Rise and shine: Tacoma artists group hides glass baubles around town

In the wee hours on Friday, a Tacoma artists group will celebrate Year of the Horse by hiding baubles around town

Staff writerJanuary 31, 2014 

It’s hard to believe that Tacomans have been waking up on Asian New Year morning to a treasure hunt of blown glass balls for 11 years now.

But Monkeyshines – the city’s quirky, anonymous arts event – began with the Year of the Monkey in 2004, and this year celebrates the Year of the Horse with about 1,000 horse-stamped glass balls made in just two weeks by more than 40 glass blowers. And beginning this weekend, those balls will be hidden around the city for lucky Tacoma residents to find.

“It doesn’t take long to make a ball, less than three minutes, and we do them assembly-line style so they go really quick,” said a Tacoma glassblower who identified herself only as Ms. Monkey to remain anonymous in keeping with the underground style of the event.

One night this weekend (they don’t announce the time in advance) about 30 artists and friends will gather at Ms. Monkey’s downtown studio, where the hundreds of balls are stacked. They’ll receive their instructions, choose their sections of a big Tacoma map, and start carrying balls out to car trunks. Then, in groups of three or four, they’ll spread out around town to hide the multicolor blown-glass that bear the design of a prancing pony. Working by flashlight, they’ll slide them under bushes, balance them in tree forks, pop them inside newspaper boxes. They won’t go up steps or too far into front yards, and they’ll try to spread them out as much as possible.

The whole enterprise has grown from its homespun beginnings into a movement that’s supported by a Tacoma Arts Commission grant, distributes medallions on First Night and gets lots of attention from blogs and social media – despite having no official membership, website or director.

But the real effort behind Monkeyshines happens in local hot shops such as the one at Jason Lee Middle School, where the student Hilltop Artists have been making 500 balls and medallions for three hours a day for the past two weeks.

“It’s a fun project,” says one eighth-grader at Jason Lee, who like the other Monkeyshines folks wants to stay anonymous. The student grew up with Monkeyshines: His father designed the first stamp and as a child he would get up early and trek around Tacoma hiding them with his family every year. He started blowing glass when he was 8. This year, he’s blowing the monkeyshine balls, and — along with other Jason Lee students in the Hilltop Artists program — he designed one of the metal horse-shaped stamps that’s imprinted on the top of the balls.

But hiding monkeyshines has gotten harder over the years as the event gets better known – another reason for keeping names, locations and times secret.

“It’s a tough job,” says the student. “People would find out about it on Facebook, get up early and follow us around. We’d hide a ball, and they’d get out of their car and take it. So we’d have to (drive around) and lose them.”

In the Jason Lee hot shop, the Hilltop team spent all of Monday (a school waiver day) making monkeyshines. With choreographic precision they took glass lumps out of the red-hot furnace, rolled them in powdered color, blew bubbles, shaped them, cut them off the pipe, sealed them with a gob of molten glass and stamped the horse design on the top before popping them in the annealer to cool. The team churned out a ball every five minutes.

“It’s about just having fun,” sums up the student designer. “It’s fun for people to try and find them, like a scavenger hunt.”

Other elements of the scavenger hunt include Beautiful Angle art posters posted around town, and glass marbles independently distributed about the same time.

But Tacomans only have one more year to enjoy the hunt: After next year, says Ms. Monkey, Monkeyshines will have run the course of the Chinese zodiac, and may well come to a halt.

Monkeyshines 2014

When: Sometime after midnight Friday

Where: Anywhere around Tacoma; look in odd places

Cost: Free Other Asian New Year events

Hunting for glass balls isn’t the only way to celebrate Asian New Year in Puget Sound. Here are some other events:


Students from Tacoma’s School of the Arts and guest students from Beijing will perform together in the “Showcase of Two Cultures.” Thirty-five immersion-program students from Beijing are in Tacoma, and will tour SOTA and the Science and Math Institute, share meals with students and perform dance and music in the concert. In return, SOTA students will travel to China in March in a service and study program that has been offered by the school for the past eight years. The concert is free, but students will accept donations to support a charity project they’ll work on in China. The free show is at 7 p.m. Friday at School of the Arts Theater, 1117 S. Commerce St., Tacoma. 253-571-7900, tsota.org


The Wing Luke is Seattle’s custodian of the Asian American experience in the Northwest, so of course it revs up at Asian New Year. The Lunar New Year Festival happens Saturday, and includes dragon and lion dances, a food walk ($2), children’s costume parade and contest, plus a fair at the museum itself. The festival runs 11 a.m.-4 p.m. at Hing Hay Park, 423 Maynard Ave. S. in Seattle’s International district. The museum at 719 S. King St. has hours of 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays. Admission is $12.95 general; $9.95 students, seniors; $8.95 ages 6-12; free for 5 and younger. 206-623-5124, wingluke.org


Part of the Seattle Art Museum, the Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park isn’t just a great place to explore art from all over Asia. This Saturday, the Lunar New Year celebration includes free admission, live music, martial arts performances (11 a.m.), dance (11:30 a.m.), the kids’ film “My Avatar Horse” (1:30 p.m.), and art-making, including designing your own horse sculpture. Hours are 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday at Volunteer Park, 1400 E. Prospect St., Seattle. 206-654-3100, seattleartmuseum.org

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 rosemary.ponnekanti@ thenewstribune.com

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