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Hearts of Glass

The Tulsa Glassblowing School is helping build self-esteem in both youths and adults with its transformative programs that put hot air to good use.

Michele Chiappetta
Sarah Eliza Roberts
March 28, 2020

You know that beautiful glass vase in your home that has held birthday, anniversary, or Valentine’s Day flowers? Or the decorative glass bowl that sits proudly as a centerpiece on the family dining table? Pieces like these aren’t just glass; they’re art, made through an ancient art form known as glassblowing, still practiced today even here in Tulsa at the Tulsa Glassblowing School. And through glass creations, TGS is helping transform lives in the Tulsa area in ways that you might not have realized glass or art could do.

TGS initially started as a private artist’s studio in 2005. But it wasn’t long before it expanded its mission to make an impact in the community through the art of working with glass. After seeing how glass art helped teenagers enrolled at Street School, which provides alternative education and therapeutic experiences to local at-risk youth, TGS became a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit arts organization in 2007. Their mission: to promote positive change in the lives of vulnerable youth and adults within the Tulsa community and to enrich Tulsa’s cultural experience through exposure to a variety of glass art disciplines.

“Hot glass art is unique in that it requires a team approach and mastery of certain life lessons such as effective communication, flexibility, and adaptability, as well as fostering camaraderie and a sense of belonging,” says Janet Duvall, executive director. Because it demands concentration, attention to detail, and creativity, the art of working with hot glass is something that builds self-esteem in both youths and adults. It is therapeutic and even helps people learn about applied science, and math.

Through its “Glass in the Class” program, explains Duvall, the glassblowing school partners with the Tulsa Regional STEM Alliance to “utilize glass art as a means of promoting retention of math and science principles in the classroom.” TGS works with Tulsa Public Schools, Union Public Schools, Sand Springs Public Schools, a variety of home school groups, and numerous rural school districts, all of which bring students to the studio for interactive experiences.

The magic of watching artists work with molten glass, as well as getting a chance to craft something themselves with some guidance for glass-working pros, is something students never forget. They come out of the experience beaming from ear to ear, learning new things, seeing the value of math and science, and knowing they accomplished something they never knew they could do before.

In addition to TGS’s continuing support of at-risk youth, and STEM learning, Duvall and her team have a partnership with Tulsa Community College, which is the only institution of higher education in Oklahoma to offer glassblowing classes. “Working with college students,” says Duvall, “it became apparent that the impact of glass art on one’s life was not predicated to youth. Over nine [adult] individuals who found a passion for glass art have gone on to pursue their undergraduate degrees in glass art or a related field.”

To expand its support of adults in need, TGS began a new program for veterans in 2016. VETri is the second veterans-only glassblowing program in the entire nation. “It was initiated by one of our board members who had seen the Tacoma Hot Shop Heroes, which was affiliated with Joint Base Lewis-McChord,” says Duvall. The Tacoma program is specifically designed to help rehabilitate individuals with traumatic brain injuries and severe PTSD. But Tulsa Glassblowing School is broader in scope and open to any veterans and active military members who have served and are in good standing with the U.S. Dept. of Defense.

The program is free of charge, supported by donations. “Since its initial session, TGS has served over 116 military service members in the Tulsa community. The impact VETri has on participants can best be defined as fostering a sense of hope and assisting in providing direction and focus in their lives,” says Duvall.

While both youths and veterans alike can feel a sense of nerves about working with the potent heat and nature of molten glass — which gets up to 2,100 degrees in the shaping process — they soon learn to be comfortable with the work they’re doing and the tools they’re using. Their pride and confidence grow as they create something beautiful. And of course, says Duvall, “An instructor is always within reach to assist and maximize success.”

Many of the veterans who finish the VETri program go on to volunteer at the glassblowing school. A few have even landed paid positions there. Taylor Cox, a U.S. Army veteran, is one example of how VETri is transforming lives in the Tulsa area.

“The Tulsa Glassblowing School has given my life back to me,” says Cox. “Before I found the studio, my days and nights were so dark. I was homeless, hopeless, and without purpose. I had given up on myself. Now, my days are filled with light. I have a home, my family back, and a job that I love. To top it off, I’m surrounded by some of the greatest people in the world. TGS has taught me to be committed to what’s best for my heart, even if that means sitting through the most painful stages of growth and change. To never give up on my dreams even when it hurts.”

After being in the Tulsa Arts District for 12 years, TGS began to outgrow its space. Recently, the school moved to its new home in McClure Park. It occupies a repurposed recreation center, which had been closed down for around seven years. “The move provides an opportunity for TGS to expand its outreach within the Tulsa community,” says Duvall. “A kiln-fired glass program for women in recovery was piloted in February 2020, with an emphasis on fostering creativity while learning a craft which has the potential to supplement participants’ incomes.”

Beyond its transformative programs, Tulsa Glassblowing School is open to the general public for classes, demonstrations, and other activities. The best way to know what’s happening is to visit the school’s website or Facebook page for details.

Tulsa Glassblowing School
7440 E. 7th St. | Tulsa

April 2020 Cover