”
What are your hopes for the future of Gent Glas?
“I am pretty excited about what is happening here … what I hope is, long term, that we are able to … actually be open to the public more than we are, because right now, everything is voluntary … we get paid for jobs but we don’t get paid for the studio, but we’re trying to find subsidies so we can actually have staff so we can be open 3 or 4 days a week rather than 1 day a week. That’s my goal, because I am happy about what’s happening here.”
“We need to be open because we already are a public place and the more that we’re open, the more community it draws, the more it becomes something, and the more that it supports this art scene that Gent so badly wants to have, too. We start to support artists. We’re creating an economy around these artists’ lives. We’re allowing artists to make glass that is very expensive by basically having them make glass that we can sell for the studio, and then people also start to buy their work or our work as well, because it’s on show here. We’re building an economy and a community beyond just this beer-drinking, glass-blowing community, like a broader place.”
“Our hope is that someday that this place runs without us and we are able to be a part of the studio and there’s a community and a manager that’s managing all the things that we’re doing now, and that would just grow into a bigger, broader community.”
“This is kind of my home now … but it’s not only me, there is a group of people attached to this too. And that switch happened where we do see it now as home. At least as long term as I exist places. I have already been here longer than I think I’ve lived anywhere else … so, long term, yeah, I hope to be here until it is self-sufficient enough that I can still be here without being here.”
What else do you want The Square.Gent readers to know about Gent Glas?
“I guess the big thing that I still think is exciting as an expat is that we do always host expats. Partially because there’s few glass artists in Belgium, when we have visiting artists, which we have a lot, they’re almost always from another country … Our team is extremely international … I think it’s a cool place because if you come from somewhere, there’s a good chance that someone is going to be here from where you are coming from, whether it’s an artist or someone from just the neighborhood.”
“It’s nice because we’re always open for a place to feel like home. Nobody here is going to be shy about talking with anybody. You won’t go in and sit by yourself for a whole evening … someone’s going to engage you, because that’s one of the things I put really important at the top of our list, how we interact with the public, whether it is somebody from the studio or someone in general … We’ve created this open place, so people now interact a lot, even though they don’t know each other. So, we often have people that come here to sit and have a beer and they end up talking to another group of people and making new friends and I think that’s a good place to be.”
Maybe it is just the American in me that really appreciates the warm hospitality, but I think he is absolutely correct, Gent Glas really is a good place to be!
In starting Gent Glas, John and his co-founders and fellow artists have created an open, community space where artists and the public can meet. It is a place where, with public support, he and other artists can flourish, and we can all benefit. But don’t just take my word for it. Go visit, see for yourself, and support Gent Glas!
Fun Fast Facts You Should Know Before Visiting Gent Glas:
- You will be graciously welcomed by Kaiser, John’s dog!
- John says it is very rare that people break glass objects in the shop and studio. Be careful and keep that record going!
- The team at Gent Glas built (upcycled!) their bar and café furniture from a “trash heap” of materials found when they moved in the building.
- Despite the presence of flame and breakable glass, Gent Glas is not just for grown-ups. Families are welcome. (Kids, just remember that previous fact about being careful!)
Learn More About John “Sleepy” Moran and Back Door Art:
- Website: https://www.backdoorart.com/
- Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/johnsleepymoran/
- Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/johnsleepymoran/