A Conversation with Jan Hardy of River Rainbows

At a craft market recently, I was attracted to a stall of brightly coloured glassware. I went over to have a closer look and introduce myself to the maker, Jan Hardy.

A few weeks later I met Jan in her hometown, the small village of Arapuni in rural Waikato, where we sat in the sun at Rhubarb Café and chatted about her business, River Rainbows.

Jan hand-paints a wide variety of glassware including wine and champagne glasses, shot glasses, coasters, sauce bottles, salt and pepper shakers and vases.

She sells her work at markets and also supplies stock to nearly a dozen shops throughout New Zealand, including the Art Port gallery at Auckland International Airport.

“Pohutukawas are the most popular design,” Jan tells me, “and the pukekos and black ferns. A lot of them go to the international market.”

I was intrigued to know how Jan got started with glass painting.

“I started from a glass painting kit my mother gave me for a birthday present. It was on glass but I adapted to using Perspex after cutting myself too many times,” Jan tells me.

“I’ve always loved glass. I have a big collection of about a hundred pieces of Carnival glass. There are lots of colours and it was made all over the world, from the early 1900’s. The most prolific colour is an orange called Marigold and it looks like petrol on water; a rainbow effect.

My own collection began with a big bowl that my grandmother had received as a wedding present. The bowl, which I inherited, is so beautiful. I have memories of my grandmother making jellies in it. It had a butterfly on the bottom, so when you tipped the jelly out the butterfly was on the top of the jelly.”

Jan’s childhood was spent moving around frequently as her father worked on hydro power stations.

“It was the Hydro Life, working for the Ministry of Works….or Uncle Mow as we called it!

We had draughty houses with no insulation, and just an electric two-bar heater for heating. Kids used to joke that it was warmer to sleep under the bed than in it. There was ice on the inside of the windows!

But it was the best childhood. We had so much freedom and wide open spaces to run around.”

Years later, Jan’s husband also worked at the power stations, so her hydro life continued.

Eventually, Jan and her husband moved to Auckland, a move that Jan had been told would be coming.

“An old Maori clairvoyant lady at Victoria Park Market told me that I would be selling something that I had made myself, thousands of them, and I would be surrounded by bright colours. Well, I probably have sold thousands by now,” Jan laughs.

“She told me that I would move somewhere very beautiful with lots of birdlife all around me. That’s what we have here in Arapuni.”

Jan was working as a cleaner at Marsden Point Oil Refinery, when her husband was made redundant and they were worried about what they were going to do next.

Jan remembers, “I woke up in the middle of the night and thought ‘We will move to Auckland and I will sell my leadlights at Victoria Park Market’.”

Jan says her husband thought she was mad, but that didn’t stop her. She jumped in her Riley Elf and set off to Auckland to find somewhere for them to live. She agreed to get a job and work for two years and then, she declared, she would go to Victoria Market. True to her word, she found work in a factory and after a couple of years there she did go and get a stall at the market as she had planned.

After some time though the pace of life in Auckland became too much. “My friend Mary lived in Arapuni. I visited her on my way home to Auckland after a market and it was so peaceful,” Jan tells me.

“A little while after that I was driving over the Harbour Bridge and my head was so full of confusion I didn’t know where I was going. I had a bit of a melt down and I thought ‘I’m going to go and live where Mary lives’.”

“We moved to Arapuni and rented a house for three years before the electricity company sold all the houses and we purchased ours.

Jan obviously enjoys her life in peaceful Arapuni, creating her beautiful glassware under the watchful eye of her dog, who she takes for walks across the swingbridge over the river. Jan and I enjoyed a walk there together on the sunny day that I went to chat to her and it was easy to see the attraction of the area.

“It’s very central and handy to State Highway One, so I can get to all the markets easily from here.”

Jan sells her glassware at markets in Taupo, Rotorua, Matamata, Cambridge and at the Pirongia Annual Craft Day.

Jan has tried and tested different brands of paint but is happy with the one she uses now, which is a specialist glass paint from France. I ask Jan to tell me about her painting process.

“I draw by freehand a lot of the designs, some of them I trace on to the glass. I use a special pen, then paint goes on next. I follow the colour spectrum starting with red, right through, with black going on last.

“The most difficult part about starting the business was sourcing the glass and discovering, through trial and error, what people will buy,” Jan says.

Jan’s busiest time of the year is the lead up to Christmas as a lot of people buy her glassware as gifts. “It’s ‘paint until you faint’ during that time,” Jan jokes.

Jan creates bespoke personalised gifts for her customers. She inscribes the dates of weddings, anniversaries or birthdays around the foot of the glasses.

“I like to think of people receiving the things I have made as gifts,” she adds.

“I get a lot of satisfaction when I go to a big market and set up my stall. I look at it and think, ‘Wow, I’ve created all of that!’”

Jan says she is an independent person and has been all her life. “I just get on with it,” she explains. “If I need something heavy lifting, well, my husband is around to help me, but I do prefer to pack my own van for markets, because I’m the one that has to unpack it at the other end! I try to do two markets a week, but sometimes when I’ve got a lot of big orders it’s a bit touch and go. I’m nearly seventy, so I’m slowing down!

My mother, who is ninety, asks me when I’m going to give it up and I say “When I’m too old to get up into the van!”

To see more of Jan’s work visit her Facebook page.