Published March 4th, 2022 at 4:20 PM
Last October, Mary Touch scratched an artistic itch when she took an introductory glass blowing class at the Belger Glass Annex.
The tech strategy consultant said she was “feeling an itch, needing to express myself in a creative manner in the times that we’re in right now. The class sparked something inside of me. I haven’t stopped. I’ve started taking classes doing torch work with glass. Now I would say that I consider myself very much an artist.”
Touch’s experience dovetails with the goals of the Belger Glass Annex folks, who hope to ignite the artistic glass making potential of Kansas City.
“This is the first public glass blowing studio of its scale and scope in Kansas City,” said Katie Hogan, Belger Glass Annex manager. “We hope that the introduction of this space will help Kansas City grow to be more of a glass hub in the Midwest. There are large studios in St. Louis and Chicago and Denver, but Kansas City didn’t have anything like that.”
The Belger Glass Annex, located at 1219 E. 19th St., came on line with a soft opening last summer and a formal opening Oct. 30. The building formerly housed a crane maintenance facility, and before that it was a manufacturing site for wax paper and labels. Its high ceiling, concrete slab floor, and truck bay doors provide a good setting for a well-ventilated glass studio.
The building’s transformation marks another successful reuse of an aging urban core structure. Sandwiched between the Crossroads Arts District and the 18th & Vine Historic District, the neighborhood also is home to Belger Crane Yard Studios.
Evelyn Craft Belger, executive director of Belger Arts, said the Belger Glass Annex aims to expand arts education in Kansas City. “We hope to teach people a skill or an art form that they may not have. We hope we will be building up a community of glass blowers in Kansas City.”
Belger noted that her husband, Dick Belger, focused on Tiffany glass and French cameo art glass when he began assembling his art collection. “Dick wanted to do glass before we did ceramics, but the buildings that were available here at that time didn’t really lend themselves to doing glass. We are building off the history of Belger Cartage Service. As these buildings cease to be useful for crane rigging and warehousing operations, we wanted to bring something creative to the Kansas City community and bring life back to these old buildings and this neighborhood.”
Belger partnered with renowned glass artist Tyler Kimball to plan and launch the Glass Annex. Kimball has worked with glass as his primary medium since 1999. He has served as an instructor, visiting artist, and artist in residence at educational glass facilities around the globe.
Kimball has nurtured the Kansas City area glass art community as the founder/owner of Monarch Glass Studio. As head of the Belger Arts Center’s glass department, he built all the equipment for the Glass Annex.
Kimball was born and raised in Kansas City. Devotion to his craft and his hometown drew him back here in 2014. “It was a mission for me to come back to Kansas City and open up a studio that would allow me to work on my work and also educate the community and build a community of people who wanted to learn about glass,” he said.
But after a while, Kimball got so busy with his own glass work that he had to cut back classes at Monarch. “So I reached out to Evelyn, who was getting ready to open a glass studio. The timing was perfect.”
Glass studios are difficult to create, Belger said. “They’re expensive. It’s not like you can do it with a wheel and a kiln. There’s a lot more to it than that.”
The Belger Glass Annex includes specialized equipment, such as annealers, which slowly cool hot glass objects after they’ve been formed, to eliminate stresses created during the glass blowing process.
Kimball has worked in 59 glass studios. “Every time I work in a different studio, I am looking at equipment and what works and what doesn’t,” he said. “That’s what’s made me capable of making the equipment.”
Making glass looks and sounds like hard work to someone such as this writer, who’s never done it. Belger said glass artists working on a project together plan their movements. “It is a choreography. They have to decide who’s going to do what movement at what phase in the project and be able to communicate without words.”
Kimball said it takes finesse and “just knowing the heat of the glass, being one with the glass.”
Kristopher Dabner, a hobbyist who rents space at the Belger Glass Annex, said “it’s kind of a working meditation for me. When you’re working with hot glass, you have to concentrate on that, and you really can’t think of anything else. You have to continually think about what step you’re working on now and what you need to set up now in the glass that will make a difference in how the finished piece turns out.”
The Belger Glass Annex facilities are “top notch,” Dabner said. “They have everything you need to create just about anything you want.”
Consuelo Cruz, marketing and community engagement director for Belger Cartage Service and affiliated companies, said students come to the Glass Annex from “across the gamut. We have people who are new to glass, we have people who maybe have a little more experience and want to grow that. We have people who are involved in different art forms who want to explore something new that could play a part in what they’re already doing. We have ceramic artists at Belger Crane Yard Studios who couldn’t wait to come to the Glass Annex to see how things were operating.”
Belger Glass Annex offerings include a work-study program, in which participants help out in the studio in exchange for credit toward classes.
A higher level “Glass 2” class got underway in February. By the end of 2022, the Glass Annex plans to add a “cold shop,” in which glass objects are finished with methods such as carving or polishing.
The cold studio will offer classes as well. “You can use your blown work as a canvas for the cold working,” Kimball said.
Belger is proud of the fact that she and Kimball have created something unique in Kansas City, but she looks forward to the day when the Belger Glass Annex loses that distinction.
“I hope other glass studios come along here,” she said. “As they grow and this takes hold, more studios will open here, and they will attract more and more artists to Kansas City. I’ve seen in other cities that it grows much quicker than you anticipate. I bet in five years you won’t believe what’s going on here.”
Flatland contributor Julius A. Karash is a Kansas City-based writer.