“You see that shelf over there in the gallery. I came up with that design.”
I follow the direction of his pointer finger and smile. He is 14 and a bit shy but he brightens up when we talk of his creations. I tell him I am impressed and I can tell he is quite proud.
I am sitting with one of the handful of young apprentices who spend their afternoons here. More than just a glassblowing studio where seasoned artists come to create, this is a space where teens to young adults from varied backgrounds learn to become makers. Here, they are given the tools to conceptualize, be inspired and most importantly, they become empowered to believe in themselves.
I look over to founder Rebeccah Byer; she reminds him to be careful where he sits during production. She is straightforward with them, just as she is with adults. You can tell there is a level of respect and appreciation between all of them. It is refreshing to witness.
“I have wanted to create a glassblowing school for kids since I was 19,” she says when I ask her how this place, The Olio, came about. I tell her that I had not realized the many layers that make up The Olio. “Yeah,” she laughs. “Sometimes people think we just hang out here and blow glass all day. And we do, but it is so much more than that.”
A native of the midwest, Rebeccah took a glassblowing class as a sophomore in college and was hooked. She was feeling lost trying to navigate her future but on the first day of that class she knew she had found her way.
The one thing she was certain of early was that she wanted to teach but she didn’t know which concentration she should choose. As luck would have it, after her first glass blowing class it was clear. And after twenty more years of life lessons which led her here, she feels fortunate to have that dream finally come to fruition.
I ask her about the craft. I ask her about her past. I ask her about the future. With each conversation we quickly return back to “the kids”. She tells me to look beyond the glassblowing studio because that is just one facet of The Olio’s mission. She believes that art can transform you; in the next breath she also says “you need practical life skills to create a sustainable life for yourself. The little bit of empowerment you can give people means a whole lot in the world.”
She explains how glass is a “therapeutic medium for a lot of reasons. You have to check your ego at the door because you never achieve perfection.”
It is a sentiment that The Olio’s Artistic Director Sarah Band later echos. “With glass, things you have been working so hard on can break in an instant and shatter. Everything is so delicate. You can’t be attached; you have to learn to let it go.”
“A good metaphor for all things in our lives really,” I say.
This is something Rebeccah in particular relates to. We talk about it honestly over coffee in the gallery one quiet and rainy morning. It was one of those mornings we have all had; I am sure of it. Those days when you realize you are running yourself ragged and ask yourself “what am I doing this for again?” We are both having one of those days.
“I have been thinking about my brother a lot today,” she shares. Her brother, a filmmaker by happenstance, passed away from ALS in 2008. He was a new father, 38 at the time of his death. His documentary, Indestructible, chronicles his diagnosis and disease. During those years he was a champion for those living with ALS and traveled the globe seeking out remedies for the fatal disease. He and his young son lived with Rebeccah during filming. She was his sister, a producer on the documentary, his advocate, and for a while, his caregiver.
“When I think of him I am reminded that life is precious and that these little things that can upset me really are not important. Sometimes you just get caught up and lose sight.” Building a non-profit organization has many challenges. Funds are limited; staff and hours in the day are too. The only thing in abundance are the people you want to help.
This is something I take to heart. When you are carving your own path in life you are hit with moments of insecurity and exhaustion. You can easily start to question your sanity. But time and time again I hear of ways that others snap back into a state of gratitude and keep going.
For Rebeccah, she does so in remembrance of her brother, and without a doubt, the kids at The Olio are what keep her motivated.
She also tells me that she is so appreciative of folks like John Bryan who took a chance on rehabbing the old Hoots Roller Mill property, and when hand selecting tenants, took a chance on her. “He just believed in me from the beginning. I don’t think we would have gotten up and running without his support.”
The whole concept of West End Mill Works centered around creating a space for makers and homegrown entrepreneurs. The space is not polished; it has its quirks. But those quirks add color, grit and character. It seems to be an ideal place for Rebeccah to have her home.
The Olio, defined as a “miscellaneous collection of things”, is a non-profit glassblowing school and creative entrepreneurship center that offers programs for all ages and interest levels to learn about the process and medium of glass and furnace glassblowing. Today, Rebeccah and team regularly host community and team building workshops, field trips and rent the space for private events. They also take private commissioned work upon request. All of these programs generate revenue to support their core program, the youth apprenticeship program, open to ages 14-24 year-olds.
The apprenticeship program is pragmatic and personal. Each apprentice is exposed over time to the many facets of entrepreneurship. They learn how to conceptualize and create; they learn how to manage inventory, bookkeeping, customer service, public speaking and marketing. At the end they learn what it takes to do it all. “We see that everyone finds their groove in something specific but opens up to learning the rest. It is all about working hard and having fun.”
Sarah, who in addition to acting as Artistic Director oversees daily activities in the hot shop shares, “Glass blowing really is like a team sport. You have to work together to take an abstract idea from your head and create something tangible. It is easy to feel vunerable to have to constantly show your work in progress. Things don’t always go as planned.”
To participate in the program, the apprentices pay a modest $25 per month. The Olio offers scholarship programs for those with limited resources. The Olio is passionate about providing teens who are also facing challenges with a trade and supporting life skills that help them step with greater confidence into adulthood.
“I had a student once with a severe stutter who spoke with ease at the bench,” she tells me as we watch today’s three apprentices work together as a team to create little glass paperweights. The level of focus and intention required to turn grains of sand into molten orbs and then shape that into art “can be meditative”; it allows you to lose yourself in the process. “It was incredible to witness and I think that type of focus can be helpful for a lot of people.”
They have a strategy to expand programming for many different populations who are at-risk in the community.
I later talk with another apprentice, also 14, who has struggled since fourth grade in the public school system because of her extreme dyslexia. “Teachers have said I’m the worst case they have ever seen,” she says matter of factly. “How does that make you feel,” I ask. “Thing is I am good at other things I just have trouble reading but I am actually really smart.” We talk about what it means to be a “maker”, like she has become. She says she thinks it is cool for people to be able to do what they love and rely on the resources they have.
Each one of the apprentices I talk to begins the conversation telling me of some way they have felt “less than”, but that through the program they now have stories of growth. And it is with that growth, they have found a greater sense of self and confidence.
October 29th from 6pm – 8pm
at West End Mill Works
There you can meet staff and apprentices of The Olio and “donate what you can” to test out your glass blowing skills as we create a community art piece. Proceeds support The Olio’s apprenticeship program. While at Mill Works you can hop over to other participating businesses for specials and behind the scenes tours. Plus, karaoke and pumpkins. Need we say more?