St. Petersburg's Morean Arts Center teaches U.S. veterans how to blow glass

Operation Art of Valor lets vets learn the art of glass blowing.

click to enlarge Veterans who participate in Operation Art of Valor at the Morean Hot Shop learn glassblowing. Pictured: Andrew Williamson, Matthew Piepenbrok (Hot Shop manager) and Brian Fernandez. - Beth Reynolds
Beth Reynolds
Veterans who participate in Operation Art of Valor at the Morean Hot Shop learn glassblowing. Pictured: Andrew Williamson, Matthew Piepenbrok (Hot Shop manager) and Brian Fernandez.

On a recent Sunday morning at the aptly-named Hot Shop, several super-hot furnaces lined up against the wall generated lots of heat. Overhead, a huge fan buzzed non-stop in the open-air shop, enclosed with only heavy chain link fencing reaching up to the high ceiling. On this morning five men are sand casting, a process of placing molten glass into a sand mold. This is a special program called Operation Art of Valor at the Morean Art Center’s Hot Shop in downtown St. Pete. AoV is specially designed for vets and active military personnel. But whether active or retired, they have one thing in common: They all love glass!

“I started blowing glass about two years ago in St. Louis,” said Andrew Williamson, a Marine reservist from Desert Storm. “My wife gave me a class for Christmas and I loved it. When we moved here I met Matt, who recruited me for this program.”

Matt Piepenbrok, master glass artist, manages the Hot Shop for the Morean. He’s been blowing glass since he was 13, when it became his passion. At the University of Wisconsin, he earned art degrees in glass, and even built two glass studios at the university.

“Glass has a sexy, dangerous appeal, and it’s very physical,” he said. “I love being in the studio because for me it’s a sacred, creative space.”

The Sunday morning class started in March. Chris Stowe, a retired Marine, participated in a Wounded Warrior glass-blowing class and wanted to share it with other vets to encourage creativity both recreationally and therapeutically. He then connected with Michael Killoren, the Morean's former CEO, who liked the idea, and Piepenbrok agreed to manager it.

“I’m not a vet, but I come from a military family,” said Piepenbrok. “My son’s in the Marine Corps, my uncle was a Marine, and my father was Navy, so I understand vets.”

Partnering with the James A. Haley Veteran’s Hospital in Tampa, the AoV program works with Creative Forces, part of the National Endowment of the Arts Military Healing Arts Network, Department of Defense, and the Department of Veteran’s Affairs. It’s mission is to serve veterans through hands-on learning, social interaction, physical dexterity, teamwork and confidence.Though there are no women or handicapped vets present today, there are some Sundays

And it’s really popular, according to the participants.

“I fell in love with glass first time I tried it,” said Zach Hughes, who spent 21 years as an Air Force reservist in Afghanistan, Kosovo and Qatar. Now he spends Sunday mornings in the Hot Shop. ”I enjoy the camaraderie where we all work together to solve a problem set. But I like to make gifts so I sometimes book studio time during the week, and pay for materials and buy colors.”

Teamwork is a military necessity, and it’s definitely on display here. The men huddle intently around a metal table as Matt spins a long steel rod tipped with a glob of glowing, molten glass, while Andrew holds a torch, maintaining a steady temperature to prevent the glass breaking.

“Parts cool differently, so we have to make sure it doesn’t all cool too quickly and shatter,” Matt explained, pointing to two temperature controlled cooling chambers.

“This furnace has the largest reheating chamber on the East coast,” says Matt, pointing to the largest furnace. ”It’s at 2300 degrees, and it’s called the 'glory hole'.”

A smaller furnace nearby is also running at about 1300 to 1900 degrees, and these high temperatures generate a huge amount of heat. That’s why one of the world’s largest ceiling fans — 14 feet across — buzzes away overhead,.

“It’s called a Big Ass fan — that’s its actual name,” said Matt. “It really does the job and it’s a lot cooler in here since we got it.”

Marine Corps vet Brian Fernandez has been coming to the Hot Shop since the beginning of the AoV program.

“I got interested in glass blowing when I took a class with Chris Stowe at Duncan McClellan’s studio,” said Fernandez. “In the military things are very regimented, and this allows creative expression, and glass is unpredictable.”  

Unpredictable is right — there’s a box of shattered glass by the alley, just waiting to be remelted and recycled.

“Glass is the only material that’s completely recyclable — no waste!” said Matt.  

Is there any downside with such an unpredictable medium? Burns sometimes happen, as a row of aloe plants on a nearby shelf testifies, but it doesn’t keep these guys away.

“It’s a challenge, learning how to handle it,” says James Melvin who serves in the Air Force at MacDill. “We wear gloves made of leather, Kevlar and NoMex so we don’t burn our hands.”

To learn more about Operation Art of Valor, contact the Morean Art Center at 727-822-7872.

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