Cramped far back into a corner of the Fine Arts Building, a group of students sit around a pair of blazing furnaces. John Wilkes, a student of the class, approaches one of the scalding containers and submerges a metal rod into the liquefied glass, and retracts it to reveal a dangling molten bulb.
Working rhythmically, he twirls the metal rod back and forth across the workbench and tells his assistant how much air to blow through the hollow rod into the expanding material. With the help of some metal tongs, the familiar shape of a cup appears on the end of the rod. After some quick praise from instructor Nate Watson, it is smashed on the floor, and the metal rod is prepped for its next piece of art.
This is the glass blowing class at SF State, and the College of Liberal and Creative Arts has decided to shut it down.
“They’re cutting it (after Fall 2013) because they don’t know what we’re doing,” said Watson. “I think they don’t know what’s going on, and they don’t see us as part of what their future is.”
Watson claims the course, which is run through the College of Extended Learning, is an almost entirely self-sufficient class, that generates revenue from the hefty $1,273 enrollment fee, as well as a variety of classroom sales where students sell their artwork made throughout the semester.
“We’re raising this money on our own. We don’t get any of that from the school and we don’t have a tech that comes in, we take care of all of this,” said Watson.
However, this decision is hardly impulsive. While the College of Liberal and Creative Arts may just be getting around to finally shutting the course down, the plan was first initiated in 2002, leaving the course under administrative scrutiny, and keeping it in the hot seat for 11 years.
“Around a decade ago the department voted to eliminate courses in glass blowing, jewelry making, and small metals, all of them viewed more as crafts than as core fine arts areas,” said Paul Sherwin, dean of the College of Liberal and Creative Arts. “While the latter two were eliminated some time ago, for reasons that are unclear to me, as well as to the Chair of Art (Gail Dawson) or to the Acting Chair (Paul Mullins) this semester, no previous chair had done anything about glass blowing.”
The course couldn’t lie in the shadows forever, and eventually the department sought to finish what it started. Beginning with the recommendations from both Dawson and Mullins, Sherwin took the administrative motion to the dean of the CEL, where the decision became an untimely reality for members of the course.
While it appears as if this motion has been longer than a decade in the making, the timing of the decision appears strange to Watson, who claims that the interest in the class has never been higher during the five years he has been the instructor.
The class is not only growing in size, but has also expanded its appeal outside of art students. It currently features a nurse, a kinesiology major, a Google Scientist, and an engineering student, as well as many others from various walks of life.
But while Watson takes pride in his diverse range of students, it has ultimately raised yet another flag of caution for Sherwin, who worries the University may not be allocating its resources properly by funding students whose major and educational career is not directly impacted by this course.
The course, over the last eight fall and spring semesters, has only had 161 students register for the class. Of this total, just 47 of the students have been matriculated from SF State, and only five were actually art majors.
“Several of them engage in glass blowing many hours throughout the week, even when the class is not in session. We have been providing, at a considerable cost to the University, an opportunity for them to pursue their hobby, a vocation, or to produce work they can sell. I believe the University should be making better use of its resources, both dollars and space,” Sherwin said.
While Sherwin’s assertions may seem to cast a harsh light upon a course that is searching for a Cinderella story, Watson still defends the necessity for the class upon the art curriculum, claiming that the stigma and negative perception around the class doesn’t come from facts, but from lack of education about what the course operates and what it offers. A heavy accusation considering it’s aimed towards educators.
Minami Oya, a nurse, also makes it abundantly clear that she feels that glass blowing is more than just a class that should be overlooked. Still wearing a shirt with the slogan “I Heart SFSU Glass,” Oya was also a principle participator in the on-campus protest in defense of the course that took place Sept. 19.
“A lot of glass blowers use the term addicted to the glass, because it’s really captivating,” Oya said. “For me, it was like falling in love with a person, almost. There was something that grabbed me deep inside of my heart and I wanted to know more about this glass.”
But the class receives, perhaps, no greater educational compliment than the fact that John Wilkes, a computer scientist working for Google, takes solace in both its artistic and cognitive challenges.
“It’s a more intellectually based approach to life. And as a result it’s been starved for resources,” said Wilkes. “I’d love to have more undergraduates come through because it is a wonderful medium to do art in.”
While Watson admits the decision from the department may be final, both he and his students aren’t prepared to give up the fight yet.
“I’m not fighting for my job I’m fighting for these people and they’re fighting for themselves,” Watson said.
To help Watson and the members of the class, you can sign a petition located on their website at www.sites.google.com/site/sfsuglassprogram.