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Too nice not to use twice

Old Town Glassworks celebrates 30th anniversary of repurposing glass into functional art
Matthew Grogono, owner of Old Town Glassworks, is celebrating 30 years of business this year. The glass recycler has created a thriving enterprise that creates unique glassware from items that otherwise would be discarded.

While there are those who might ‘take one down and pass it around’ if they were to encounter ‘one hundred bottles of beer on the wall,’ chances are that Matthew Grogono, would make a unique piece of glass art with one of those bottles.

Thirty years ago, that might have been a novel idea spurred by Grogono’s pioneering vision of recycling more and wasting less in Yellowknife.

Yet that creative idea became a reality one evening in 1994 when he was attending a city council meeting. He noticed everyone in the room, including the mayor and councillors, was drinking from Styrofoam cups.

“And I started doing the arithmetic and it came out to like 2,000 to 5,000 Styrofoam cups per year in that one room,” Grogono said.

He then knew he had an opportunity to become a catalyst for change in terms of how the city approached waste management — something he described as being “make it, break it, throw it away and do it again.”

“And I remembered the K-Tel cutter, which was a popular product in 1974, and I thought, ‘I'm going to make a dozen glasses to give to the mayor and councillors and demonstrate how you can take something out of the waste stream, put it back in the economy, divert the use of Styrofoam and drink more water...’,” he recalled, adding that the gifts were well-received.

From that idea, Old Town Glassworks became Grogono’s way of breathing new purpose into discarded glass.

While first started as a business, he said 30 years later it has evolved into becoming a workers' cooperative.

They make not only drinking glasses, but also bowls, vases, lamp shades and even soap dispensers, among other items — all from recycled glass.

“We're continuously making different types of glass things,” he said.

Proudly crafted

He said one “remarkably popular” aspect of the business is the workshops they conduct for visitors.

Standing in his cozy shop, with sunlight streaming through shelves lined with green, brown and coveted cobalt blue glassware, Grogono estimates that hundreds of thousands of pieces of his functional art have been made and purchased locally or by tourists from around the world.

“People like making it themselves. It's a quiet time, it makes them think. And they are so darn happy with themselves,” he said of the satisfaction individuals get when they see the completed item in their hands.

Grogono said they are able to source most of the bottles they use for their glassware locally, from the Yellowknife Bottle Depot.

“They help us extract the ones that we can turn into unique Northern art,” he said.

An identifying feature on glassware is the artwork, he noted. During their early years, he said they had an artist who drew stencils, such as trees and ravens and other Northern images.

“She did some great stencils and we started using that on glassware,” he said.

“And then over the course of about a year or so, I replicated her polar bear so many times that Bill Nasogaluak, a world famous sculptor, looked at my polar bear and said, ‘That’s not a polar bear, that's a hamster,’” he laughed. “And he drew a polar bear, and he gave it to me and said, ‘That’s a polar bear.’”

On its 30th anniversary, an achievement held by few in the Yellowknife business district, recycling remains a core value of the business.

To coincide with the anniversary and to extend their business reach, a new website was launched that complements their newly-designed Facebook page and which contains a link to a music celebration that was live streamed on July 1, he said.

“You know, Glassworks was in a recycling business before, but we’re much more in a recreational entertainment business. People want an adventure, and musical events on a low-key level are fun,” he said of the anniversary event.

With the help of various grants and investments, Grogono said they are determining ways to continue implementing the ‘four Rs’ of recycling and to “rethink Old Town Glassworks.”

“After Covid and staff changes, we have had to retrain and rebuild the whole company. And now in summer, where things are catching up a bit, we can have more fun with creative art and developing more ‘one-off’ pieces of art.

“We’ve got a 1941 log cabin, we’ve got people from all over the world looking for adventure and mystery.”