Heart of glass: Artist Pearl Dick explains how glassblowing can spark creativity and hope

Artist Pearl Dick at Project FIRE
Artist Pearl Dick, right, teaches four victims of gun violence about the art of glassblowing. (Maura Turcotte/MEDILL)

By Maura Turcotte
Medill Reports

At Project FIRE, artist Pearl Dick teaches students how to use glowing furnaces, scorched metal rods and molten glass to craft more than delicate sculptures. The studio’s 23 participants, who were all shot in Chicago as teens or young adults, also learn how to build relationships and heal. Dick cofounded Project FIRE, or Fearless Initiative for Recovery and Empowerment, with clinical psychologist Brad Stolbach in 2014 to address trauma from gun violence. Six years later, the organization in Chicago’s East Garfield Park continues to expand. This year it will collaborate with Therman Statom, a prominent black glass artist, on a potential 2021 show. “I’ve just seen such dramatic change in people’s willingness to be a part of a community and contribute to that community,” says Dick, 43. “It’s unreal.”

How do you encourage creativity in Project FIRE participants?

We’ll brainstorm different things that we’re feeling and thinking about as a group and as individuals, and then we’ll talk about ways to express those things with glass. And it just flows. A lot of people don’t think that they’re creative or don’t do things creatively because they don’t know that it’s a possibility. It’s incredible what people come up with when they have that encouragement.

How dangerous is glassblowing?

Certainly, there’s a lot of hot material that can burn you and sharp things that can cut you, and there’s definitely risk involved, but it’s very safe when you know how to work with it.

The first thing we discuss always is safety. The very first thing that we do when introducing somebody to glass is try to help them feel comfortable in a potentially really intimidating environment.

Project FIRE
An artist at Project FIRE uses a furnace to shape molten glass. (Maura Turcotte/MEDILL)

 What reactions have you seen among program participants?

I was just talking to one of our participant’s grandmothers the other day, and she was just floored by the transformation that she’s seen in her grandson. He used to be very angry, very resentful, very sullen after his injury. Now he just lights up. He’s applying to college, Harold Washington, this year. He wants to do social work, and he’s just a delight and a pleasure to talk to, to be around. And he himself attributes a lot of that to Project FIRE and feeling comfortable there.

A lot of participants, when they first come in and we talk about the future, they have a really limited scope of what their options are. Their options of where they see themselves in five years are like “dead” or “in jail.” I kid you not. Those are the realistic options that some people see for themselves, and even after a year in the program, it expands to like, “I could be a teacher. I could be an artist. I could be a social worker. I can work in nonprofits. I can be a community organizer.”

What’s special about glassblowing that helps trauma survivors heal?

Safety, emotion, loss and future — those are the four kind of fundamental aspects of someone’s life that are disrupted when they have experienced acute or sustained trauma.

Glassblowing is uniquely suited to working with people with trauma. Art in general can be really restorative and healing, but glass in particular because of that risk factor that you alluded to earlier on. The very first thing that we talk about is safety and how we work within an environment that establishes trust between the participants and among the teaching artists. That safety piece is huge in learning how to trust and communicate again.

 What challenges has the organization encountered?

We’ve had to adjust how we teach and how we work with people, how to encompass a trauma-informed approach. Many of our participants are not just dealing with the isolated trauma of being shot. There are all sorts of other traumas around that many of them have grown up with their whole lives. It can lead to somebody having less ability to concentrate. It can make somebody be disruptive or easily triggered.

What are some of the most memorable Project FIRE pieces?

One that pops immediately into my head is Chester Cheetah (the Cheetos brand mascot). One of our youth participants has sculpted several times Chester Cheetah, like the logo. It’s a really cool piece, and we’ve sold this piece three times at various prices. He was once sold for $500. He’s kind of our mascot.

Chester Cheetah
The Chester Cheetah figurine at Project FIRE is among the studio’s quirkier pieces. (Maura Turcotte/MEDILL)

One of our participants made these glass hearts, and then he broke them. He had arranged them in a box that he’d made. And there were three compartments in the box, and the first part was completely broken to bits and that represented life for him between zero and five. He’s 15. And then the second compartment was a heart that was shattered, but was still held together — that represented years five to 10. And then the third compartment was a heart that was whole but it was held together by this wire, and that represented years 10 through 15. And it was really just beautiful, each piece.

What’s next?

There’s an artist, Therman Statum, one of the few really well-known black glass artists out there. And we’ve been partnering with him on a project, talking about housing and the lack of housing for people. He’s come to our studio several times, and we’re scoping out a venue for a group installation piece. There may be opportunities for individuals to travel to work with Therman at his studio in Omaha.

One Project FIRE participant will be submitting a glass piece for the NAACP ACT-SO (Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics) Competition this spring.

And then, of course, we always have our own little pop-ups at the local festivals. All the time we try to show students’ work as much as possible. It gets them exposure, but also, they are able to keep 70% of the sale of their work.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Photo at top: Artist Pearl Dick, right, teaches four victims of gun violence about the art of glassblowing. (Maura Turcotte/MEDILL)