Glass House

Tom Philabaum gives glass-art education a new home.

Ethan Lesch is bent over the glory hole--the furnace--at the brand-new Sonoran Art Foundation downtown.

He's using a long pole to twirl a blob of molten glass, which glows bright orange in the 2,000-degree flames. Tossing back his dreadlocks in the heat, he pulls the hollow glass sphere out and smoothes it with a rag of folded, wet newsprint.

"I'm making a bowl," he tells an appreciative crowd of onlookers. "I haven't burned myself, but lots of people do. You've got to keep your head on your shoulders."

Lesch is demonstrating the skills he's learned over the last 16 months at the foundation, a glass-art school operated by glass artists Tom Philabaum and Dave Klein. The school moved to a city-owned building on West 18th Street back in February, but Friday marked its formal opening. Before Lesch and other students entertained the visitors with feats of glass-making, Mayor Bob Walkup and City Councilman Fred Ronstadt came around for an inaugural ceremony.

Rather than cutting ribbons, the politicians made glass art.

"The mayor did great," Philabaum reports later by telephone. "He made a paperweight with me. He's a natural--he got it right off the bat." Ronstadt, he adds, opted to make a glass baseball instead.

Philabaum has good reason to be pleased with the city officials now. After a contentious zoning dispute over classes once held at his South Sixth Avenue studio, the city went all out to find him a new location.

"Ronstadt said, 'We don't want you to leave downtown,'" Philabaum remembers. What the city came up with was an empty prefab building on the northern edge of the Santa Rosa "empowerment zone," in earshot and in view of the freeway, just south of the Rio Nuevo district. A former tire store, it had a "roof full of bullet holes and walls full of holes," Philabaum says, but the rent was right: $1 a year.

"They gave us a Back to Basics grant for about $162,000, and we used the money to fix up the building and add insulation. We did a complete redo of the electric and plumbing, added a second bathroom, and we built classrooms."

Glass classrooms are like no other. Furnaces line the wall of one classroom and, in another, eight flameworking tools--for more delicate glass shaping--are fastened to a large table. Future plans call for a reverse glass painting studio and possibly a student gallery, says school official Dave Morden. A dusty patch of yard out back, to be equipped with a ramada, will become an outdoor studio for sand and glass casting.

This semester's classes are now winding down, but they're offered to serious art students and, at little or no cost, to community members as well. Philabaum, an internationally known glass artist who has a glass gallery uptown at St. Philip's Plaza as well as his glass studio downtown, has long wanted to set up a cooperative education program with the University of Arizona art department. Now, finally, with an official school in place, "UA students will get credit here, as well as Pima and Prescott College students," Philabaum says proudly. Young Lesch, for instance, a Pima College student, can add to his art credits here.

"All of our students really get into it," Philabaum says. "They really become ambassadors. And it's amazing how many become my employees," working on the Philabaum glass production pieces.

Philabaum has long offered workshops and brought in visiting artists to teach master classes, but it was five years ago that he and Klein agreed to start a full-fledged school. The two were in Japan along with glass artist Louis Via blowing glass during an intensive one-week workshop. "We decided that somehow, by hook or by crook, we would start a school."

Until now, apart from some private studios in New Mexico, the closest glass art schools were in California, Philabaum says. With glass art getting increasingly sophisticated, and more popular, Philabaum anticipates no problem filling up the classes. Still, he says it will be a while until the finances are under control.

The new nonprofit, the Sonoran Art Foundation, was created to run the school as a separate entity from Philabaum's businesses. Even with the help from the city, Philabaum says, "we still have a long road and a lot of struggles. It will all work out in the end. Dave (Klein) and I keep writing checks to keep it afloat."

Nevertheless, at a time when the downtown art scene seems to be spiraling ever downward, he sees the city's interest as an encouraging sign.

"The bottom line is the city gave a lot of money to the arts. They helped us out," Philabaum says. "This school is a dream come true."