You might think the glass bowls presented as awards at the Women’s Association of NJPAC’s Spotlight Gala 2013 were made in Murano, Scandinavia or stateside in Toledo or Corning. Think again: They were designed and created out of a narrow rowhouse on Bleeker Street in Newark, where many hands make singularly sensational objects.
The non-profit GlassRoots studio was commissioned by the WA to fashion three bowls for the awards portion of the Oct. 5 gala, which raises funds for arts education programs at NJPAC. This represents a happy conjunction of missions, since at its core the 12-year-old GlassRoots exists to acquaint underserved students with glassmaking: an art that is as much about science as design.
“Forging Lives Through Fire and Glass” is the GlassRoots motto and the organization achieves that by offering programs that satisfy multiple curriculum standards, with side benefits like lessons in problem-solving, teamwork and extreme gentleness. Last year, 999 students participated in projects that ranged from crafting a simple piece of jewelry during a field trip to a year-long course in developing a business plan for marketing their own glassware.
The two-toned footed bowls for the Spotlight Gala, however, were created by a team of GlassRoots’ professional staffers and instructors, led by glassblowing artist Jason Minami. The theme of this year’s event was “The Enchanted Oz,” so naturally the dominant colors were emerald green and brilliant gold. A swirling pattern suggested the spiraling Yellow Brick Road. The recipients included Cephas Bowles, President and CEO of WBGO-FM; Patrick C. Dunican Jr., Chairman and Managing Director of Gibbons P.C.; and Veronica (“Ronnie”) M. Goldberg, a Founding Member of the WA’s Board of Trustees.
Moving a fragile objet d’art intended for someone else is fraught with peril. Carefully passed from person to person, the glassware is vulnerable to flat-out breakage, scratches, chips, even typos in the engraving. That’s why GlassRoots orders plenty of extra glass, from countries as far-flung as Sweden and New Zealand, and ample deadlines are built in for unexpected occurrences. The act of sculpting the bowl itself, surprisingly, takes less time than the firing and cooling processes.
An adjoining brick building, originally a stable, is the hotshop containing GlassRoots’ gas furnaces, which generate 2,000-degree F. temperatures 24/7. The nearby cooling ovens are anything but – when opened they release a 900-degree blast of air. “In Winter, everyone loves the hotshop,” says Minami, who claims he can sweat weight off in the Summer just being in proximity to the blazes.
The element of danger has its attractions for students, so safety and respect also are folded into their experience. They use their eyes to focus while working over a flame, their hands to block themselves and others from the heat, and their ears to “listen” to the wheel while grinding down a glass divot. “It’s physics,” assistant glassblowing instructor Jennifer Johnson says succinctly, explaining that movement, stance, applied pressure and the weight of the piece all contribute to how glass is transformed.
“Having seen what the performing arts at NJPAC could do for children, I decided that we could use the same methods to inspire underprivileged children in the Greater Newark area by exposing them to the fine arts,” says Dena F. Lowenbach, who is a founding member of GlassRoots and a trustee of the WA. “GlassRoots uses the art of glassmaking to build life skills and self-confidence.”
Barbara Heisler, GlassRoots’ Interim Executive Director, says the studio has the only youth-accessible hotshop in the metropolitan area. “Kids who come through here don’t have to become glass artisans,” she adds, although at least one did: Chris Velasquez of Newark is now an assistant to Brooklyn glassblower Michiko Sakano.
“They can express themselves and feel good about themselves.”