Glass blowing demos and classes are a recent addition to the many visual arts and volunteer opportunities available at the Springfield Art Association, thanks to the newly opened Baima Glass Studio.
According to SAA executive director Betsy Dollar, "People from this area were routinely going to St. Louis or Chicago to experience hot glass. There are several central Illinois glass blowers who offer an occasional workshop, particularly for holidays, but no regular classes. This is what started the discussion. There seemed to be enough local interest to support a program."
Mario Clarke, SAA's artist-in-residence, teaches the class and demos. Clarke, whose one-year residency began in June, studied under John Miller at Illinois State University. Miller also runs Ring of Fire glass studio in Bloomington, and Clarke continues to work with Miller.
"My personal work has a few different directions. Some are figurative, such as plants and animals, and others are forms that are inspired by the woods. After being blown hot, I then cold-work extreme amounts of texture into them," said Clarke.
So far, said Dollar, several hundred people have attended various demonstrations and open houses. "The response has been great. I think the success of the one-night workshops has inspired many people to take a full class to learn more." The first full semester of classes and workshops is complete, with more opportunities on the horizon.
"SAA is an up-and-coming glass studio, among other things," said Clarke. "If you're proficient with your hands and want to learn a medium that is new to the Springfield area, this would be perfect for you. It's a medium that is very fluid during the making process then becomes fossil-like and permanent and won't fade or degrade over time. We offer classes for people that have zero experience and even demo nights where people can come and watch if they just want to see the beautiful medium in action."
Among those who have participated in a class is Craig Rechner, who recently retired after working as an accountant for most of his career. He had taken a pottery class years ago at SAA and his wife has taken metal and jewelry classes. He thought the glass blowing class sounded interesting.
"My oldest son does glass work with a torch, so I thought I was somewhat familiar with the process. I have since learned they are very different," said Rechner.
The recent glass blowing class was Rechner's first class with the medium, and he is interested in the next level class to learn additional techniques and improved skills. "I have enjoyed working with the instructor, Mario. He is very patient and helpful, answering any questions asked as well as demonstrating techniques until we were ready to attempt them. The classes are rather small, allowing for a lot of hands-on time."
Another student, Dathan Powell, is an associate professor of theater and technical director for UIS Theatre. After taking his first class, he also plans to continue to more advanced classes and looks forward to progressing so that he might one day create a collection to exhibit.
"The process is one that really pays off when you begin to get a handle on the techniques," said Powell. "Even the introductory lessons can net objects that are interesting, and when you build on those skills, you can begin making functional pieces relatively quickly. I was surprised that we were making straight-walled cylinders (cups) after four weeks.
"If you enjoy creating things with your hands," Powell added, "this is just one of many processes that could satisfy you. It is a skill that varies from some of the forms that are traditionally offered, like ceramics, so if someone hasn't yet found a class that suits them, this is one worth trying."
Janet Seitz is a Springfield communications professional, writer and artist. To share your story, contact her at email@example.com.