The Sonoran Glass School is housed in an unassuming compound on West 18th Street, just before it dead ends into I-10. One could easily overlook the cluster of one-story buildings, but don't be fooled by the modest exterior. The school, started by Dave Klein and Tom Philabaum in 2001, is a top-tier resource and workspace for glass arts.
"Over the last 15 years we have grown into something truly special," Nick Letson, SGS's Associate Director, says. "We've become the home base of the glass art community in Tucson."
The school has four shops—a Hot Shop, Warm Shop, Flame Shop and Cold Shop. Each shop is designed for specific glass art techniques: The Hot Shop, which is closed during the summer to avoid cooking participants alive, is where molten glass is blown and molded. The Warm Shop is where pieces of cut glass can be fused and shaped in kilns. Detail work, like beads, pendants, and pipes, can be made in the Flame Shop. Work can be refined and given texture or engraved in the Cold Shop.
Sonoran Glass School is the only place in the desert southwest that offers lessons in and provides facilities for each of these disciplines.
Glass art appeals to people who are in search of a less traditional creative outlet, according to Letson.
"It's a form of hands-on creativity that is really unlike other art forms," Letson says. "It involves some science and some engineering. You have to plan ahead."
He adds that while some people are predisposed for the glass arts, others discover an unexpected outlet.
"We have a lot of people who maybe didn't feel that they were creative or artistic, but then they saw glass art and they wanted to learn it and they became basically addicted to it," Letson says. "It's just a very exciting art form, and a visually stunning one at that."
Part of that excitement comes from working with open flame and extreme temperatures. "The fire aspect touches on something primal," Letson says. "The process is just fascinating to watch."
Letson, whose background is in communication and journalism, started at SGS as a social media and youth-program contract worker. He moved up to communications director, overseeing anything the public sees—photography, videography, website, written content, graphic design. He was recently promoted to associate director.
In his new role, Letson is in charge of the school's programming.
"My goal is to get classes up ahead of schedule and try to make it simple for people. I try to get beginning classes in every studio on a regular basis," Letson says.
The classes are designed to build on each other, so after taking a few in the same series a student will have received a thorough glass art education.
While Sonoran Glass School does offer open studio time for experienced artists, as well as glass art supplies, education is the primary focus of the school's mission. To further that mission, staffers work with local schools and take to the streets for live, interactive glass art demonstrations. They have the GOAT (glass working on a trailer) and the TOAD (torch working on a trailer), two portable glass shops that they have taken to campuses, the Children's Museum, Hotel Congress, and other places around town in an effort to introduce people to the process of glass art. Anyone can sign up at these pop-up events to make their own piece and the level of involvement in the process depends on the participant's comfort.
"If they want to sit back and watch the entire time, or just blow into the pipe and not do anything else, that's fine," Letson says. "They can be as involved as they want to be."
Working with open flame, molten glass and heavy equipment might seem high risk, but safety is emphasized in all classes, and the school hasn't had any serious incidents in its 15 years. Still, not everyone is ready to try making glass art. Fortunately there are many ways to experience glass art, or to get involved with the school, without engaging in the actual process of making it.
"We have a lot of people who are just fans of glass art. I'm one of them," Letson says. "I've dabbled in all of the studios, but I'm a huge fan."
The school has visiting artist lectures, which are free for members or a $5 to $10 suggested donation for general public. It also hosts a number of other events each year. Barrio Vidrio, a neighborhood celebration of glass arts, is coming up on Oct. 1. Co-hosted by Barrio Collection and Philabaum Glass Gallery and Studio, participants will be able to attend events at various locations throughout the day. The school will offer people the opportunity to make their own glass pumpkins at the school.
The school's biggest event, Flame Off, drew about 600 people last year, and it grows every year. Glass artists from around the world can apply for the Iron Chef-style competition, wherein artists race against the clock to finish their pieces. Over the years, local, national and international artists attend the event.
"Even if you don't know what the artists are doing, there is someone on the mic explaining the process," Letson says, so the audience learns a bit about the glass art process while enjoying the spectacle. Afterward, people can bid on the finished pieces.
"It's become a hugely fun and successful event for us," Letson says.
For more information on classes and events at Sonoran Glass School, check out the school's website at sonoranglass.org