Jean-Claude Novaro maneuvers the mass of molten glass – twisting, shaping, creating.
In a twinkling, he’s conjured a delicate cat, a prancing horse, then a beautiful swan. He lays down a flat foundation of glass that will serve as a platform to meld two members of the glass menagerie.
His creation shatters.
“It happens,” Novaro says later, in French, with just the hint of a smile.
In international art circles, the silver-haired Novaro is known as the King of Glass. And though he got his start in a glass factory and once sold glass trinkets to tourists, his website now includes pictures of him posing with European royalty and celebrities such as Bill Cosby. His art is featured as part of exhibitions and private collections around the world.
But on Friday, he was in Tacoma, helping seventh-graders at Jason Lee Middle School perfect their artistry in their school hot shop.
Novaro was part of a delegation visiting Tacoma from Biot, France – a city of roughly 10,000 that became Tacoma’s 12th sister city this week.
The city is on the French Riviera, between the major hub of Nice and Cannes, where Hollywood stars mix with film auteurs from around the globe in that city’s annual film festival.
Like Tacoma, Biot is known for its glass art. Novaro and fellow glass blower Antoine Pierini, who grew up in the glass studio of his father, Robert, brought their expertise Friday to students who are part of Hilltop Artists.
The nonprofit, which operates in partnership with Tacoma Public Schools, was established in 1994 with the help of Tacoma native and glass artist Dale Chihuly. Its purpose: to connect young people from diverse cultural and economic backgrounds to better futures.
A few of the Jason Lee kids were clearly starstruck as Novaro and Pierini worked in their hot shop Friday.
Roger Castellanos is taking glassblowing for the first time this year in the Hilltop Artists studio at Jason Lee. He was inspired working with Novaro.
“I’m going to practice a lot,” Roger said, nothing that he’s already made glass snowmen and two cups. “I want to be as good as he is.”
Novaro said that although he has been working with glass for more than 50 years, it feels like he’s only just begun.
Roger knows that feeling. Class time seems to fly by when he’s making art.
“In this class, it feels like it just lasts a minute, because making glass is so much fun,” he said.
Seventh-grader Treyvon Barnett said watching the master artists work was cool.
“I have always been interested in art,” he said.
Pierini has known Novaro – a friend of his glass artist father – since he was a child. The glass master is like an uncle to him, Pierini said.
While he started working with his father at age 7, Pierini said that – until his visit to Jason Lee – he had never seen a school-based glass art program for young students.
“It’s unbelievable,” he said. “It’s great for children to be interested in glass.”
Biot Mayor Jean-Pierre Dermit thinks so, too.
He said he would love to see his city start up a program like the one in Tacoma. Hilltop Artists opened the first hot shop at Jason Lee in 1994, and in 2001 another opened at Wilson High School. More than 100 students a day work in the Wilson studio, a space that once held the school’s auto shop.
Some of the Biot delegation also visited Wilson on Friday, stopping first at the hot shop and then in the French-language classroom of Bettina Stanley. Students grew quiet and shy when Frederic Maurice, a journalist from the French newspaper Nice Matin, asked them some questions in French.
“We’ll see you again in France,” he told students when the visitors departed.
The visitors arrived Thursday, when they signed formal documents cementing the Biot-Tacoma sister city relationship at Tacoma City Hall. On Friday, they spent time with Tacoma students, and some planned to visit the Pilchuck Glass School up north. Today has been reserved for sightseeing around Pierce County.
And on Sunday, the French delegation will bid us adieu.
But there is already talk of an ongoing exchange of students, art, artists and culture.
Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635