By Robin Thorneycroft, contributing writer
Students at Argyle Secondary are beating the cold tucked in a small corner working oxygen and flame to mould glass into art. For the past six years students have been working under teacher Bryan Taylor at Argyle’s pioneering glass art program.
Budding artists have taken on these skills, surpassed their mentor and have spawned four Lynn Valley glass studios as well as leading at least one student into the field of glass working in a Granville Island studio.
“Six years ago I bought a (glass) torch for my home studio and I decided to bring it in to see what the students would do with it,” said Brian. He backed up his tools with some training at East Van’s Terminal City Glass Co-op to bring the basics to his students. Early success had him scouring Craigslist for an additional torch.
“The kids were constantly using it, there were lineups in class, after school and lunch. They were always being used,” he said.
This led to some challenges. The early set-up involved propane tanks and oxygen tanks needed to get the torches up to their 1000°F temperature. The tanks were costly and it was a nuisance to be exchanging them. This began a journey of bureaucratic red tape and safety approvals.
“I wanted to tie into the existing natural gas line but the torches we use were not CSA approved – they never would be. Glass art is a small industry and the cost for the manufacturer would be insurmountable,” said Brian – but he kept pushing, motivated by the commitment of Argyle’s Parent Advisory Committee to help buy equipment. “I found these torches that were made in Canada and got them certified by the BC Safety Council – they are now certified for use in all B.C. schools.”
This groundbreaking work has led to an additional school in North Vancouver starting its own program and another at a school in Vancouver. The program is so in demand, Brian has requested that their current space and tools be doubled to six for the Argyle replacement.
“This is all-round learning,” he said. “The kids are self-motivated, they are following artists on YouTube and Instagram. They watch and learn at home and come in to try a new technique in class. They have far surpassed what I can do.”
Glass art as a diverse learning opportunity is echoed by Kylie Graffi, a grade 10 student.
“There is a lot of science in this – the minerals change at certain temperatures, you have to know how they will mix and change colour,” said Kylie. “This is art but it is also like my therapy. In the middle of a stressful school day I know I can come here and go to the glass to create.”
Students learn stained glass, flame work and fusing. They turn rods of clear basilic glass with special coloured rods imported from Murano Italy – famous for its fine glass work.
“Every time I tell people about it, I say how lucky I am to have been exposed to this at school. I literally found my passion. I am addicted,” laughs Kylie as she works on her pendant. “I sit in my other classes thinking about a technique I want to try or looking for inspiring colour combinations. It’s a unique medium to explore.”
The passion has motivated Kylie to work on her art outside of school, taking part in summer classes at Terminal City Glass where she had to prove her skill and passion for them to make an age requirement exception.
“I specialize in jewellery, beads, pendants bracelets,” she said. “I do wire work to combine with the glass to make rings.”
As Kylie chats, she fuses colours onto a glowing glass pendant. Watching through her dark safety glasses she carefully swirls the colours creating a stunning vortex. She adds a thin stem and precisely turns it into a loop for the pendant – all the while impressively explaining her love of glass and how she creates it.
Along with the torches, the glass corner has kilns to slowly cool the pieces to stabilize the molecules and prevent cracking. There are molds and tools hanging created by the students themselves in the school’s metal work shop.
A peek in the kiln shows students have been hard at work making intricate pieces for holiday gifts.
“I am working on Christmas presents for my friends,” said Kylie. “I thought it was more meaningful to show them through art how much they mean to me rather than just buy them some chocolates. I am making them pendants that are all similar but have different colours and designs that reflect their personality.”
She has built up a bit of a following, hosting a small glass sale earlier this year where pieces ranged from $20-50. She is loving it so much she is exploring the possibility of opening her own online Etsy shop. You can check out more of her work on Instagram.
“This will be my art but I think it will be a hobby. You know there is that saying about starving artists…,” she laughs adding she thinks she will always continue to learn and explore glass as a medium.
As retirement looms, reflecting on the class he has built, Bryan adds:
“They don’t need me anymore. They learn from each other. The kids are driving it and it’s amazing to watch.”