Visualize this: a group of teenage boys go from “moaning, groaning” about having to be there to, just weeks later, describing their work on a glass project with undisguised pride. This transformation was observed by Pittsburgh mosaic artist Daviea Davis when she led a team of first-time juvenile offenders in the creation of a large glass mural. The project, sponsored in part by the Pittsburgh Glass Center and unveiled to the public on September 4th, is just one example of how glass studios and arts institutions are developing programs that teach the same skills inherent in glass practice — teamwork, the difficulty and danger of the process, and demanding technique — to focus the attention of at-risk youth in a positive collaborative direction.
It makes sense: the control required by working with glass is an admirable trait to cultivate, especially if control is elusive in other areas of one’s life. Teaching such control as both a component of artistic practice and a life skill is more or less the motivation for the emergence of these programs. From the program at Hilltop in Tacoma, Washington (tagline: “Using glass art to connect young people from diverse cultural and economic backgrounds to better futures”), which was founded in 1994, to that of GlassRoots in Newark, established in 2001, programs from around the country are trying to have a positive impact on the predominantly urban populations they serve by teaching glass-making techniques to kids and teenagers.
What is it about glass in particular that makes it an apt medium for students who might otherwise be essentially isolated from art? According to Shannon Slattery, program director at GoggleWorks Center for the Arts in Reading, Pennsylvania, it’s the uncommonness of working with glass, coupled with its technical complexities, that makes for an interesting learning experience. As a result, she says, glass “provides not only a creative outlet, but discipline and respect for tools and materials. Working with glass teaches students that it takes practice and determination to develop skill.” Melting glass over a torch, as students in GoggleWork’s after-school lampworking classes do, then molding or blowing the molten glass requires a different kind of deftness than algebra, and it also undoubtedly holds a different kind of allure.
Working with glass also teaches students the necessity and potential pleasures of teamwork. Pat Kettenring, executive director at GlassRoots, suggests that working with glass in a group helps students develop a sort of camaraderie, and “in a way that doesn’t hurt anyone.“ Margaret Prescott, an art therapist working in private practice in Seattle (and a glass-blower herself), seconds this: “Glassblowing with a partner teaches you trust, patience, and teamwork.” She adds, “It is also a great way to improve communication skills.” Davis, the artist who supervised the Pittsburgh mural project, noted how her group gelled. “For me, I have been working with groups on mosaics before, and this time I think I really understood…everyone would be working toward the same completed design.” Surely working toward a shared objective would be a valuable experience for students who feel, and are, isolated in other ways.
The Hilltop program can be considered the prototype for other programs that have emerged since the mid-90s. Begun by Kathy Kaperick, glass artist and friend to Dale Chihuly, the program based in a blighted area of Tacoma was early in recognizing the appeal of the danger of glass-making—what might be recognized as a constructive danger, as opposed to the destructive dangers of the drugs and gang-related activities to which Hilltop students had too-easy access. Now, through after-school and summer glass-arts programs, these students “get a chance to have the process of thinking something through and seeing the results of the choices they made immediately,” explains executive director Kit Evans. “They create something—either fused glass or a bead or blown glass—and they [say], ‘I made that? Really?’” Nancy Sala Safko, a lampworking instructor at GoggleWorks, seconds this, noting that even students who struggle with the process can still feel comfortable in the studio. “For those kids, telling them what wonderful colors they chose is like telling them they are masters of the craft.”
Though the studios themselves neither bill these programs as art therapy nor incorporate any form of psychotherapy into them, the argument can be made that there is therapeutic value to working with glass in a structured, yet low-pressure, environment. Prescott agrees that glass can be very therapeutic, for “working with a medium that involves such physical movement must help address and heal important parts of the brain.” Glass work also teaches resiliency, she’s found: “While fragile, glass can take a lot of abuse and still come out beautiful.” There is a “feel-good” aspect of the youth programs that has the potential to make one skeptical, but undoubtedly each student trained is one more person who has been given a new way to work out problems and a new forum for their voice. At Neusole Gallery in Cincinnati, flameworker Michael Goodman passes on to his students what is perhaps glass’s defining lesson: “You can coax it into almost anything but force it into almost nothing.” This technical lesson can be applied to life as well, of course.
GlassRoots, the studio in Newark, embodies the evolution of the youth-targeted glass program. Director and founder Kettenring had visited Hilltop in 1998 and wanted to begin a similar program in New Jersey, one intended not only to engage kids and teens who might be at risk of getting involved in destructive activities, but also to “steer students toward higher education.” When asked why glass-making is a good focus for a program with these goals, Kettering explains, “The obvious answer is the excitement and danger that is in inherent in it. It’s a safe way to learn about taking risks.” Glass-making is a form of “positive risk taking,” which research has shown to reduce substance abuse among teens. As Kettenring points out, “We can give incentives for them to do better in their lives as they are now.” But GlassRoots isn’t solely concerned with its students’ presents; it’s also concerned with their futures.
This sense of perspective is crucial to that program’s success. Like the teens involved with the Pittsburgh mural project, students at GlassRoots are visited by Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, which helps them to think of glass as having economic as well as expressive potentials. It’s interesting to note that GlassRoots students have gone on to pursue associate’s degrees at the Glass Education Center at Salem Community College. As Kettenring says, “It’s been very exciting to see kids go to college and think about what comes next.” Another student recently received a scholarship for the Experiment in International Living, which took her to Mexico—to study Maya art and architecture, yes, but also to study life through the lens of another culture. This example typifies what makes GlassRoots so appealing: its gateway function on a path to somewhere else, whether toward glass-making or another career entirely. Certainly other programs can perform this function as well. It’s exciting to recognize glass as the vehicle.
—Analisa Coats Bacall (with additional reporting by Marianne Mychaskiw)