How victims of gun violence find healing in the flames of glass art

Project FIRE combines counseling and glass blowing to give victims of gun violence a chance to heal and express themselves.

CHICAGO — The tall sliding doors of a former firehouse in Streeterville stand open, letting the heat from hot kilns vent out to the bustling neighborhood.

This is the home of Project FIRE, where victims of gun violence learn how to take shattered glass and melt, roll, and pull it into works of art.

“Young people who wouldn’t necessarily be interested in therapy per se are drawn to what we’re doing because of the glass blowing, and then end up being more likely to want to talk about what’s going on in their lives,” Project FIRE co-founder Pearl Dick said.

Inside the studio, teacher and youth mentor N’Kosi (Kosi) Barber rests a long pole with a glowing orange end on a stand as he feeds it into a kiln. Keeping an eye on the glass, he sways to trap music blasting from a nearby speaker, offering quick advice to fellow artists working nearby.

He says even though some are hesitant at first, students dive into the work.

“It’s 2,500 degrees, it’s very hot, but as soon as I make a vase or something like that they’re always ready to jump in,” Barber said. “I always put it to them like, 'you’re risking your life outside, why not risk your life doing something positive?'”

Now a fluorescent orange, he carries the molten glass to a bench, sits, and pulls at it with a pair of ancient-looking pliers. The pedals of a flour begin to emerge from the molten stem.

Around him in the studio, other participants, some of them in wheelchairs, work on their own visions of flowers, dolphins or broken hearts forged from glass.

“If you’re not good at talking you can speak through your art, so that’s where we relieve our pain at, in the art studio,” Kosi said.

Glass blowing lessons are combined with group counseling sessions, where the participants work through that pain. As an example, Kosi says discussed an incident just a couple days ago, when a guy who pulled a gun on him during an altercation.

“We do deal with street problems, and for us to come here in a safe place and we can just have fun, laugh, talk about serious issues and make cool stuff… I think that’s good for us,” Kosi said.

The high-stakes art also helps build trust, Pearl said, as many pieces require many hands to complete. But she says it’s easy to find some “zen” in working with the material too.

“There’s a lot of heating and reheating and stretching and blowing and shaping and smoke and action and teamwork and communication,” Pearl said. “Sometimes some swearing, sometimes some crying, just depends on the day and the piece.”