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Michigan Glass Project Aims to Save Detroit Public School Art

Some of the country’s top glass artists will converge on Detroit next week for the Michigan Glass Project with the goal of keeping elementary school art education alive.
Photos Courtesy Michigan Glass Project


Michigan Glass Project Aims to Save Detroit Public School Art

Some of the country’s top glass artists will converge on Detroit next week for the Michigan Glass Project with the goal of keeping elementary school art education alive.

The Michigan Glass Project’s annual live art festival will once again see glassblowers donating their time to benefit Art Road Nonprofit, an organization working to return art to Detroit Public Schools.

Last year, organizers donated $80,000 to the program. According to ARN, for every $40,000 donated, 300 students are able to have an art class in their regular curriculum — meaning last year, MGP brought art classes to 600 Detroit public school students.

The event, held at Detroit’s Russell Industrial Center, will feature three days of live glassblowing, painting, jewelry and vendors starting on July 21st. Mike Shelbo, one of the top glass artists in the game, will take the reigns as emcee for all three days.

The MGP said they hope to continue helping others make inroads in the community while making positive change in the lives of Detroit youth:

“Our space provides a place for sponsors, artists, vendors and attendees to establish new connections as well as expand on existing relationships; a place to create art without pressure, simply for the sake of giving, sharing, and community building; a place for the community to take part in ensuring that children have every opportunity to express themselves and achieve their potential as they grow!”

This year’s event will include 40 torches and headlining artists will have a torch for the whole show. The people who have a large collector base are where most of the funds are going to come in, allowing them to dial in how much they’ll be able to raise per hour, per torch. This allows MGP to get everyone in the room to collab and work on multiple projects at once, as opposed to the rush of a three or six-hour time slot.

Organizers, like the event’s co-founder, Allison Key, believe a lot more glass gets made this way to go into the auction.

“We go in there and open up the kiln in the mornings and it’s like Christmas,” she said.

Artists this year include Banjo, Salt, Phil Siegel, Big Z, Brandon Martin, Cap’n Crunk, JD Maplesden, Mike Gong, Chunk, JRed, ICKE, Germ, Marcel Braun, Niko Cray and Annealed Innovations, as well as many others.

Last year, a five-way collab led by Banjo set the event’s record for most expensive piece, going for $40,000: Because of one pipe, 300 children received art education in their school.

According to Key, it all started when glassblower Blade moved to Detroit, his wife’s hometown, and started reaching out to the local glass scene. He’s previously led a project in Colorado where they built a playground.

“He asked if we had ever thought about doing something,” Key said. “We had, but we weren’t sure if we had to talk to someone or could just do it.”

Blade gave them the blueprint on the organizational side when it came to nonprofits and bylaws and they ran with it. In March 2012, they filed everything, and that June they hosted their inaugural event, timed to coincide with a trade show earlier in the week.

With Blade’s help, the little-known Detroit glass scene was able to pull in some sponsors and big name artists. Included among those artists was Bob Snodgrass — the Godfather of modern pipe making, who’s also affectionately referred to as the Jerry Garcia of glass blowing, in partial tribute to his days selling his high-end pipes in Grateful Dead show parking lots.

All the glass was cataloged and sold online following the event. Instagram had not taken over the online auction game yet, so organizers used huge Facebook albums.

The event has always had a major volunteer backbone from day one. Right off the bat, organizers also wanted to get the wider Detroit art community they were deeply connected with involved.

“There’s no reason it just has to be pipe makers in a shop,” Key said.

As for the proceeds, the organizers originally discovered a closed aquarium after exploring other options.

“We started to think about it and we wanted to see what was going on with the aquarium, it had a lot of memories for people and closed in 2005,” Key said.

They found a video of a guy online talking about the aquarium and were connected with him via the parks department. He said he had wanted to see what was up with it too a few years ago — and they had handed him the keys.

“[We told him] ‘we want to do this crazy glass event and donate money to help you, I guess?’”

She said the fact they were also a volunteer workforce provided a great relationship with the folks at the aquarium.

For the first three years, MGP donated to the aquarium, ultimately donating nearly $40,000.

“After that in 2014, they reopened to the public on weekend and now have reopened it all week,” Key said. “Once they were back open and had a lot of sponsors and funding going on we knew it was time to pick something new.”

They’d always wanted to help kids but thought it was “kind of weird with the whole pipe thing.” Even at the aquarium, They’d tip-toed around it.

“They have no idea the check was basically from all pipe sales,” Key said.

Last year’s $80,000 was able to restore art education for middle schoolers at Spain Elementary, who had previously received it in an attached elementary school. A couple years ago Ellen Degeneres and Lowes rebuilt the school’s gymnasium.

These kids can use all the help they can get: Spain Elementary’s conditions were covered in a Washington Post piece last year. Detroit Counselor (and 19-year teacher at Spain) Lakia Wilson wrote:

“The odorous smell of mold and mildew hits you like a brick wall when you step through the front doors and it’s the poster child for neglect and indifference to a quality teaching and learning environment for our 500 students.”

Tickets for The Michigan Glass Project will be available at the door and run $15 for the day and $30 for the weekend. The silent auction will end at 6 p.m. Sunday and the live auction will commence at 10 p.m.; expect the bidding to be competitive. For more info check out MGP’s website.

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