Ex-hippie turns successful businesswoman

Metro Community News
circa 1995
by GLENN GRAMIGNA, Metro Correspondent

It's a long way frnm Woodstock to Williamsville. and it has been a lengthy journey for Elli Present Perkins of Hopkins Road from the streets of Haight Ashbury to the malls of local suburbia where sales of her glass paintings --"suncatchers"- have made her one of the richest ex-hippies in Western New York. "Here they are. This is my collection," this 5 foot-1 mother of two recently announced with a satisfied grin, pointing to her current stock of the mostly 11-inch by 14-inch rectangular glass renderings of animals, rural scenes, and assorted plant life which have made her a successful housewife-entrepreneur over the past 16 years.

"We have sold over 30,000 of these since 1978" she stated. "And I am sure many of your readers have one or more in their homes."

But what most folks probably don't know is that the glass paintings they have in their home are definitely not the product of some big corporate sales campaign or gaint national marketing push, as they might expect.

The whole thing really came from my husband, Don, and I and from my desire to do something that would give me artistic satisfaction and, at the same time would be financially successful, Elli, 46, explained. "We did it. But, really, the message I want to give people is that you can fulfill the dream of doing something that you love and is also successful. And, really, it is never too late!" But while you are mulling over all the many reasons why all of this would never work for you, like the kids, your job, and having no time or money -- remember that Elli and Don had all of these handicaps too. Not to mention the extra emotional baggage of her three - year journey through counter culture promised land, from Woodstock to San Francisco to Hawaii in search of the hippie dream.

I was usually very upset and depressed during that time," she recalled, "Nothing ever seemed to work out. Besides that, I was very shy and couldn't really talk to people, especially about my art. I had a hard time showing people what I was doing and especially, God forbid, selling anybody anything! I had this idea at that time that art was something you couldn't possibly sell. I mean, that would like selling your soul.

Especially after seeing a boyfriend admitted to a psychiatric hospital due to drug abuse, she made her way back to Western New York, away from the hippie world for good.

She read a number of books during her soul searching period, including Huxley's "Island," but finally found her route to seIf-improvement in the Scientology philosophy of best selling author L. Ron Hubbard, whom she credits with much of her comeback.

"The Scientology Courses calmed me down and helped me to be able to communicate with people better." she said. "Now I could go up to people and talk about my art without guilt or fear."

She met her husband. Don, then a local carpenter, soon after, and before long the little ones starting coming -- Jeremy in 1975 and Danielle in '76. But her financial/artistic quandary remained.

"I was selling a few paintings and other things in those days, but we really weren't pulling in much from them," Ellie recalled. "I wanted to find a business that would be both financially rewarding and fulfilling creatively. But I didn't know if that was possible. Plus, I was a young mother with two small children to take care of."

She found her solution when a friend introduced her to glass painting (Ellie considers the term suncathers to be "trite"), and then the friend conveniently left town, leaving the field open to the enterprising young Perkinses. They immediately set about making literally thousands of the mostly miniature objets d'art in a small apartment they were renting and then booked space in Rochester's Mid-Town Plaza at Christmastime in a desperate attempt to sell their newly created wares.

But, she wondered, would the public even be interested in their highly-stylized depictions of country scenes and animals, most of which were tailored to fit a holiday motif?

As it turned out, they were -- so much that the young couple was forced to work all day tending to their stand and then labor all night without sleep to make up new designs the next day.

"We worked so hard that first year and got so little sleep that Don got pneumonia," Ellie remembered. "But, despite everything, we established a successful pattern for ourselves that first time. Since then we have been at many other malls, including the Thruway, Boulevard, and Seneca malls, and we have done especially well at the annual Renaissance Fair near Rochester, in additon to wholesale sales to stores in several states."

Through the years, sales of Ellie's glass art painting have soared into the tens of thousands, as the works have made their way into offices in the Statler and living rooms in Orchard Park, as well as craft stores in Allentown. But don't tell her that her success has been of the balance sheet variety alone.

"I like doing this because it fulfills my artistic goal of bringing beauty into the world and making people happy, as well as the money," she said. "It is true I've traded in my love beads for business cards, but don't forget, they are buiness cards that I created myself."

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Last modified: Thu Feb 3 22:46:33 EST 2005