Tacoma Art Museum’s ‘GATHER’ Exhibit Highlights 27 Years of Hilltop Artists Glassblowing Programs for Youth

When Trenton Quiocho finished his apprenticeship with Hilltop Artists, which teaches the art of glassblowing to young people aged 12 to 20 in Pierce County, he said he felt some people in the glass community didn’t like them. “I think because, for lack of a better word, we were [seen as] a bunch of punk kids,” Quiocho said.

Quiocho has been around Perched artists programming since he was a junior at Silas High School in Tacoma (then called Woodrow Wilson High School) by simply taking an elective class. He remembers walking the first day, seeing a glass blowing demonstration and knowing then that it was something he wanted to learn how to do himself. From this class, Quiocho found a welcoming space that he looked forward to throughout the school day. He was around the program, eventually joining the advanced student production team, until he aged in 2010.

Today, Quiocho is the production and hot workshop manager of Hilltop (referring to a glassblower’s workspace), teaching another generation of students the arts of glass. But Quiocho also wanted to find a way to uplift the past artists who meant so much to him and the Tacoma community. This led to “GATHER: 27 years of artists at the top of the hills,” an exhibition running at the Tacoma Art Museum through September 4, which features the work of 21 alumni of Hilltop Artists who have gone on to create contemporary glass art, paintings, and mixed media art.

“I’ve been on this program for the better half of my life,” Quiocho said. “I grew up with all these people and my mentors and I had never seen any of them exhibited in a gallery. The main focus of the show for me was to spotlight these talented artists that I grew up with.

Originally, Quiocho’s idea was to stage a pop-up show with TAM to coincide with the Seattle-based Glass Art Society’s international conference, which was originally scheduled to celebrate its 50th anniversary in Tacoma in 2021 before being postponed. one year.

“He wanted to introduce, to this international group of visiting glass enthusiasts, the work of artists who have not had the same opportunities to make or show their work to a larger audience, despite great things,” said said TAM executive director David Setford. , adding that most of the artists featured on the show are artists of color.

Setford sees a common belief behind the work of Hilltop and that of TAM, a belief in the value of giving young people a creative outlet and caring mentors as well as an investment in the idea that art has the power to change lives. lives and build a better future. . It’s in a world, Setford said, “where there are very few art programs left, of any kind, in schools.”

Quiocho worked with Margaret Bullock, TAM’s Chief Curator and Curator of Collections and Special Exhibits, holding Zoom meetings in September 2021 to determine how Quiocho’s idea might fit into the museum’s plans and the necessary adjustments in pandemic case. The museum saw a few things disappear from its schedule, which gave way for Quiocho’s idea to flourish, growing from a smaller pop-up to a large-scale exhibition that could be seen in a gallery. For many months.

“They told me they wanted to go ahead with the idea, which is kind of shocking,” Quiocho said. “But also, it’s not a lot of time to put on a show together. Most timelines are around a year, I think, for most shows. So speaking in September and then having the show in March isn’t very long. So it’s kind of a scramble for me to put it all together.

Although working quickly, Quiocho wanted to ensure that applying to be part of the exhibition was as simple as possible so that complicated application processes or fees were not a barrier to entry for one of the alumni. from Hilltop. He and a few colleagues contacted as many former Hilltop participants as they could imagine who were still making art. Still, Quiocho said he would have liked to present even more than the 21 artists who are part of this exhibition.

As Hilltop Executive Director Kimberly Keith noted, being able to showcase the work of these alumni on a stage like TAM’s is invaluable. Often who and what is displayed in art museums determines what society considers valuable, leading them to be very exclusive places. Through “GATHER”, the hope is to showcase local and regional artists and artists of color who are often kept away from this exclusive space.

“The premise of ‘GATHER’ is that black and brown artists in particular don’t always have a space to show their work,” Keith said. “And then in glass in particular, it’s not a very diversified medium. It’s really only been in the last 50 years that people of color and women and a lot of different people have been able to get into fashion boutiques. We have been around for 27 years, and some of the students and artists who have participated in our program are changing the face of this medium.

Keith, who also helped start education programs at the Tacoma Museum of Glass, is approaching five years in what she calls her dream job leading the youth development organization. The non-profit organization was originally founded in 1994, in partnership with Tacoma Public Schools as part of the mission to provide young people from diverse cultural and economic backgrounds with a connection to a brighter future through education. education in the art of glass.

An inaugural group of 20 young people from Hilltop gathered in the former carpentry shop of Jason Lee Middle School (now Hilltop Heritage Middle School) to learn a range of sculptural arts. These students learned the art of glass by converting Snapple and soda bottles into blown glass while learning about woodworking. Over the years, Hilltop Artists has grown, now with store houses at both Hilltop Heritage and Silas High School. Hilltop’s free programs will see around 650 young people in a typical year, ranging from students at Hilltop Heritage or Silas High School who just want a semester-long elective to others who will be in the program for years.

Hilltop program director Jessica Hogan began Hilltop programming at age 13 and went on to high school at Silas. After going to college, she got a call that the program could use an extra pair of hands, so she came back to help with some of the day classes. After about 15 years of working with the program and with middle schoolers, Hogan said it was starting to rub off on his own art.

“I feel like my artwork right now is so weird,” Hogan joked, noting that he was inspired by Solo jazz cuts. “I feel like I like doing things that you see every day, but I want to make them look good.”

For the TAM exhibit, Hogan’s work will be represented by large glass Cheetos, inspired by seeing students eat them and other snacks around the school. She said she felt like there might be a wait around the glassware – that she must be very beautiful – and she wanted to do something different.

Even as Hogan reflects, there’s an almost incredulous tone that a college glass program could not just survive, but thrive over 27-plus years. Much credit can be given to the fact that many students, like Hogan and Quiocho, return as mentors and pass on their knowledge to the next group of students. On top of that, Hogan highlighted the value of the program being able to bring in true masters of craftsmanship, like award-winning glass artist Pino Signoretto (before his death in 2017) and Tacoma-born Dale Chihuly.

Those who have taken the Hilltop program have seen its ability to teach students invaluable teamwork and leadership skills, with one person taking the lead as the gaffer (who will lift the molten glass) and one or two assistants helping to shape this glass into anything. the gaffer is working on it. Keith likened it to a kind of dance, where everyone must learn their role and anticipate the movements and needs of others.

“As an instructor, kids have told me it’s the highlight of their day,” said teaching artist Doug Burgess. “I wasn’t the most confident kid, and I can imagine that age group might have felt the same way I did at that time. Just the chance that you could make their life a little bit easier if they go through difficulties, it’s really rewarding.

Burgess started in Hilltop’s programming in seventh grade, following in the footsteps of her older sister who participated in the program. In high school, he says, it was a bit like being on the football team for him. Burgess grew up in Southeast Alaska in a small village as part of the Haida tribe before moving to the area when she was 10 years old. His work which is part of “GATHER” blends Haida painting and sculpture which he has seen growing up with the more contemporary glassblowing. art he learned after moving.

“I try to find ways to reconnect with that side of myself,” Burgess explained, “because I feel like I’m drifting away, disassociating myself from everything that I saw growing up. “

His work is the second edition of a series he started last year and a collaboration with his mother, a weaver who has been an artist for over 30 years. He said he was honored to have this opportunity to collaborate with his greatest inspiration.

As the work of Burgess, Hogan, Quiocho and 18 other Hilltop alumni remains on view for the next five months, TAM hopes visitors to the exhibit will learn the names of those whose work is on display and take those names home to their communities. Perhaps, Quiocho said, it can open doors for some of these artists, creating new opportunities for them that weren’t there before. Ultimately, it can inspire other students, who can see people from their own community showcased on the major stage that is the Tacoma Art Museum.

“I wanted to highlight the artists,” Quiocho said. “I wanted to highlight the program from which we come. It’s a huge thing in our community to have this program. And I don’t know what I would do without it.

“GATHER: 27 Years of Hilltop Artists”

10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday and Friday to Sunday and 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday until September 4; Tacoma Museum of Art, 1701 Pacific Avenue, Tacoma; $18; tacomaartmuseum.org

James C. Tibbs