A fiery passion | September 6, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - September 6, 2013

A fiery passion

Paly students find cozy 'home' in glassblowing program, a rarity among high schools

by Chris Kenrick

Heat, light and camaraderie fuel a well-ordered space on the northern edge of the Palo Alto High School campus, where more than 100 students a year pass through for a primer in the "fiery arts" of clay and glass.

Paly's glassblowing studio — one of a handful at public schools in the United States — is a home away from home for a diverse group of teens, for whom the work of shaping honey-thick molten liquid into solid objects has become a form of play.

"It's way too addicting and way too fun," said senior Martin Ehrensvard, who began blowing glass at Paly 18 months ago. "It's such a big fight — blowing glass is like working with no other material.

"You're shaping something super-hot, and when it's not hot you can't shape it. The hotter it is, the better you can shape it. I fell in love with it."

Shelves in Paly's sculpture classroom — the glass furnace and reheaters are just outside — are lined with colorful glass pumpkins, apples, acorns, hearts, shells, reindeer, slugs and snails ready for purchase at the program's "Big Fiery Arts Fall Sale" Sept. 13 and Sept. 20. Open to the public, the sale's proceeds will support the glass program.

Financing glassblowing at Paly requires $50,000 a year for things like glass and repairs to equipment, such as the furnace — which keeps molten glass at 2,000 degrees — and the "glory holes," which keep the glass hot as students blow into it and shape it on the ends of rigid but hollow, 54-inch-long blowpipes.

Art teacher Steve Ferrera estimates that glassblowers — including Paly students, former students and his two instructional aides — blew more than 600 glass pieces over the summer that will be offered for sale.

Like sports, drama, robotics, debate, choir or journalism, Paly glassblowing enjoys a devoted following among parents and students, some of whom return to the studio even after they graduate for the opportunity to keep blowing glass, or just hang out.

"This program changes lives," said Cheryl Sopkin, whose son Michael, a 2010 Paly graduate, is a studio-art glassblowing major at Emporia State University in Kansas.

"Glassblowing took over my life, and I'm glad it did," the younger Sopkin said in an August interview, a day before he flew to Kansas to begin his junior year.

"Once I knew glassblowing was there, I knew I didn't want to be in a cubicle the rest of my life and work for headquarters, or whatever. I knew I wanted to do glass."

Though he describes Kansas as a "huge culture shock," Sopkin said he was happy to get out of California to see a different part of the country. He plans on a career in studio glass production.

Artist and teacher David Camner, who launched glassblowing at Paly around 2001, estimates that about 10 Paly graduates, like Sopkin, have gone on to pursue glass at places like Emporia or California College of the Arts in Oakland.

One of Camner's former instructional aides at Paly, glass artist Helen Lee, now teaches at the University of Wisconsin.

Glassblowing — known in Paly's catalog as Advanced Sculpture — "is probably one of my best classes at Paly," senior Tristan Soltero said.

He gives most of his products — flowers, cups, a vase, a heart — to his parents, Soltero said.

"I made my mom a heart and a cup for Mother's Day," he said. "She really enjoys them."

Glassblowing at Paly originated almost by happenstance — at least that's how Camner tells the story.

The Santa Cruz artist had come to Paly in 1998 to rebuild the program after the 1996 death of popular art teacher Don Jang, who had taught at the school for 29 years. In 2000, Camner took about a dozen students for a weekend workshop at the Felton glass studio of one of his acquaintances from graduate school.

"We camped at New Brighton Beach," Camner recalled. "It was really kind of cool, and the kids liked it. I thought this was something we could do every year."

But the next year the Felton studio tripled the workshop enrollment fee.

"I said, 'No way I'm going to ask my parents to put up that kind of money,'" he said. "It was way too much, and I said, 'There's no way we can afford that.'"

The incident prompted Camner — who'd been blowing glass himself since learning the techniques in college in the '60s — to approach then-Paly Principal Fred Dreier for funds to buy glassblowing equipment for the art department.

"He (Dreier) came up with like $16,000 to build our first glass furnace — a really nice, commercial glass furnace — that's the heart of the program, where we melt the glass," Camner said. They also bought a glory hole, which is a furnace used to reheat glass to keep it pliable during the process of shaping it.

From 2001 until he retired last year, Camner estimates that more than 1,500 Paly students tried their hands at glassblowing.

"Of course, not all of those students took advantage of that opportunity, but I can say that they nearly all tried it for awhile, before opting out," he said.

"I think it did change some kids' lives," Camner added. "It brightened their outlook toward art. I'm still communicating with some of them.

"The program just kind of developed in a really nice way, where the alumni kids that are really into it would come back and help and make the pumpkins to support the programs," he said.

Camner himself remains a familiar face at the Paly studio. And once a month he returns for a whole weekend to run a two-day, $375 workshop for teen and adult community members to raise money for the glass program.

Enrollment in the weekend workshop is capped at four so "you get serious, one-on-one instruction, and if you want to learn how to blow glass, by the end of the weekend you're taking home cups and paperweights," Ferrera said.

"It's a great way to improve your skills fast. You can come in here with absolutely no experience. Obviously the aides are helping you, but some people box up a dozen items over the weekend, and it also raises money for the program."

Worries over what would become of Paly glass after Camner's departure were quelled when Ferrera arrived as a part-timer in 2011-12, Camner's final year.

"I'd known Dave for years," said Ferrera, who taught art at several local colleges before coming to Paly. "We've both been glassblowers in the community, and it's a small community."

Ferrera was also familiar with the demands of fundraising, having helped out in the past with Paly's summer pumpkin production in exchange for studio time. After the 2011-12 transition year, during which he double-teamed with Camner, he came on board full time in 2012-13.

On a recent Wednesday morning, a cluster of Advanced Sculpture students gathered around Ferrera as he demonstrated a piece on one of the studio's 10 pottery wheels.

Toward the back of the room, other students sat at large butcher-block tables drafting sketches for an assignment to create their personal "superhero" from clay.

At a bead-making station near the back door, Paly senior Caroline Moeser fired up a torch to show sophomore Leila Benest how to make beads.

Moeser said she strongly prefers bead-making to glassblowing.

"It's too hot out there," she said, motioning to an area just outside the door where six other students were working glass in and out of two active glory holes.

"Glassblowing is, like, really big and heavy," said Moeser, who loves to create bead necklaces and bracelets.

Camner estimates the Paly glassblowing ratio is three-to-one boys to girls, but plenty of girls love it, too.

Junior Lilybeth Guzman has made and given away or sold glass cups, beads and paperweights. Her glass chili peppers hang in her uncle's Mexican restaurant in Los Gatos.

Guzman said she blows glass about once a week, or "whenever I get a chance to. There are a lot of people who want to do it, so I don't get that many chances," she said.

Outside the door, the 2,000-degree furnace and two working glory holes add heat to what already is a warm morning, but Ehrensvard — wearing safety glasses, sweat pants, sneakers and a long-sleeved, black T-shirt — doesn't seem to notice. He and fellow student Jasper Tom are blowing a vase, a task requiring agility, speed and split-second coordination.

Ehrensvard, a Swede who worked over the summer in a Stockholm glass studio, exudes confidence with the tools and the process. He said he's considering spending a year in a glass studio after graduation before going to college, probably in Sweden.

As Ehrensvard lengthens a globular piece of hot glass on the tip of the blowpipe, Tom blows into the other end to create an air bubble. Later, Ehrensvard uses a cone-like tool and giant tweezers to work open the lip of the vase. When it's perfect, he snips it off the tip of the blowpipe into the hand of another student wearing giant, heat-proof mittens.

To prevent cracking, items must go into special "annealing" ovens to slowly cool. Sanding tools smooth sharp edges.

Glassblowing, explained junior Jeremy Revlock, "is kind of a team thing. You can't just have one person by himself."

Students are required to sign up in advance, and in pairs, for "bench time" with tools and a glory hole.

Revlock began blowing glass his sophomore year and sometimes comes in early to help set up the shop. Ferrera has to turn on the glory holes at 6:45 a.m. to get them hot enough in time for class, he said.

"I'm really a visual learner, so having something where I can be taught and teach and learn just by moving my hands is more exciting for me," Revlock said.

"It's more fun than drawing because I'm holding it and it's all three-dimensional."

Revlock said he's made snails, vases, cups and "lots of flowers.

"I want to start letting people know I can make stuff for them, and most stuff I make just takes five to 15 minutes.

"I've had people ask me to make something for their girlfriend or wife or daughter, and then they'll insist on paying. They make really good gifts, and one nice thing about this is the projects are functional.

"Once Mr. Camner taught me the first steps of glassblowing — how to make a snowman and a flower — I was hooked."


A slideshow by Weekly Photography Intern Christophe Haubursin about Paly's glassblowing program has been posted on www.PaloAltoOnline.com. It can also be viewed at the Weekly's YouTube page: www.YouTube.com/paweekly.

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at ckenrick@paweekly.com.


1 person likes this
Posted by Laurie Hunter
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 6, 2013 at 11:03 am

Fascinating article. Wish my sons would have tried it when they were at Paly but maybe we can do one of the weekend workshops sometime. Thanks for the great reporting, Chris !

1 person likes this
Posted by mikey
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 6, 2013 at 2:22 pm

yeeee paly glass program

3 people like this
Posted by Polly Wanacracker
a resident of Professorville
on Sep 6, 2013 at 3:10 pm

Words of wisdom: Don't sneeze!

1 person likes this
Posted by Danger danger
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 6, 2013 at 7:08 pm

Are these kids in danger of lead poisoning? many glass lowers who do this for a living have suffered from it.

1 person likes this
Posted by ,,ln.bk.
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Sep 6, 2013 at 8:58 pm

palo altans are violentl.

2 people like this
Posted by Kelli Hagen
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 8, 2013 at 3:44 pm

One of my favorite programs at Paly. Mr Ferrera is awesome- I bring my chem classes over as a day field trip when we're discussing types of solids. We get to watch process for the entire period- enough time to see a piece completed. Really amazing!

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