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Learning to embrace the fire

Luann Baker-Johnson can barely contain her excitement. The mother of six has the energy and giddiness of a teenager. She's standing inside Yukon's new - and only - glass-blowing studio.

Luann Baker-Johnson can barely contain her excitement. The mother of six has the energy and giddiness of a teenager.

She’s standing inside Yukon’s new - and only - glass-blowing studio. Its name, Lumel Studios, stands for Lu and Mel, the F.H. Collins high school sweethearts behind the venture.

The bright blue-and-yellow studio opened its doors to visitors last week and has almost as much character as its creators. The team took care to create what they could using recycled objects, including garbage bin lids for the front sign, rebar used during construction for the staircase and old fir posts from an old gold dredge.

The history of the riverside property across from the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre connects even closer to its new occupants: Baker-Johnson lived on the property in the 1960s as a child when the lot used to be a temporary trailer park.

The glass-blowing studio is run by five artists - Lusia, Jason, Tyson and Mark - who all met at the Alberta College of Art and Design.

“There I got to know their hearts and minds. They heard about the dream, and I could see who was community-minded, who would take ownership of this whole project,” Baker-Johnson says.

“But what we didn’t know is that they would be able to stick it out through the many delays and frustrations.”

Permitting a propane-fuelled glass-blowing operation in downtown Whitehorse is no easy task. Since taking over the lot in 2013, they’ve faced an endless list of boxes to tick for the rubber-stampers-that-be.

To satisfy safety requirements the ventilation is all custom-made. The team even flew in a technician to test the three different built-in emergency shut-offs in the furnaces and “glory holes” - the opening in the piping-hot oven through which the glass is shaped. After the glass is spun and heated it is blown through a long pipe, creating signature bubble-like shapes.

The team of artists had to sweep North America for equipment after they realized the “hot shop” they bought in Alberta would not be suitable for the space. So they had the 1,200-degree Celsius furnaces and glory holes hauled across Canada and shipped up the West Coast, where they drove then into Whitehorse from Skagway.

They had $6,000 of equipment stolen from their construction storage container last September. And then there was the nine-foot-deep hole they had to dig down and across the street to access a required water valve - slapping them with an unforeseen $102,000.

But with the lows come the highs: just three weeks ago the city decided to refund the extra distance they had to dig beyond their property.

The build itself was a community operation - all hands were on-deck from hitchhikers to Baker-Johnson’s kids.

Thanks to their hard work the space hosts a gallery, viewing bleachers, sets of tools for shop-rental and even an ice cream freezer to quench the eyebrow-sizzling heat. Ice cream in 40 below temperatures, anyone?

The gallery can barely keep its latest “Northern Lights” collection of vases and bowls, swirled with bright green and blue hues, on the shelves.

Baker-Johnson even hopes to offer first-year university glass-blowing courses.

“Big dreams, but hey, this was a big dream and it’s here,” Baker-Johnson says as she swirls her hands up towards the open loft-style vents.

“Just look what you can do!”

But her big aspirations are also pragmatic. “We’ve always understood we need to find many ways to bring in money.”

The studio’s furnaces are fed by propane. In a way, the business is also built on natural gas: Mel Johnson took a break from his retirement to plan and build LNG pipelines in Cleveland, Ohio to help fuel the cost-intensive studio start up.

The vibrant couple had six kids. They spent their lives travelling the world while Baker-Johnson home-schooled the kids, always keeping roots in the Yukon with their cabin at Fox Lake.

But then in 2005 the unimaginable happened. Their second daughter fell ill with leukemia. Eleven months and five rounds of chemotherapy later, she died.

“When your child dies, you die,” Baker-Johnson says.

Her husband insisted that after one-year of grieving and only forced laughter, she go to art school.

That’s where she fell in love with the extreme heat and the glass.

“Glass became my struggle. It’s an ecstatic learning curve. You learn pulling glass that you can use gravity in your favour. Then you learn you can hold thousand-degree molten glass with just a wet piece of paper. Wow, that’s powerful.

“There are challenges that you have to overcome. In grieving there are great, great challenges. Feeling that success helps you to heal.”

Learning to embrace the fire and the heat inspires Baker-Johnson to share the healing power of molten glass with others.

The Lumel studio’s lot has long been the stomping grounds of Whitehorse’s large street population, or “river walkers.”

“We’ve gotten to know them well since we’ve been here. We see them sober and drunk, and they are always welcome.”

She hopes that in future some of Whitehorse’s at-risk teens and homeless individuals can come and experience - if just for a moment - the “power of forgetfulness” in the extreme heat of glass-blowing, on the condition they are “in control” and substance-free.

“I can’t expect glass to have the same power of healing with them as it did for me. But you never know,” she says with a smile.

Among the long list of plans in the works, Baker-Johnson and her team are bringing up the founders of a glass-blowing studio in Tacoma, Washington that serves only street people and gang members.

“We want to learn how their studio was a success and see what we can do here,” Baker-Johnson says.

“The potential is bubbling.”

Interest is certainly growing. Little ones from the nearby Montessori school have already become regulars. “I think they’re hooked,” Baker-Johnson says.

“Come by and see for yourself, viewing is free!” Baker-Johnson exclaims.

Workshop sign-up begins Monday, May 16 starting at $45. To learn the basics, you need nine hours spread over three sessions.

“You’ll come away with confidence and a funky little piece,” Baker-Johnson says.

Beginner’s courses run at $360.

Check them out on Facebook at Lumel Studios Whitehorse, Yukon.

As Jason, one of the artists, puts it: “It’s good for people who can’t sit still.”

Contact Lauren Kaljur at