When asked to share her thoughts about a recent art course hosted on the UW-Madison campus, a big smile came to the face of Lala Rivera.
“There is only one word to say about this,” says Rivera, who will be entering sixth grade at Madison’s Sherman Middle School. “Awesome!”
The three-day workshop was held at the Art Lofts, where 10 middle schoolers from the Goodman Community Center’s Girls, Inc., group used UW-Madison’s glass working facilities for about three hours each afternoon to get hands-on instruction in making neon art, glass blowing and glass etching.
The course was co-taught by UW-Madison’s Helen Lee, an assistant professor in the School of Education's Art Department and head of the university’s Glass Lab, and Brad Corso, a lecturer with the Art Department. Lee received funding for the project via the Edna Weichers Art In Wisconsin Award, with additional support from the UW-Madison Art Department’s Board of Visitors Fund.
“The idea behind the workshop was to expose girls to something that’s otherwise hard to access, and to have them work on something collaboratively as a team,” says Lee. “And, above all else, we wanted them to have fun. This is really fun for me, too -- just relaxing, kicking back and making stuff.”
Lee, who arrived on the UW-Madison campus one year ago and who previously taught similar classes to middle school and high school students in Boston and Palo Alto, Calif., adds that the workshop was important to her as a way to reach out to, and better get to know, the Madison community.
“When an accomplished artist like Helen Lee invites our girls into her world, they have a blast learning and creating a new kind of art, but they also get to know and experience a strong, smart and bold woman in her element,” says Becky Steinhoff, Executive Director of the Goodman Community Center. “That will stay with them forever, and that’s what Girls Inc., is all about.”
The students spent three days working together to produce a “Girls, Inc.,” sign for the Goodman Community Center that features colored glass letters and decorative glass tubes filled with neon and argon gas to produce vibrant colors.
To unveil the finished product, those who participated in the workshop will be on hand for a “Fuel her Fire” gallery reception on Wednesday, Aug. 13 at the Goodman Community Center, 149 Waubesa St., in Madison.
“I think it’s important for the girls to see that their work together resulted in something worth celebrating,” Lee says of the gallery reception. “Working with glass is highly teamwork oriented and working together to produce something is a good skill for everyone to have.”
The gallery reception runs from 4:30 to 6 p.m., and will also honor Nakila Robinson, the young, passionate and talented Girls Inc., Coordinator at Goodman who died unexpectedly on July 24.
To make the letters for the sign, students worked with flash glass, which is clear glass with a thin layer of color on one side. Utilizing a sandblaster, which is an air compressor that blasts an abrasive, one is able to cut through the layer of color to etch out a clear letter. The girls were exposed to traditional handcut sandblast resists, as well as photo-sensitive sandblast resists.
To produce the multi-shaped tubes that would later be filled with neon and argon gas, the girls gently blew air through rubber tubing as Corso heated sticks of glass over a ribbon burner. The glass would bend and then bulge with an air bubble as the girls blew through the tube. Corso later connected these tubes together and filled them with the gas to make them a part of the “Girls, Inc.” sign.
“The girls picked it right up and bent some really fantastic pieces,” says Corso. “I really love working with the kids because there is so much joy in discovery. I think we sometimes lose that as adults, and that’s always a goal of mine is to not lose that sense of discovery in my own work.”
The studio glass movement began about five decades ago, with many of its roots at UW-Madison, where Harvey Littleton started the first university-based studio program in art glass in 1962.
“Harvey Littleton’s legacy is intrinsically tied to expanding access to the medium — bringing factory processes formerly unavailable to the studio artist,” says Lee. “With the support of the Edna Wiechers Arts in Wisconsin Award and the Board of Visitors Fund, this workshop was run in the same spirit of expanding access -- exposing the wonder of this obscure and often inaccessible material to representatives of the future of our community.”
Photos by Jim Escalante