Tuesday April 9, 2024 | by Jana Elsayed

At 30, Hilltop Artists takes stock of its decades of impact not only by empowering Tacoma youth, but inspiring others to follow its innovative approach

Hilltop Artists was founded in the heart of Tacoma, Washington thirty years ago with a mission to provide young people an artistic haven from the drugs and gang violence that were impacting the city in the 1990s. The initiative began modestly in 1994, repurposing materials like Snapple bottles to offer an avenue for self-expression through glass art. The initiative was led by gallery owner Kathy Kaperick and glass artist Dale Chihuly, and from  this humble beginning, they proved the concept that glassmaking held special power to reach young people. Hilltop Artists would not only endure for three decades, but it showed the way for many similar initiatives around the United States, impacting generations of young people over the years.

Hilltop Artists first opened its doors at a former woodshop at Jason Lee Middle School, which has since been renamed the Hilltop Heritage Middle School. With just twenty students , the program introduced youth to various sculptural mediums, including glass. Despite lacking proper equipment, the founders' passion and dedication propelled the initiative forward, sparking a partnership with Tacoma Public Schools. As the initiative gained momentum and support, two hot shops were established, including a world-class studio at Hilltop Heritage Middle School, which lay the foundation for the organization's growth and impact.

Today, the organization serves over 650 students annually, ranging in age from 12-26. It offers tuition-free glass instruction, mentorship, and leadership opportunities. By engaging young people from diverse backgrounds, Hilltop Artists fosters a sense of belonging and equips them with transferable skills essential for academic and interpersonal success. The research underscores the correlation between arts education and improved outcomes, highlighting the profound impact of programs like Hilltop Artists.

Team Production students, Eddie and Lily, put finishing touches on a centerpiece for the Hilltop Artists Better Futures Luncheon, August 2023. Image courtesy of Hilltop Artists

At the core of Hilltop Artists' ethos lies the principle of intergenerational teaching and learning. They emphasize students' growth of emotional and social skills, implementing what they call "JEDI training," which stands for Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. Many of the organization's instructors are alumni who began their journey as students, embodying the spirit of mentorship and continuity. This approach not only preserves the legacy of the program but also nurtures a supportive community where knowledge is passed down from one generation to the next. The symbiotic relationship between seasoned artists and aspiring students cultivates a rich learning environment, fostering creativity, collaboration, and personal growth.

Beyond the confines of its studios, Hilltop Artists actively engages with the broader community, forging partnerships with institutions like the Museum of Glass and Tacoma Public Libraries. Through initiatives like Hot Shop Hot Nights and collaborations with organizations like Communities for a Healthy Bay, Hilltop Artists extends its reach, inspiring and enriching the lives of countless individuals. Moreover, the organization's involvement in advocacy efforts, such as the Tacoma Creates cultural access tax initiative, underscores its commitment to fostering a vibrant arts ecosystem and nurturing the next generation of leaders.

Students in the summer program at Hilltop Artists popping popcorn during a demonstration in the hot shop, July 2023. Image courtesy of Hilltop Artists.

Hilltop Artists created the pathway for other programs that focus on and for others to grow as well Additionally, Hilltop Artists has catalyzed similar programs across the nation. Despite geographical distances and limited communication channels, various programs utilizing hot glass as a medium for imparting life skills have emerged across the United States. Diverse organizations include GlassRoots in Newark, New Jersey; Neusole Glassworks in Cincinnati; Project Fire in Chicago;  Ignite Glass Studios in Chicago; Little Black Pearl in Chicago; Water Street Glassworks in Benton Harbor, Michigan; and Sonoran Glass School in Tucson, Arizona. Creating glass art through teamwork fosters inclusivity, as participants cultivate a common language, both verbal and non-verbal, enhancing the social and emotional skills of the youth through collaborative engagement. 

GlassRoots, for instance, adopts the curriculum designed by the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE), an international non-profit organization dedicated to introducing youth to the realm of business. Through its Glass Making and B & E programs, students delve into business fundamentals, honing skills such as marketing, competitive strategy, pricing, and crafting comprehensive business plans tailored to their ventures.

Project FIRE, another well-known program for at-risk youth, stands as a pioneering endeavor tailored for youth impacted by gun violence in Chicago. This endeavor integrates glassblowing with trauma recovery, offering participants a pathway toward healing. Moreover, Project FIRE serves as an avenue for employment and mentorship, encompassing trauma-informed support groups, comprehensive case management, and access to necessary medical treatment. This collaborative effort is forged in partnership with Healing Hurt People-Chicago, an esteemed program rooted in hospital-based violence intervention, ensuring holistic care and support for all involved.

As Hilltop Artists commemorates its 30th anniversary, it stands as a testament to the power of grassroots initiatives and the enduring impact of arts education. From its modest beginnings to its status as a beacon of youth development, the organization embodies resilience, innovation, and community spirit. As it continues to evolve and inspire, Hilltop Artists remains dedicated to its mission of connecting young people to better futures through the transformative medium of glass art, embodying the timeless values of creativity, inclusion, and empowerment.

Visit Hilltop Artists to learn more about upcoming events and ways to connect.

Glass: The UrbanGlass Quarterly, a glossy art magazine published four times a year by UrbanGlass has provided a critical context to the most important artwork being done in the medium of glass for more than 40 years.