Community of Makers: Project FIRE

Community of Makers: Project FIRE

Published on Thursday, June 3, 2021. This article appears in the Summer 2021 issue of American Craft Magazine.
Group of Project FIRE participants posing for a photo

Glassblowing through Project FIRE builds skills as well as a sense of trust and shared community. Left to right: Deshon Hannah, Dantrell Blake, N’Kosi Barber, Lynquell Biggs, Deaunata Holman, Latee Smith, and Trevelli Jones. Photo by Kate Bek.

Project FIRE. Glassblowing is a means for healing at Project FIRE (Fearless Initiative for Recovery and Empowerment), where Chicago teenagers who have been victims of gun violence learn to transform molten glass into delicate sculptural works. Glass artist Pearl Dick and clinical psychologist Dr. Bradley Stolbach cofounded the program, which offers artistic development, employment opportunities, and trauma rehabilitation services.

Dick is convinced that glassblowing is particularly effective for those who have been exposed to trauma. Working with the material has inherent risk, and trust gets built handling it together. Newcomers to the program are amazed by the molten, glowing glass, says Dick, and the first time they encounter the open glass furnace door, they find it shockingly hot. However, “the initial intimidation quickly gives way to excitement for a radically new experience,” Dick says.

Three young people working together on a blown glass project

Teaching artist Deaunata Holman (far right) with participants Julian Solis (bench) and Trevelli Jones (blowing). Photo by Pearl Dick.

Glassblowing sessions end with student-led support group meetings. “By the time we have sweat our way through three hours working with molten glass together, young people who admit that they previously had no interest in group therapy open up to us and each other more freely,” she says.

Participants are recruited through Healing Hurt People-Chicago, a hospital-based violence intervention program that provides mental health services to Project FIRE participants. Firebird Community Arts provides the teaching artist staff, facility, and funding.

While in the program, participants are paid minimum wage for their work in the studio and in group sessions. They also can market their personal artwork on Firebird Community Arts’ in-studio gallery and online store and exhibit artwork at local art fairs and in gallery shows. Project FIRE participants receive 70 percent of personal artwork sales, with the remaining 30 percent going back into programming.

Alumni have gone on to college to study social work and received scholarships to study glass at university programs and community organizations. But, Dick says, some of the most impressive and impactful outcomes of Project FIRE are the intangible ones. “The outpouring of love and support and shared experience” is at times, she says, “breathtaking to witness.”

firebirdcommunityarts.org | @projectfirechi

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Cover of Summer 2021 issue of American Craft