Sunday, October 10, 2010

Arts: Art Glass Center

For the Kalamazoo Gazette 08-01-10, with my photos
Glass Center aims for national spotlight
Art glass group’s new space grows offerings

It’s hot work. But Michael Siemers brushes some of the sweat from his brow, then again gently takes up the slender glass rod and holds it in front of the jet of flame, carefully molding it with a long wand-like tool.
He and the five other students in the West Michigan Art Glass Center’s flame shop this morning are heating the glass rods to shape them into delicate frog statues. They’re working under the direction of instructors-glass artists Jake Shaff and Sue Bombardt.

Siemers, who graduated from Portage Northern High School this past spring, is in his fourth year of the art glass organization’s Summer Camp classes.
“I hope to be an art major at KVCC,” he says, before turning his attention back to his project.
Summer Camp is just one of the ambitious and wide-ranging outreach programs the art glass organization offers, which include:
• Year-round three- and four-day sessions for children up to 18 years old, taught by the center’s working-artist members
• Teacher-development days focusing on the art and/or the science of art glass making
• Portable workshops for senior citizens
• On-site demonstrations
• Hands-on opportunities for beginning or experienced adults, tour groups, corporate team-building exercises, birthday parties … and even bridal showers.
One employee group from Kellogg Co., for example, came to the glass center and made glass Pop Tarts — with chocolate-brown glass “frosting” and multi-colored glass “sprinkles.” A group of 35 wine aficionados staying overnight at the Radisson Plaza Hotel as part of a bus tour dropped by the center to fuse glass wine charms.
Classes and workshops cover the gamut from glass blowing, lampworking and sandblasting to fused and stained glass and mosaics.
All of this has been made much easier with the not-for-profit organization’s move into its new, expanded location in late June.
The West Michigan Glass Society, as it was first known, had been spread among three different spaces, totaling 2,400 square feet, tucked away in a Park Trades Center upper floor along Kalamazoo Avenue downtown. Now, with a new name and logo, the West Michigan Art Glass Center is renovating 7,400 square feet in a single space at street level, in the same building.
Grand opening will be Sept. 9 and 10, but the new center will be open to the public for the Aug. 6 Art Hop.
“We’ve had a lot of school groups come in here,” recalls West Michigan Art Glass Center Executive Director Linda Kekic. In 2009 alone some 1,890 school children, from among 79 different schools and youth organizations, took classes at the art glass facility.
“In the past, we’ve had to limit capacity” for students and visitors, Kekic continues. “But the demand for glass art in the Kalamazoo area is amazing. What (the new space) has done is allow us the ability to increase the number of people we can have here.
“We always wanted to stay downtown. This became available and it was doable.”
Moving into that bigger site — along with offering much-increased studio, gallery, demonstration and classroom space for its 75 member glass artists and its learning programs — fits with both the eight-year-old art glass organization’s initial vision and mission statements, Kekic explains.
The group’s mission is to make and promote art glass, she notes. Its vision is to become a nationally known arts center.
“We want to become nationally recognized, like Tacoma (Wash.) and Toledo,” Ohio, Kekic says. “We want Kalamazoo to be the art glass place in Michigan.”
Along with partnering with schools and youth groups — including programs for low-income and troubled children — the organization has reached out to the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo, Downtown Kalamazoo Inc. and Discover Kalamazoo, among other others. It has sought financial and promotional advice and support, Kekic says, and it’s worked to develop collaborative programs.
With the Kalamazoo Book Arts Center and the now-closed Smart Shop, for example, it developed arts-and-science programs for Woods Lake Elementary School third, fourth and fifth graders. The groups explained the scientific concepts the students were studying as the children themselves created actual works of art.
“We’ve tried to be inclusive and develop good relationships,” Kekic adds with a smile. “We don’t know everything.”
That attitude is one key reason why the West Michigan Art Glass Center is expanding while many other not-for-profits and arts groups are struggling, contends Richard Hughey Jr., executive director and CEO of the Irving S. Gilmore Foundation, which has helped fund a number of the art glass organization’s projects.
“After the economy tanked, we knew there was going to be a lot of pain,” Hughey says. To succeed today, “not-for-profits and arts groups need to think differently: What is the community you serve and what is your particular niche in that world? What are you wanting to do, and how is that serving your community?
“You have to get to know the other organizations and what they’re doing …. It’s important to get to know your neighbors.
“The West Michigan (Art Glass Center) gets this. They got it from the get-go,” Hughey says. “So when hard times hit, they were prepared. They flourished.”
During the past eight months, the glass center has raised more than 70% of its current fund-raising goal of $120,000. The money from this campaign is being used for renovations and upgrades to the new space.
Some supporters are contributing by purchasing glass bricks — with donations of $25-per-brick and up — made by local glassblower Sam Brown. Larry Galdes then engraves each brick with the supporter’s name. At the campaign’s conclusion, all the bricks will be stacked with grouting and made into a permanent display at the center. More than 100 persons or groups have bought bricks thus far, Kekic reports.
Kekic joined the organization five years ago, after retiring from the State of Michigan, and has been executive director for more than four years. She creates kiln-fused glass jewelry through her own business, House Jewelry.
Much of her time these days, though, is devoted to working with the board, members and community to grow the art glass center. Working with children is among its principal rewards.
Kekic recalls assisting one eight-year-old who was working with glass over an open flame for the first time.
“Glass and fire — two things kids have been told since day one not to touch,” she says. But the youngster was thrilled with what he was accomplishing.
“He looked up at me and said, ‘I was born to do this.’”

West Michigan Art Glass Center
326 W. Kalamazoo Ave.
Suite 100
Kalamazoo, MI 49007
Grand-opening celebrations: Sept. 9 and 10
Next Art Hop: Aug. 6

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