Tacoma, Biot exchange glassblowing expertise

Staff writerJuly 11, 2014 

In the Jason Lee Middle School Hot Shop this week, there’s an unusual guest.

High school student Arsne Brie, of Biot, France, is in town for two weeks to finesse his glassblowing skills with the Hilltop Artists in Residence – and one Hilltop artist is in Biot doing exactly the same thing.

The student glass exchange is a first, and an initiative of the Tacoma Sister Cities program. The exchange takes advantage of the fact that Biot – Tacoma’s newest sister city – is also a glassblowing town, home to glass maestro Antoine Pierini, with whom Tacoma exchange student Douglas Burgess is currently working.

“This is great in a number of ways,” said Debbie Bingham, the Sister Cities coordinator who developed the exchange. “For the city of Tacoma, it’s neat to have different cultures here and to see that they do similar things in other parts of the world. It’s good for the local kids to meet someone their own age who’s from another part of the world. And for Doug – well, that could change a kid’s life, to get to work under a master in another country and see what it’s like outside your own place.”

In the Hot Shop on Tuesday morning, Brie was one of a dozen or so students enrolled in the Hilltop’s summer learning program – two, two-week sessions where teenagers can register in glassblowing, beadmaking or fusing.

Having arrived in the United States on Sunday and gone through some safety and basic skills Monday, Brie seemed like he was settling into the shop’s routine. Following directions from teachers Jessica Hogan and Tony Sorgenfrei, the tall 17-year-old carefully pulled a lump of glass out of the glory hole, rolled it in colored glass powder, and reheated it to begin the process of making a paperweight.

“It’s different here,” he said, with translation help from Hilltop administrator Kate Ward. “At home, I mostly work in ceramics, where I can touch it. (With glass) that’s not possible.”

He added that in Biot, glassmaking is often done with baking soda, which gives a bubbly texture to the glass – a technique not used by Hilltop beginners.

Brie also commented in English on how the Hot Shop, like Tacoma itself, was a lot bigger than what he is used to. But he is excited to be here.

“I want to learn glass, I want to learn English, and I want to see American sports like baseball,” he said.

It’s a wish that’ll come true: Brie’s Tacoma hosts (he’s staying one week with Ward, one week with Sister City Biot liaison Cathy Sarnat) have a full schedule planned for him, including hiking, paintball, visiting Vashon Island, seeing the Chihuly museum in Seattle, eating at burger joints and watching a Tacoma Rainiers game.

The idea for the student glass exchange came about when Biot and Tacoma first began the sister-city relationship in 2012.

“There’s always something in common for sister cities, but usually it’s the port thing,” Bingham said. “But this was glass.”

After the first official French delegation came in 2012 to sign the agreement, Museum of Glass director Susan Warner took glass artists Ben Cobb and Sarah Gilbert to Biot to meet Pierini and other artists, and talk about possibilities. Hilltop director Kit Evans and committee member Sarnat followed up with another visit to discuss a student exchange.

“We got talking about the work we did, helping kids stay in school through glass, and we thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great for a student to be able to study overseas?’” Bingham said.

It also helped the Pierini studio, which has a youth outreach focus similar to the Hilltop program, which helps underserved and at-risk youth finish their studies and learn career skills. But the Biot studio was having a hard time attracting kids to blow glass.

“Here in Tacoma, it’s cool, but there it’s not,” Bingham said. “We thought the exchange (could help with that).”

In Biot, Burgess is finding that he’s somewhat famous.

“It’s a wonderful little village,” he wrote in an email. “Most everyone knows each other, unlike Tacoma. ... Everyone knows me or knows of me, because news travels fast.”

Burgess said he’s learned some new glassblowing techniques, including engraving, although the art is “surprisingly similar” to how it’s done in Tacoma. He’s enjoying the experience, though even with three years of French under his belt, communicating is challenging.

“So far this has been a beneficial experience for me as an artist,” he said. “But I would only recommend a trip like this to another country (for another student) if they have had practice with the language.”

“I watched Doug blossom through this,” Hilltop outreach manager Kathy Anderson said. “He raised a bunch of money, got really excited. It’s a wonderful thing for him to learn and experience a different culture.”

Burgess returns to Tacoma next week, overlapping for a short time with Brie’s stay here.

Bingham said the Sister Cities committee hopes this will be the start of regular glass-based exchanges between Biot and Tacoma, both for Hilltop students and professional glassblowers; already, two glass artists from Biot are coming to serve as residents at the Museum of Glass in the fall.

There’s even plans for glass icon Dale Chihuly – a Tacoma native who helped found Hilltop Artists and still supports the program – to visit the Prince of Monaco, who has a personal glass studio and who’s issued an invitation.

“So far, it’s crazy-successful,” said Evans, who’ll consider future exchange plans when the nonprofit has its annual meeting in August. “We’d really love to do it again. It’s my dream to send teachers over, too – that’s the vision.”

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

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