For glass blowers, an off-campus home

The decade-old Foci Center is one of the few places near campus for artists to blow glass. If the center has its way, University students could start coming in soon.

For glass blowers, an off-campus home

Jennifer Bissell

Jilli Braun gathers a collection of molten glass from a glowing vat heated to 2,100 degrees.

She sits down with the luminous material to turn the rod itâÄôs attached to, centering its gravity into a ball before it cools.

Quickly her partner crouches down, blowing air through the rod to inflate it. Braun isnâÄôt sure what sheâÄôs making, but thatâÄôs what she says she loves about blowing glass.

“It so cool because you never know whatâÄôs going to happen,” Braun said. “ItâÄôs always a surprise.”

Though sheâÄôs only been blowing glass for a year, Braun said she already knows itâÄôs something sheâÄôll want to do for the rest of her life.

“When youâÄôre doing a painting it will take you a month,” Braun said. “But when youâÄôre doing glass youâÄôre done that day. You created; youâÄôre done.”

Having always wanted to try glassblowing, Braun said she signed up for classes at Foci Minnesota Center for Glass Arts as soon as she had heard of it.

The center, located just outside the Southeast Como neighborhood on East Hennepin Avenue, offers workshops and studio time for all skill levels.

The nonprofit just celebrated its 10-year anniversary and is now considering partnering with the University of Minnesota to start offering college credit.

Braun, who decided not to finish her degree at Inver Hills Community College, said receiving credit for the time sheâÄôs spent learning the craft would “be a dream.”

“IâÄôd be happy as hell,” she said. “Instead of coming in and just working, IâÄôd actually get a degree.”

With the high cost of running the program and limited interest, the UniversityâÄôs glassblowing curriculum was ended in the 1990s. But art department Associate Administrator Evonne Lindberg said the department would consider a partnership with Foci.

The department has offered off-campus courses in other disciplines but stopped due to the cost, liability and logistical complications, Lindberg said.

Glassblowing was a popular trend among Midwestern universities in the 1960s and âÄô70s, which is when the University established its program. But with the expensive nature of the craft, many of the programs disappeared. Anoka-Ramsey Community College and University of Wisconsin-River Falls are among the few that have survived.

Foci Center Director Michael Boyd said itâÄôs unique with its low operating budget and nonprofit status, allowing the center to fundraise and apply for grants.

Currently the center has an operating budget of $160,000 and is looking for more opportunities to raise money. The Pittsburgh Glass Center has had an operating budget close to $2 million in the past, Boyd said.

The center also offers one of the cheapest studio rental rates in the nation, at $25 an hour compared to the average $40 or $50, Boyd said.

“I always try to keep the price as low as possible because I felt that would be the best, fastest way to build a community,” Boyd said. “WeâÄôre just trying to keep it going.”

Jackson Schwartz, whose glass studio is located in the same building as Foci, said he was excited about the future of Foci.

Schwartz has studied glassblowing extensively and worked as a consultant for other studios.

“Everyone wants to make things right now,” Schwartz said. “[Glassblowing is] fun, something people can engage with, [and] thereâÄôs a product people can make.”

Schwartz said he could see the center easily building off the Twin CitiesâÄô glassblowing community and expanding into global networks. Having studied and worked in Australia, Schwartz said the center has already started networking through his own contacts.

Additionally, Schwartz said he could see the center fitting in well with urban renewal schemes where artists are able to revive abandoned warehouses and factories.

Foci is located in an old General Mills research laboratory and is also the site where a submarine was built. Now itâÄôs home to at least three art studios and a chocolate factory. Boyd said he likes to refer to the space as his “industrial cathedral.”

“ItâÄôs more than just glass. ItâÄôs about people coming to a place where they can interact and make something,” Schwartz said. “This place, I think, will take off.”