From constantly churning a ball of molten glass that has to be kept above 1,000 degrees to multiple trips in and out of various ovens as the glass ball is blown and shaped into its final structure, glassblowing is an art form unlike any other. Another unique trait of glassblowing is that it’s often largely a team effort, particularly when someone is learning. Practice with that mutual effort, something that can be difficult for those who have experienced trauma, is at the center of what Karen Benita Reyes and Pearl Dick offer in their Chicago glassblowing studio.
In 2014, Benita Reyes had recently completed her doctorate in urban educational policy, studying the nexus between schools and prisons, particularly the ways that institutions can protect people from as well as push them towards contact with the legal system. She began working at ArtReach Chicago, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing art’s ability to mitigate the effects of trauma.
That year she met Dick, a glasswork artist who, along with a clinical psychologist, was piloting Project FIRE, a program that uses glass blowing as trauma relief for youth injured by gun violence in Chicago. Naturally, there was a connection and they saw the ability to work together to “radically reimagine who we are and the stories told about us that limit our possibilities,” Benita Reyes says.
Soon after, ArtReach and Dick were looking for new space at the same time. Their work formally converged at ArtReach in 2015 before being rebranded in 2020 as Firebird Community Arts, located in the city’s East Garfield Park neighborhood. This mission of addressing trauma remains the same, but their focus has broadened to include veterans, formerly incarcerated people, undocumented and immigrant populations, as well as public school students on Chicago’s south and west sides.
(Photo courtesy Project Fire)
Of all the different art forms, Dick believes that there’s something special about glass and ceramics, which Firebird focuses on. “I think it’s a really unique medium, it’s a healing medium,” she says. Glassblowing and ceramics both require an acute attention to the current moment to carry them out. Glassblowing, in particular, often requires a teamwork element as well. It can also be a dangerous medium, so focusing on safety together can rapidly build trust.
For youth participants like LA whose probation officer introduced him to Dick and the program, discovering glassblowing can be life-changing. “I’ve never been any sports type of person. I ran track but I ain’t never been playing basketball or football—so when I got [to Firebird Community Arts] I was like, this my talent, you know, like this is what I could do,” he says. “That’s what it was like at first, discovering the feeling. And then I just wanted to learn. Like now, I just really want to learn everything about it. I just wanna better myself, I be pushin’ myself even harder.” LA has been focusing on making glass flower vases, an art he’s still working to perfect to be “more neat in the details.”
It’s about more than just making art, though. It’s about the community experience that surrounds it. “We feel like giving people a space to be themselves in whatever way that means and to be connected with people who are alike and who are different from them gives them room to process what’s going on in their lives,” Benita Reyes adds. Each session at Firebird, which is free for participants, consists of three hours of in-studio work followed by an hour of a group session led by a clinical social worker and youth facilitator.
“We draw really close parallels between [trauma] and what we’re doing in the glass studio,” Dick says. For example, “in the studio we lose and break stuff. There are direct parallels between losing a piece in the studio and losing a loved one or mobility or freedom.”
Like most nonprofits, Firebird relies heavily on grant funding and donations, but also subsidizes cost by offering private glassblowing and ceramics lessons.
“When I first started, I wasn’t used to an organization like this… It was a different way of dealing with people. Here, they teach us how to be cool with each other and actually care about each other,” says Erick, a youth participant who likes to make bongs and pipes. Erick came to Project Fire after being shot. He spent months in a coma in a hospital. “I feel differently, like it messed with my unconscious, I wasn’t aware. I feel like it changed me without me even noticing but I really wanted [it] to.”
Looking toward the future, Benita Reyes and Dick have plans to expand their offerings in addition to sustaining the programming they have now. They want to add groups for women as well as those for younger groups. “We’re seeing a lot of trauma — exposure to traumatic injury at least — and some of the things people get involved with are happening much younger,” Dick explains. The duo would also like to add entrepreneurial programs to the mix as well to help program graduates learn to market their products and run a small business.
In the short term, Firebird has recently created its first online store. While the move was in the making for a while, COVID turned out to be something of a happy accident. “It’s quite important now,” Benita Reyes says. “Youth will be able to sell their artwork and get 70 percent of the proceeds.”
This article is part of “For Whom, By Whom,” a series of articles about how creative placemaking can expand opportunities for low-income people living in disinvested communities. This series is generously underwritten by the Kresge Foundation.
Cinnamon Janzer is a freelance journalist based in Minneapolis. Her work has appeared National Geographic, U.S. News & World Report, Rewire.news, and more. She holds an MA in Social Design, with a specialization in intervention design, from the Maryland Institute College of Art and a BA in Cultural Anthropology and Fine Art from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.