At Lumel Studios, glass blowing program for ‘river walkers’ is ‘just right’

Glass artist Mark Steudle twists the molten glass — which has been heated in a furnace to 1,200C — about the end of the pipe with decisive but delicate care.

Glass artist Mark Steudle twists the molten glass — which has been heated in a furnace to 1,200C — about the end of the pipe with decisive but delicate care.

The material has a strange, mercurial texture as he shapes it, somewhere between a liquid and solid. It has the look of melted plastic but when he pinches the ball with a heavy set of metal pliers, it flattens out and holds its shape like the best sort of pie pastry.

Deftly, with surprising quickness, Steudle forms the shape of a rose from what was, moments before, an amorphous blob. Behind him, Lumel Studio owner and glass artist Luann Baker-Johnson works another oven, preparing a dab of glass to form a leaf and stem to adorn the flower.

“This is where you can get a really good pattern into the stem,” she says, twisting the semi-liquid about.

Steudle snaps off the stem at the end with a special tool, takes a resting gas torch with a live flame and sears the broken end smooth.

“And that’s what you’ll be doing,” Baker-Johnson says. “There’s a lot of steps, but we’ll be walking you through.”

Sitting on a nearby bench, watching with wide brown eyes, is Kim, who will be making a flower of her own in short order. Kim, who declined to give her last name, is part of what she calls the “river walker” program at Lumel Studios. The program gives lessons free of charge to at-risk youth and homeless people. The first program for adults ran May 9, with 17 participants, but when Kim — a self-admitted alcoholic — came she was too drunk to attend. Instead of turning her away entirely, Baker-Johnson told her to come back today, which she did, sober.

“Kim came by just a little too far gone on Tuesday,” Baker-Johnston said. “But she was honest with us.”

Participants in the classes must be sober; that’s the only stipulation to attending the river walker classes, Baker-Johnston said. The glass is incredibly hot, and people are working around potentially dangerous equipment, fire and tools, not to mention the natural fragility of glass, so intoxication could be a potential safety issue.

“The original concept was that we want this studio to be used by everyone in the Yukon,” said Baker-Johnson. “We have kids from kindergarden in here and our oldest person was 97 years old … I just felt the river walkers — our street people — shouldn’t be excluded from that.”

Baker-Johnson said they learned on May 9 the sobriety caveat can be difficult to manage.

“How do you that guarantee sobriety?” she said. “That’s the biggest challenge, but it’s totally possible.”

The program is also open to at-risk youth, which had a class May 8, with 18 participants, Baker-Johnson said.

“Many of the teenagers who come do not attend school at all or do not attend regularly,” she said. “(This program) does have the potential to bring them back to education, but the adult river walkers? There’s no expectations. It’s just evening the playing field. We just need sobriety on the bench.”

Lumel opened last year and Baker-Johnson said she has “made a point of talking to our river walkers.” This has led to a “very interesting relationship” she said, with river walkers coming into the studio “to say hi” as she got to know them.

With the youth, they made glass trees, but the process was a little bit more open with the adults.

Some people made flowers for the their children, said Baker-Johnson, holding up a large, blue, tulip-like creation. Others made eagles, ravens, even a scorpion she said.

“With the adults, it’s about what you’re feeling in the moment. You ask, ‘What do you think you want to create today?’ and then you’re going through this thought process together and then creating.”

The participants get to take home their project she said, going through some neatly wrapped brown paper bags containing some of the art which had not yet been picked up by their makers. She unwrapped a glass sunflower, the yellow petals at odd sizes and angles that were somehow cheerful in their disarray.

Kim said she wants to make a rose for her mother, because it’s Mother’s Day this coming Sunday.

“It’s not perfect — it’s absolutely wonderful,” she said. “That’s life. Life’s not perfect.”

“Well man, look at all this stuff — of course it’s appealing to me.” Kim said, gesturing around her. Tiny glass snails collect sun in the windows, a delicate glass feather float suspended from the ceiling, a palm-sized sled-dog sits up as if begging for a treat on a shelf.

“The stuff they can do, it’s like there’s no end to it.”

The youth participants in the program are brought in through various agencies to help connect them with Lumel, Baker-Johnson said, but the adults come in through word-of-mouth. She went down to the Salvation Army the morning of May 9 to make a “general announcement,” about the program, she said.

“One of the people there gave me a big hug and said ‘you can trust her,’” she said. “That afternoon it was was crazy here. It really helps to have someone vouch for you.”

The date for the next river walker programs have not yet been set, she said, but she hopes to implement something biweekly.

Baker-Johnson said the program doesn’t currently have financial support and she would like to do some fundraising in the future.

“Even if the money for this program isn’t here, Lumel will do it,” she said. “This is something that has to continue.”

Baker-Johnson said she knows what it’s like to have difficulties: She lost her 19-year-old daughter to leukemia.

“We all have fractures in our life,” Baker-Johnson said. “Absolutely everyone in Whitehorse should be able to come here. It’s right,” she said. “It’s just right.”

Contact Lori Garrison at lori.garrison@yukon-news.com

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