We all know that being a teenager is never easy, especially in an urban environment. So how can our community improve the difficult years of adolescents? Who would have thought that glass art would be the answer?
Hilltop for Artists is a local organization that was created by famed glass sculptor Dale Chihuly in 1994. This program explores the glass medium through fusion, mosaics, flameworking, and glassblowing. This organization provides glassblowing instruction for students of ages 12 to 20. This program is tuition free, serving over 500 students every year. The organization provides class instruction and glass materials through grant partnerships, individual and in-kind donations (contribution of gifts and services), and glass sales.
For those of you that have teenage siblings or are raising a young adult that excels in arts and crafts, this could be an effective program for them. The best part is, you don’t need to know anything about glass blowing to join.
I wanted to learn more about the organization’s impact on not only teenagers, but the Tacoma community as well. Recently, I spoke with 24-year-old glass bead instructor Samantha Scalise. She has lived on Hilltop all her life and has been a part of the Hilltop for Artist family ever since she was 12 years old. She was a student at Hilltop for nine years and has been teaching for over three years. While Scalise initially came into the program not knowing how to blow glass, she is now a proficient glass artist that shares her knowledge with new students involved in the program.
Scalise says, “I was taking an art class at Jason Lee Middle School and one day I heard loud music, I walked into the classroom and thought—that looks really cool. So then I switched my art class to glassblowing and have stayed there ever since.”
But the program is much more than just fun for Samantha—it helped her get through tough times. Scalise mentions that she grew up in a neighborhood filled with shootings and gang fights. Not only was she surrounded by violence, but she also had to face losing people that she loved. Scalise says, “My best friend died when I was 14 and shortly after that my grandpa died. I was really depressed for a while and glass blowing was the only place where I could go to for therapy, a place I could always go to. A home away from home.”
For five months of Scalise’s teenage years, she was homeless. The program not only gave her a place to go, but also helped with food and shelter.
The program was so important to Scalise that she became a glass bead instructor at age 21. She says that not only does she teach art, but she mentors these students as well. Scalise says, “I know what it’s like to be them, so I feel like I can help them because I know what they are going through at that age.”
Two of Samantha’s students, Julian Bonds and Mishawn Ellis, share their experience at Hilltop for Artists. Bonds is 13 years old and has been involved in the program for two years. Bonds claims that glass blowing was his key motivation to get good grades. Bonds says, “I was scared at first and knew that I was not good, but repetition is key, I had bad grades and Hilltop for Artists motivated me to get good grades in order to stay in the program.”
Mishawn Ellis is 16 years old and has also been in the program for two years. Ellis says, “I enjoyed it from the start. Glass blowing is so nice and the people felt like they were family. No judgement. When I moved here, it was just me and my mom and I didn’t know anybody.” He adds, “As I was doing this, I felt like I was doing my thing.” Mishawn plans to continue the program and hopes to become the next Chihuly one day.
Hilltop for Artists students learn transferable skills through glass training. The kiln that students use to blow their glass is 900 degrees. Working around something as dangerous as fire, they learn two valuable principles: respect and teamwork.
Scalise believes that this program is a great creative outlet for teenagers. She says, “I think it’s awesome. It’s helped a lot of kids. When I was on the production team and growing up there, a lot of kids were in gangs and grew up in that scene. Glass blowing took them away from that. So they could focus on their life and get out of that bad scene.”
Hilltop for Artists continues to grow and expand. When you purchase glass art created by the students, every penny goes back to the program. So students are never turned away. You may be thinking how is this possible? Famed glass artists Dale Chihuly has been helping fund the program ever since the ‘90s.
For over 20 years this program has provided opportunity, resources, and personal growth for a diverse community. Even though Hilltop for Artists has been around for a while, the organization should be recognized for its substantial growth of students and programs while keeping the organization tuition free. To support this vital program, go to hilltopartists.org.
For those of you that know teenagers that are passionate about the arts, you might want to suggest this program. At Hilltop for Artists, making art is more important than making profit.