BUTTE, Mont. – In places like Italy, glass-blowing is a life-long skill perfected in 20-year apprentices and a full-time commitment to the art.
At Butte High School, though, the newly open glass-blowing studio serves Art Club students and for now, adult education classes.
Sweltering through the rising heat in the studio adjacent to the school auto shop on the east side of campus, four Art Club students take in teacher River Newman’s careful instruction.
“This is a very physical thing – I don’t ever want to push students,” Newman told his guests. “You’ll feel the heat as we work with protective glasses.”
Working as the gaffer – who blows glass through an elongated tube or “pipe” – Newman enlists senior Janae Valle as his assistant as he demonstrates creating a plate. Everybody works in a team for safety and practical purposes.
“The heat gets to you at first,” said Valle, exuding a calm, confident demeanor in the midst of a studio that reaches between 95 and 100 degrees.
As Newman blows through the tube, slightly inflating the glass, he intersperses manipulating the form with swinging the tube, rolling it on a smooth, flat surface, shaping it with tools, molding it.
“The bigger piece you work on, the hotter you want to keep it,” said Newman about the heat of the 2,000-degree furnaces set against one wall, away from where students teen and adult stand.
Expertise from umw
Newman, a 10-year glass-blower who learned under professor Mike Regan at the University of Montana Western glass-blowing program, skillfully forms plates, cups, bowls, vases, balls and myriad sculptural pieces – all end products to which students can aspire.
Dylan Steel, one of the art clubbers, said he likes to watch the precision glass-blowing rather than produce a piece.
“Getting close to the heat is kind of painful,” said Steel, eventually becoming Valle’s assistant during her demonstration for visitors.
She wears a glove and long-sleeved shirt, pants and glasses to protect herself from the heat as Steel uses another long pipe to open the furnace doors so she can start a molten piece of glass.
Colors are applied early in the form of pre-chopped glass called “frit.” The teachers buy the raw material, currently at a market price of 94 cents a pound.
“The heat does change the color sometimes,” Newman said. Deep red and bright turquoise frits lay on a table in the center of the room. After he gathers pre-heated glass like cotton candy swirling in a sugar bowl, the glass-blower can then manipulate the bubble in all the various techniques.
Arts council grant
Mike Kujawa, Butte High art teacher whose claim to fame is the expansive pottery program he and his Art Club leaders run on the other side of campus, marvels at how Newman was able to stretch a $25,000 Montana Arts Council Artists in Schools & Communities Grant in buying what he estimates is $50,000 worth of equipment for the repurposed space.
“I’m just very lucky River could add this to our art department and secure the grant,” said Kujawa, a veteran district educator. “Everybody’s been so good to us.”
Among used equipment Newman bought from other outlets are craft tools, pipes and benches from the tiny Box Elder School District, which shut down its program when the cost became prohibitive.
“It’s pretty expensive to run a glass-blowing project because of the propane involved,” said Box Elder Superintendent Tom Peck. “The equipment is pretty specialized.”
Newman also snagged good deals on two glass tanks from Goose Bay Hand Blown Glass in Townsend.
Newman also acquired two annealers, two enclosed boxes that start at about 950 degrees and gradually cool to room temperature. They slowly cool the finished glass piece so it does not crack.
The acquisitions, plus securing the space, were a major coup, added Kujawa.
“It was really fortunate that everything aligned and we were able to do that,” he said.
Newman and Kujawa have curriculum ready to go for the regular student body whenever glass-blowing glasses are scheduled. Meanwhile, Newman teaches two full classes of adult education classes twice a week in the new space.
Butte High teacher Ruth Ruppel, an adult education student, said safety is a priority and she’s having a “fantastic” time.
“Teacher to teacher, River is a great teacher,” said Ruppel, who teaches art and Spanish. “But it’s a bit of a learning curve – you have to keep turning the rod, or `gathering.“’
English teacher Janeen Walsh takes the class after school, too.
“What a neat facility,” Walsh said, rolling a smooth “marble” of glass she created and a bit astonished at the process. “I don’t think there’s anything like it anywhere else in Montana.”
Traveling elementary art teacher by day, Newman runs the studio at night and collaborates with Kujawa on all art projects, in and out of the classroom. Both boast they have the best art department in the state, especially with the pottery studio and now glass-blowing.
Newman is a 2012 UM Western graduate and former football player for the Bulldogs and 2007 Powell County High School graduate.
Post-demonstration, Newman sat back, cooled down and reveled in his Art Club students taking their turn.
“I’m passionate about glass-blowing,” he said. “If I never blew glass again, I would be perfectly happy sitting watching them.”
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