Tomorrow’s Craftsmen and Craftswomen

How Hilltop Artists and an assortment of like-minded, retro-innovative programs are training the next generation of artisans


Instructors for Hilltop Artists put the final touches on a piece of glass art at the nonprofit’s hot shop in Tacoma, WA.

On the first warm Friday night of spring, the last place you’d expect teenagers to gather is at a middle school. But a group of expert high-school glassblowers in Tacoma, Washington, does just that every week—they work in the hot shop run by Hilltop Artists, a local non-profit. Hilltop maintains a fully functional glass-blowing shop in Jason Lee Middle School, with classes for children as young as twelve years old. Once students reach high school, they can apply to be a part of the organization’s “production team.” Those selected are paid for shifts worked in the hot shop and their glass art is sold to community members and displayed in galleries. 

Tonight’s shift is 6 hours on a Friday evening—from 3- 9 PM.  It’s a lot for students who went to school all day, but Tate, a high school senior who has been blowing for five years, says he wouldn’t give it up. “It’s a long shift, but I had to find a way to balance it with my other activities, since I’m on the swim team. And once I get here, I fall into the rhythm. Sometimes it’s a lot, but I like the work,” Tate says.

As he talks, Tate helps his colleague, Jack, with a glassblowing pipe and the molten glass on its end. The boys toss handfuls of colorful shards onto their steel work table and roll the glass through it, forming designs on the outside of what will eventually be a lawn ornament. They consider the color, and, satisfied, return the glass to the glowing “glory hole” behind them. (A glory hole is a furnace used to melt glass in between phases of working on a piece.) There are several furnaces in the room, some of which are as hot as 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit.  But these young men have spent years learning the equipment. The boys don’t need much supervision, so their instructors stand back, chatting in the corner.

“Yes, this equipment is dangerous. But they know their way around it, and they have for a long time,” says James, one of the instructors. “They have been given deep instruction over years—it’s so different than the way craftsmanship is usually taught in schools, where kids have six classes with a visiting artist or woodshop once a week or something. By the time they get comfortable with the tools, the class is done. But this is really different. It’s their space.”

In Hilltop’s hot-shop, safety precautions double as a digital detox: No cell phones allowed. Instead, students focus on collaboration and craft.

The program was founded in the mid-nineties by master glassblower Dale Chihuly, who grew up in the city, along with Kathy Kaperick, a local gallery owner. Chihuly is now one of the most well-known glass artists in the world, but he didn’t discover the craft until adulthood. He was raised by blue collar parents and had little interest in formal education after the sudden loss of his older brother, George, who had an accident during his training for the Navy. But Chihuly went on to college at his mother’s urging, and it was at the University of Washington that he first became interested in glassblowing. After establishing himself as a premier artist, he gave back to the community he came from, where he still maintains a studio.

Tacoma is a port city with higher poverty rates and more gang violence issues than neighboring Seattle; for kids with limited options the program offered a lifeline. Trusting young students with expensive and dangerous equipment is part of the point. “When you let an eighth-grader interact with a 1,000-degree furnace, they rise to the occasion. It teaches responsibility,” James explained.

 The program has come a long way; the children started out melting down ordinary Snapple bottles and making them into vases. These days, Hilltop runs hot shops at two schools and serves more than 600 students.  Some go on to become glassblowing artists or intern with the Museum of Glass in downtown Tacoma; others don’t, but they take the skills they learned with them in one way or another. For some, like Tate, glassblowing opened up avenues to other crafts—through glassblowing he discovered ceramics, a craft he has done throughout high school and plans to continue in college.

Hilltop is just one example of a range of programs around the country that are trying to integrate craftsmanship into a 21st century workforce.  In Southern California the National Tooling and Machining Association has a successful apprenticeship program that is designed to train skilled workers, even while its industry is undergoing unprecedented change and automation. Other programs around the country are encouraging a return to ancient methods. The Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization Farm to School offers grants to Native American schools all over the country, from Maine to Hawaii; their goal is to bring heritage farming into the school curriculum as a way to teach students how to grow traditional foods with indigenous processes.

And some programs focus on the role of relationships in teaching craft: In 200 schools around the country and overseas run by Big Picture Learning students gain real-world skills directly related to their immediate interests, from auto shop to ceramics to physics. Each student is paired with an industry mentor, and students work with them two days a week instead of attending classes. “Schools certify based on content: what you know, not who you know. But those go together. Who you know matters. The relationship matters. And people vouching for what you know really matters to get work or to get ahead in post-secondary. So we connected who you know and what you know,” says Elliot Washor, Big Picture Learning’s co-founder.

As the related story, “The Re-Bundled Worker” makes clear, our systems of work and education are in an unusually high stage of flux right now. While their respective futures work themselves out, a handful of educators around the country, and the world, are trying to make sure that craft remains part of the coming equations. That seems like a good way to keep the pursuit of excellence from losing its roots.

© 2020 Todd Oppenheimer, all rights reserved. Under exclusive license to Craftsmanship, LLC. Unauthorized copying or republication of this article is prohibited by law.

Published: April 24, 2019