By Nadège Desgenétez
How can learning to make things in glass assist a student’s broader creative and social development? Can glass working foster social awareness?
The theme of the 2019 ACUADS conference compelled stake holders of the tertiary sector to interrogate their relationship to Engagement, what the word means and the implications it summons in the heavily loaded contexts of University frameworks and assessment metrics.
Embodied learning, creative enquiry and community engagement are all of course the stuff of Art and Design Schools. In his introduction to the conference, Professor Kit Wise reminded us of a Bauhausian ethos characterised by a “deep commitment to the material, the applied and the experimental”, one that thrives to uphold and foster a “deeply held social conscience” and resonates with current socio-political contexts.
So, is there a contemporaneous imperative for art schools to revisit and strengthen their claim to this crucial articulating role in nurturing ethically aware, socially engaged, self-reflective students? And how do we insure that they have the skills to become the ‘active citizens’ that shape the local, national and international communities of the future?
Interdisciplinary research fast expands our understanding of the ways in which humans develop knowledge, and specifically of the role of learning through making in establishing cognitive interrelations with the lived world. Anthropologist Trevor Marchand for example is learning with and from the subjects of his studies, by adopting an apprentice-style method of “learning about practice by practically doing”. (Marchand 2010: 7) Social scientist Erin O’Connor applied similar auto-ethnographic methods to her own 4-year apprenticeship of glassblowing. Setting out to demonstrate the sociological relevance of the crafting body, she argues that the simultaneously inter and intra-corporeal dimensions of a glass blowing practice form both community and meaning, and that all of the exchange is embodied in the work made. (O’Connor 2015) Drawing on a sociological understanding of art production, she proposes that hot shop work exemplifies the inter-corporeal and co-dependent model of the Art Worlds introduced by Howard Becker (1982).
Contemporary glass makers are of course well aware of this relationality inherent to a hot glass practice. The studio glass movement, originated in the early 1960s from the USA, was based on a culture of exchange and community building (Drexler-Lynn 2004). This understanding of the hot shop as place of inter and intra corporeal exchange allows us to examine the specific benefits it offers as place of learning, and specifically learning skills transferrable to human interactions through creative engagement.
Programs in the USA have been delivering community engaged hot glass courses for over 25 years. Tacoma for example is host to a citywide high school program concerned with developing social awareness and leadership skills in socio-economically disadvantaged suburbs once in severe crisis. Current research at the University of Central Florida is measuring the benefits of hot class courses in assisting war veterans as they manage PTSD. Berlin Glas in Germany runs glass courses for refugees.
We ran our first hot shop outreach program this month, directed at youth at risk of disengaging with school and supported by Arts ACT (fig 1). The students self-nominated, and all claimed to have an interest in art and in learning new things. A couple were particularly interested in glass. Three sessions into the program I asked them to share some words about their experience; I received a yellow envelop full of had written notes (fig 2) that highlighted the excitement of overcoming fear through risk taking, the enjoyment of team work from people normally socially isolated, the appreciation of the inclusive atmosphere, non-hierarchical activities, and the sense of empowerment they felt being entrusted with the safety of others.
Their teacher’s words underscored the students’:
“In my sixteen years as a youth worker, this would have to be the best program that I have come across. I have seen the students’ confidence rise dramatically; the team work where they are all helping each other, they have learnt that they need to help each other to prevent injury, they have to be on the ball, attentive, and listen.
… A lot of the students participating would probably never have got this opportunity. The students are always ready to go, telling their teachers and friend how great it is … These students are often disengaged but this program has most certainly brought them together in the most unexpected ways. They have been supportive and trusting of each other which is a major step for some of them …”
Studio-based learning in art schools predominantly emphasise collaborative practice, embodied cognition and overall contributes to developing a student’s awareness of socio-ethical contexts. I would argue that the hot glass studio amplifies this key learning outcome and accelerates the development of a student’s socio-ethical awareness. The specificity of the environment, the temporality of the medium and the necessity of collaborative methods magnify the role and responsibility of the individual in the team; it rewards focus, generosity and attentiveness, and fosters an empathic and active engagement with community drawn from embodied shared experience.
My most sincere thank you to Jacks and Punties (J&P) ANU SoAD pilot program contributors: SoAD outreach officer Waratah Lahy; outreach teaching-mentor team Cathy Newton, Rob Schwartz, Belinda Toll and Dan Venables; SoAD glass workshop Technical Officer Philip Spelman; SoAD manager Barbara McConchie; ANU SoAD Professor Denise Ferris; and most of all, ACT youth worker Eva Gasiewicz and fabulous teens Alex, Alicia, Dim, Emma, Jordon, Keamanee, Maddy, Phisbe, and Phoebe.
 A responsibility vigorously underpinned by Esther Anatolitis’s Friday key note
Becker, H  2008, Art Worlds, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles.
Drexler Lynn, M 2004, American studio glass, 1960-1990, Hudson Hills Press, Windsor Books International NY
Marchand, T (ed.) 2010, Making Knowledge, Explorations of the Indissoluble Relation Between Mind, Body and Environment, Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Wiley-Blackwell, John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester.
O’Connor, E 2015, ‘Inter- to Intracorporeality: The haptic hot shop heat of a glass blowing studio’, Studio Studies: Operations, Topologies and Displacements, Routledge, New York, pp 105-119.
Nadège Desgenétez is a maker, a researcher and an educator. Originally from France, she has worked, taught and exhibited in Europe, North America, Asia and Australia. Her practice-led research focuses on experiences of connection to place and her most recent exhibitions include solos in New York and Paris. Desgenétez has been the recipient of numerous awards, including grants from Arts ACT and the Australia Council for the Arts, and residencies from the Tacoma Museum of Glass (Tacoma, USA). She has been a lecturer at the School of Art and Design of the Australian National University, Canberra since 2005.