When you step inside the Laffing Glass, a Saugatuck shop owned by Leslie Fitzell, it’s like crossing the threshold into Oz. A vibrant garden of glass flowers and dragonflies greets you, as does Leslie herself, ready with a smile and an endearing sense of humor. Her sunny spirit is even evident on the exterior of the shop, with punny signs displaying phrases such as “The artist is in (sane)” and, “Get your glass in here!”
It’s no surprise that people from all over the country are patrons of Leslie’s glass art, commissioning custom designs or simply making her shop a must stop on their tour of the Art Coast. Leslie treats these customers like family, taking time out of her day to share hugs, coffee, and dinner with them. This sense of love and acceptance is one of the reasons she likes being a part of both the artistic and LGBTQ+ community in Saugatuck. And it’s why she never hesitates to encourage people to visit and live here.
How did you get your start working with glass?
I have an art background with graphics and museum installations and started doing stained glass to unwind. In 2010, when the museum company I was working for decided to close its doors, I got back into glass art heavily. I knew there was more to the glass world than stained glass, so I started exploring. My wife bought me some equipment for my birthday, and I put a little studio in our basement.
A lot of the work I do is called kiln-formed glass, where glass is heated and formed in kilns. Another technique I use is casting, where I take crushed glass and put it into molds. I also do a small amount of lampwork and blowing of glass elements and embellishments.
Why did you decide to open a shop in Saugatuck?
I was making a lot of pieces for myself, but I had friends who would come over and tell me that people needed to see what I was doing. I started going to galleries up and down the coast to sell my work. When my wife and I decided to move to Saugatuck, I thought about opening a shop. It seemed like a pipe dream—like winning the lottery. But while we were walking around town, looking at all the buildings and loving the sense of art and culture here, my wife encouraged me to open my own place. The price was right, and I took a chance on figuring out all the ins and outs of starting a business.
What inspires your work?
I love nature and animals. Trees especially are my jam. You’ll see a lot of pieces that are organic in style. I do a lot of flowers, butterflies, and dragonflies. And in Saugatuck, it’s easy to find inspiration everywhere. I love Oval Beach, and I absolutely love the Saugatuck Dunes State Park. I’m easily fascinated by the nature all around me, too. I could just sit here, and I would probably find a bumble bee to play with or a tree to watch. And for me, working with glass is a way to preserve these kinds of memories.
The coolest thing about my medium is that it’s never gone. I’ve had people come and say that they’ve broken one of my pieces that they bought, and I tell them that glass is never really broken. Bring it back to me, and I’ll make it into something else. You can reform and reinvent it. It will become a story with interesting scars.
Why is Saugatuck such a great place for the LGBTQ+ community to visit and live?
Saugatuck is an anomaly. It’s a true walking town, and there is a feeling of safety feeling here. You can walk down the street holding your partner’s hand and not be afraid. There is a real sense of community here, too. People know that they can find family here and that they won’t be treated differently from anyone else. I hear so many people say that they want to move here or retire here. I say, “The more the merrier!”
Saugatuck is also a good place for families to visit. People come here from Chicago, Detroit, and Kalamazoo and bring their kids. When we have people visiting, we tell them about our favorite restaurants like Wally’s and Phil’s Bar & Grille. We tell them to grab their pickle juice and water and climb the steps at Mt. Baldy. It’s just a great place to be!