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Veterans in a Class of Their Own

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The first thing you notice when you walk into the glass workshop at the Indianapolis Art Center, is that it's hot. The molten glass is kept at 2,150 degrees Fahrenheit. It's hot enough to keep the air parched and the staff congregated on the far side of the room. It's hot enough that when standing next to the ovens, hairs on your arms start to curl. Hot enough that you can't look in for too long, for fear of UV damage to your eyes. But the veterans, who came for a free class in glasswork, were undeterred. None of them had done anything like it before, but they all jumped at the chance. The Indianapolis Art Center was one of 26 such organizations across the country that honored the first-ever Veterans Glassblowing Day.

"I had no idea you could do this; I had no idea this place even existed," says Sergeant Michele Wootten of the Army National Guard. "The military sent out an email, and I signed up that day."

Instructor Angela Taylor helps Sergeant Wootten gather glass from the large furnace. - MIKE POTTER
  • Mike Potter
  • Instructor Angela Taylor helps Sergeant Wootten gather glass from the large furnace.

"I'm not much for painting," says Major Andy Kneybokmeyer of the United States Army, "but I thought I would give this a try."

The day starts off with an in-depth safety lesson and a walk-through of glassmaking, which is important when considering the coolest part of the process is 950 degrees. There's a lot of terminology, from "gathering" liquid glass on the tip of your 5-foot metal rod, to keeping the glass hot in "glory holes": open-mouthed ovens that rage above 2,000 degrees and fill the room with an eerie orange glow.

After the overview, the vets are paired with an instructor from the art center. It's a trial at first, there's nothing quite like glass. It goes from almost shockingly malleable to hard and brittle in only a few minutes, and it's absurdly heavy.

"It's intimidating, I would say that in a lot of ways fighting in combat was easier than that," says Sergeant Wootten, despite the smile on her face. "But I think I'm going to be back for some classes."

One of the instructors walking the vets through the process is Angela Taylor, who learned glassworking right here at the IAC. Smiling in the heat-resistant sleeve of an experienced artist, she moves through the class giving advice.

Clear glass is colored through the use of frit: colored crystals that melt into the gathered glass and can be twisted into a variety of shapes. - MIKE POTTER
  • Mike Potter
  • Clear glass is colored through the use of frit: colored crystals that melt into the gathered glass and can be twisted into a variety of shapes.

"When I learned we were doing the class, I immediately asked if I could volunteer," says Taylor. "I'm not cut out for the military, but I definitely think it's the most honorable job you can do. I love the opportunity to give back."

What she's giving the vets, in addition to the opportunity to make beautiful art, is a sense of belonging that can be hard to find for soldiers going through deployment. 

"I was deployed in Basra, Iraq," says Major Kneybokmeyer.  "This made me feel proud, it makes me feel like a member of the community."

"It's very relaxing and meaningful that they would offer this to us for free," says Sergeant Wootten. "It shows that we're appreciated."

By the end of class, all of the veterans are chatting almost giddily. Those who are already finished, follow those just starting with cell phones ready to snap pictures and take videos. They're slow to file out of the room when finished, exchanging thanks with Taylor as they leave.

"My favorite part," she says, "is watching them leave the IAC with a smile. That they know people from every walk of life appreciate what they do."

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