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Pittsburgh Glass Center Tech Apprentices Find Paths to Success through the Pandemic

  • Artist Mitchell Kile offering instruction at the Pittsburgh Glass Center. Photo prior to COVID-19.
  • Work by artist Dan Kilbride

Since its establishment in 2001, the Pittsburgh Glass Center (PGC) in Pittsburgh’s Friendship neighborhood has been a hub of activity. The organization is known for its public-access education center, art and contemporary glass gallery, live hot glass demonstrations, and its state-of-the-art glass studio. World-renowned glass artists travel to PGC to share and teach, while other glass artists come to learn, study, and create.

In 2020, PGC was forced to adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic by limiting public capacity in the building, requiring masks for workers and visitors, and replacing large-scale classes with hands-on pod workshops, Hot Jam Friday virtual demos, and Glass-to-Go kits. But thankfully for the Pittsburgh Glass Center’s Technical Apprentices, the pandemic hasn’t slowed them down. This group of talented artists has learned how to pivot and how to turn challenges into success.

Apprentice Mitchell Kile learned to love glassblowing at a young age. After graduating high school in Minneapolis, MN, he earned a fine arts degree at the University of Wisconsin - River Falls, where he first learned about a one-week intensive summer course at PGC. While attending that course, he learned about PGC’s Technical Apprenticeship program, which he completed in December 2020.

“During my apprenticeship, I made a lot of different artwork,” Kile says. “Some of it was experimental and, for me, a learning process, and it left me with an apartment full of artwork.”

Tech Apprentices typically complete their program in six to twelve months, based on their previous experience. They leave the program with the knowledge and experience necessary to either manage or work in any glass studio. As Kile points out, they also leave with enough glass pieces for a gallery exhibit display.

“My biggest task moving forward is getting my artwork out into the world,” Kile explains. “I’ve been fortunate enough to meet with and start working for other artists in the Pittsburgh area who I’ve met through PGC, and I hope to continue working for them and making my own artwork.”

As a Tech Apprentice, Kile learned a variety of skills, and he’s excited to put them into action.

“Working at PGC made me feel more adaptable to different work environments, thanks to the diversity of things I learned and did as a Tech Apprentice,” he adds.

Kile’s primary duties during the program included maintaining the furnaces and fixing or replacing equipment, most of which is made by PGC staff. Prior to the pandemic, other daily apprentice duties included setting up for events, helping with workshops, and interacting with other artists.

“Obviously the glass industry has been majorly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, just like everything else in the world,” Kile says. He looks forward to the day when the Pittsburgh Glass Center is bustling with people again.

“The biggest thing missing from PGC during this time are classes and workshops full of people,” Kile explains. “Artists have still been able to use the studios to make their work, but it’s just not the same without public engagement.”

Fellow Tech Apprentice Dan Kilbride feels that, while the PGC is quieter without as many people, the pandemic has actually allowed apprentices the time to really focus on their craft, and ensured that their tools and equipment are given the maintenance and attention they need.

“There is no public access right now, so we have pretty much switched over to entirely maintenance and training-based days,” Kilbride says. “Glass studios require an extensive amount of upkeep, and the slowing of traffic has allowed us to focus more attention on servicing the studio. It has allowed me to focus more on learning how the equipment works and how to repair something that has broken down.”

This technical know-how is a very valuable experience for Kilbride who, unlike Kile, came to the glass trade by chance. A military veteran, Kilbride left the service, moved back to his hometown, and stumbled upon a live glass blowing demo at a school similar to PGC. He was so captivated by the process that he took a paperweight class. That’s when he knew he wanted to work with glass for the rest of his life.

During a time of turmoil, Kilbride is thankful for the stability and community that the Tech Apprenticeship offers.

“Through the program, I have a house to live in and do not have to worry about rent or eviction or anything,” Kilbride explains. “I feel very blessed in that way.”

“I also have the ability to make my own work and still be a part of an amazing and inspiring glass community,” he shares. “It has given me some level of sanity during this time of isolation.”

Despite the changes and challenges, Kile and Kilbride both feel that the glassblowing community of artists, enthusiasts, students, and educators will be back together again someday.

“What I look forward to most is seeing all four different glass studios bustling with classes, workshops, tours, and visiting artists traveling from all over to teach their crafts,” Kile notes.

“There is a great sense of community around artists in Pittsburgh and at the Glass Center. There’s a real feeling of everybody helping each other out when they need it, and I’ve come to realize what a special thing that is,” Kile adds. “I’ve learned that having good people around you is so important in life, and I feel very grateful and blessed to be around such a great community of people at the Pittsburgh Glass Center.”

We know that local organizations like the Pittsburgh Glass Center have faced unprecedented challenges, and that’s why we, at Peoples, believe it’s more important than ever to continue to support the organizations that are so special to our communities. Peoples has been a proud partner of the Pittsburgh Glass Center for the past five years, and we’re thrilled to continue our support of the Technical Apprenticeship program. We’re excited to help grow the community of artists and new businesses across the region — one artist at a time.

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