Hot, exciting and dangerous: Glassblowing with Hilltop Artists

Feb 20, 2012

In the mid-1990's, gang activity in Tacoma's Hilltop neighborhood was at an all time high. The area had become notorious for drug deals, assaults, and drive-by shootings. Gangs often recruited from schools - all the way down through the elementary grades.

It took a lot of effort by the police and community groups to turn the neighborhood around. One of the organizations that's made a difference is Hilltop Artists. It started out in those high-crime days by convincing kids who were attracted to "danger" to swap gang banging for another dangerous activity: glassblowing.

Greg Piercy was brought in to help run the school-based program more than 17 years ago by its founders, Dale Chihuly and Kathy Kaperick who died three years ago. He's now the program's Operations Manager:

"Her (Kathy's) vision was to start this after-school program and the deal was that we were going to do glass and that was kind of a dangerous substance. It was hot, it was kind of exciting and dangerous, so that was the hook to get kids interested."

The young glassblowers say creating glass art wakes up something inside them, including Travis Johnson who started out as a student following a brush with gangs in middle school. He now volunteers.

"It (glassblowing) just makes me feel like I am in control of everything that happens in this moment. And I've kind of adapted that so now I'm in control of everything around me, be it with school, my jobs, and my career path, family path, friends. I control that now."

Today, Hilltop Artists serves about 550 students a year. Various organizations regularly commission the young production teams to create glass art for special events and auctions. Hilltop Artists also sells the glass art to the general public through annual sales and fundraisers.