Arts council grants reach into the community in Winston-Salem

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by Jordan Green

The Arts Council of Winston-Salem & Forsyth County’s recent grant cycle represents an effort to fund a wide array of efforts that reach into diverse pockets of the community.

The elongated orb of glass gradually took shape into a vase as Rebeccah Byer immersed it in a red-hot furnace, then removed it and shaped the neck with a pair of pliers, lubricated with wax that made flames jump off the vessel.

She moved lightly but assuredly, keeping the vase even on a steel pipe as she transferred it in and out of the furnace. She periodically instructed assistant Quinten Matthews to blow on the pipe.

“Blow gently,” she said. “Stop.”

As Byer and Matthews demonstrated the art of glassmaking, Sarah Band chatted with visitors during a recent demonstration at the Olio studio and gallery on a Friday evening. The studio was open to the crisp November air at the West End Mill Works as diners bustled into the Porch Kitchen & Cantina for dinner and jukebox music carried across the parking lot from Hoots Roller Bar at the other end of the complex. Byer and Band, respectively the executive director and creative director, are the primary artists at the Olio while Managing Director Lee Mecum operates the adjacent gallery.

From the start, when the Olio opened in September 2014, the nonprofit has been committed to nurturing the craft of glassmaking and teaching entrepreneurship through its apprentice program. The Olio takes apprentices as young as 14, but it’s the more experienced ones like Matthews — he’s been in the program for more than a year — who are entrusted as assistants on demo nights.

Now the Olio is expanding its teaching mission through a partnership with Youth in Transition, an agency that supports young people in the foster care system, thanks to a $4,000 grant from the Arts Council of Winston-Salem/Forsyth County. Byer said the grant will cover the costs of six apprenticeships, with the first three or four participants coming on in December.

Glassblowing changed Byer’s life. She found it when she was 19 years old and on academic probation because of failing grades. Describing her newfound avocation as being “like an immediate shift,” she said she feels lucky that her family supported her. It’s a challenging craft that requires years of practice to reach a basic level of proficiency. Byer said it took 10 years before she could work a piece of glass in the furnace without assistance, and after 20 years she still only considers herself “a mediocre glassblower.”

“I think the excitement behind the fire and the danger is a draw for young people,” she said. “It definitely was a draw for me. It was exciting and seriously magical. When you take glassblowing and use it as a therapeutic tool — which it can be, but you’re not calling it therapy — you’re making something and selling it. Glassblowing can be a career.”

The heat is one danger: The furnace runs at 2,075 degrees Fahrenheit. Cuts are another. The studio breaks up glass to recycle and small cuts are common. The studio keeps plenty of Band-Aids on hand.

Byer cites Project Fire, a glassblowing initiative in Chicago for teenagers who have experienced violence-related trauma, as a model for what the Olio can do with the new grant from the arts council.

“We don’t have a huge gang problem here; we have an income-disparity problem, we have a racial-disparity problem, we have a hunger problem,” Byer said. “If we can appeal to people who look at their lives as a little bit hopeless and give them something tangible as a solution to some of their life problems, then that’s a good start.”

The Olio’s $4,000 allocation is part of a total investment of $49,000 by the arts council for its Innovative Project Grants program for the 2015-2016 cycle. Other projects sharing the funding include the Hispanic Arts Initiative for a performance by Charlotte-based Orquesta Mayor and a dance competition next June, the New Winston Museum’s “WSFC Jukebox” to compile local music from the 1700s to the present, Bookmarks’ summer reading program for K-12 students, and a collaboration between Old Salem and UNC School of the Arts to create a special lighting installation next year. The Innovative Projects Grants are a small part of the overall $1.8 million grant program.

The current grant cycle, which reached 109 recipients, represents the arts council’s continual effort to build in flexibility and meet a range of different needs and evolving opportunities across the community.

The grant cycle includes major institutional support to traditional players; $1.4 million, or more than three quarters goes to 14 recipients, including Old Salem Museums and Gardens, Piedmont Opera, Reynolda House Museum of American Art, RiverRun International Film Festival and Triad Stage. But the grant program also includes funds for annual events or series, including Phuzz Phest; arts in education projects ranging from a high school film production residency to bringing performances of “Peter and the Wolf” to elementary schools; community enrichment initiatives like the Winston-Salem South Asian Film Festival, held in October, and the collaboration between photographers and homeless people leading to an exhibit next month at the Benton Convention Center. Additionally, the cycle includes $25,000 divided among 11 recipients for artist project grants, including to Wurlitzer Prize to record a new album of original songs, to Mark Donnell and Russell McCumber to apprentice respectively with a Commedia dell’arte mask maker and a master violinmaker, and to Luca Molnar to create a new series of paintings.

Not everyone who apprentices at the Olio will become a glassblower, Byer said.

“Some of them really take to the furnace,” she said. “Some of them are less interested in the furnace and more interested in the entrepreneurship aspect of it.”

Part of what the Olio teaches is how to cultivate the discipline to be an artist, while maintaining the savvy to make a living at it.

“With art, writing or music — anything you’re really passionate about — it’s hard to be a business person because that takes the fun out of it,” Byer said. “There’s that piece where we give people practical business skills. It takes years of working at something to get good at it. People who are good writers just don’t wake up being good writers.”