Heating up the waterfront

Canada's Governor General told Luann Johnson she had to use her talents to make something in her community, so she listened.

Canada’s Governor General told Luann Johnson she had to use her talents to make something in her community, so she listened.

That was in 2011, when she received an academic award from David Johnston while studying glassblowing and ceramics at the Alberta College of Art and Design.

Four years and two fine arts degrees later, Luann and her husband Mel are on the verge of breaking ground for Yukon’s first glassblowing studio.

It’s a dream that has been through many conceptual changes but one that always kept the same core elements: community, education and tourism.

“Mel and I both grew up here and we’ve moved around a lot but Whitehorse has always been home,” she said.

“It’s something we’re totally committed to. We didn’t want to say too much about it before, but now it’s become developed to the point where we’re very confident construction will begin in the spring.”

It’s also an idea that came about following the death of their 19-year-old daughter, Rondi, from leukemia in 2006.

Luann said the first time she laughed again was during the year she took off following the death. It happened while she was squirting her children with a water gun one day in their Porter Creek backyard.

She walked inside and asked Mel how to get that feeling back. He told her she should study at ACAD and follow her passion for the arts.

“I went there to paint and draw but you’re taking all these phenomenal courses, and it’s where I actually fell in love with glassblowing and ceramics,” she said.

Lumel Studios was originally going to be located at Little Fox Lake, about 85 kilometres north of Whitehorse, where the couple owns cabins.

But they quickly realized they needed a central location in the city in order to attract people and get them excited about a hot glass facility.

That’s when they purchased a 2,400-square foot lot from the City of Whitehorse, part of its Motorways property development along the waterfront area.

Lumel Studios, which the couple hopes will open by October, will be built near the corner of Keish and Front streets, part of a large parcel of land the city bought from the White Pass and Yukon Railroad in 1994. “It really fits in with what the city envisioned for that area,” Mel said, “which is a mix of arts, culture, commercial and retail.”

Visitors will be able to sit down with an artist and get a sense of what it takes to handle hot glass, shape it into something and let it cool down.

Glasses, bowls and beer mugs are only a few examples of items they’ll be able to produce.

It’ll be a year-round facility with a furnace capable of holding 225 pounds of molten glass, three benches to work on, outdoor kilns, a glory hole, dozens of blowpipes and other equipment.

The couple already has between $50,000 and $60,000 worth of equipment in their garage and sheds.

But that’s not all they hope to accomplish.

Phase two of the plan will include an adjacent building with a large multimedia studio, a small coffee shop and six upper-floor apartments for visiting artists.

Glassblowing artists from New York and as far away as Australia, whom Luann met at art school, have already expressed an interest in visiting the studio, she said.

“We’ll have these master glass blowers that want to come here,” she said.

“And among the six artists I convinced to come up and live here in 2013, all of them have stayed.”

Those artists will help teach workshops of various lengths at the studio, ranging from one hour to two weeks.

In the summer time, garage doors will open up to expose the studio and entice pedestrians on the waterfront to stop by.

The couple’s life savings are invested in the project and they say their children are fine with the idea, and excited about its potential.

Mel, who stopped working two years ago, came out of retirement to fund the project.

“This was our retirement plan and we wanted a way to give back to the community,” he said.

“Even before Rondi died we were community-focused, raising money for various initiatives.”

Luann said the project reminds her of her parents, who had dreams of their own, but not the means to achieve them.

“We aren’t millionaires but we do have some of the means, and we’re willing to make sacrifices.”

Contact Myles Dolphin at