Cole Johnson came to Western Carolina University four years ago planning to get a degree in criminal justice. Instead, he recently graduated with a bachelor’s of fine arts degree and in January will be headed to Australia to hone his glassblowing skills.

Johnson, of Wilkesboro, is one of four international applicants chosen to receive a full scholarship to participate in the two-year associate training program at the JamFactory in Adelaide, Australia. JamFactory is a nonprofit artist organization supported by the government of South Australia.

“It’s like a huge deal,” Johnson said. “It’s exactly what I need, so I was very excited about it.”

Johnson was first introduced to glassblowing while taking a class visit to the Jackson County Green Energy Park. After watching a demonstration, he decided to take a Saturday glassblowing class, and from there was hooked. He took all the classes the Green Energy Park offered before project director Timm Muth gave him an internship, which Johnson was involved in until graduating.

Johnson went from making simple pieces to studying advanced glass techniques in just a couple of years, Muth said. “But he put so much time in both here at the shop, and if he’s not at the shop he’s looking at videos online, or he’s reading books, or he’s researching things like Italian techniques. He’s really put the time in, and he has a real knack for it,” Muth said.

Johnson said the physical nature of glassblowing is what he likes most.

“I’ve always been into sports and working out,” he said. “Just working with something that’s so hot – it’s like 2,200 degrees. It’s such a physical thing and it wears on your body. It’s also dangerous, too. It’s really fun.”

The JamFactory associate program offers participants both high-level skills and business training. They develop their own work under the guidance and mentorship of staff, and they work on collaborative JamFactory projects, products and commissions. The program also features visiting artists who offer critiques and mentoring.

“I want to become a better glassblower,” Johnson said. “I want to learn the business aspects of the whole thing so I can actually make a living, because that’s vital. That’s the one thing they tend to focus on – teaching us the whole business side. I’d also like to meet new people and make connections.”