BY LENNIE BENNETT
Times Art Critic
For a free, fun family Saturday, get over to the Morean Arts Center for First Gather: A Community Celebration.
It launches the Morean Arts Center's Glass Studio & Hot Shop with glassblowing demonstrations in the new space.
Seventh Street, which will be closed to traffic between Central Avenue and First Avenue N, will be filled with entertainment, hands-on art activities and vendors selling food and drinks. Glass artists will have their works on display, including one who creates life-size motorcycles.
The hot shop is a part of the arts center's ambitious new glass program. The centerpiece is the Chihuly Collection, which opens at 400 Beach Drive NE on July 11. It is the only facility in the world offering a permanent comprehensive collection by internationally famous glass artist Dale Chihuly in a museumlike setting.
The hot shop at the arts center on Central Avenue is the educational component of the program and will occupy the space behind the center formerly used for its ceramics classes. It has been reconfigured as a large open-air area with seating where visitors can watch glassblowers at work. An adjacent building has the cold work area in which vessels are ground and carved while visitors can observe.
After Saturday's opening, the hot shop will begin offering continuous demonstrations starting July 11 along with a chance for a few people to blow their own vessels.
"It's a very multilayered program," said Russ Gustafson-Hilton, the Glass Studio & Hot Shop coordinator. Gustafson-Hilton is a well-known ceramicist in the bay area and oversaw the center's clay classes until they were moved to the St. Petersburg Clay Company, a nearby facility with classrooms, studios and kilns, to make room for the hot shop.
"I was asked about organizing and managing the studio and hot shop," he said. "I was like, what?"
He knew little about the craft of blowing and refining studio glass and embarked on a crash course, taking lessons, researching equipment and organizing the educational classes that will be offered to children and adults.
"I found that clay and glass are so similar," he said. "They're both plastic, changing shape. I was surprised the first time I worked with glass on the blowpipe; it was like clay on the wheel. Except hotter."
The studio and hot shop are designed to be entertaining, but they are, as with almost every other program at the arts center, educational at their core. The glassblower and gaffer (an assistant) will be miked so the audience can hear their conversations and will be able to ask questions. (Note: They've addressed the heat issue by installing misting fans above the seating, which can accommodate about 55 people. And even if they accidentally burn themselves, they've been counseled to say nothing stronger than "darn.") The vessels created by the rotating group of artists will be sold in the adjacent gift shop.
The curriculum will include basic glass-crafting techniques such as fusing flat pieces of glass together and then "slumping" them into bowls that "even kids can do," said Gustafson-Hilton. Eventually, more advanced classes will be available for blowing and lampworking.
He also sees the educational goal in broader terms.
"We're expecting a lot of people to come see the Chihuly Collection and then to come here to see the process," he said. "We'll be able to do everything that's done in glassmaking, just on a smaller scale. We also want to make visitors aware of the glass community in our area, to be able to point them toward artists who specialize in certain forms if they want to buy something."
Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293.