Behind the peeling facade of the gargantuan Russell Industrial Center in Detroit, just south of Hamtramck, something different and entirely non-industrial is happening. Unlike acres of Detroit’s former manufacturing plants, this one isn’t abandoned. Instead, the Russell Industrial is one of a growing handful of city structures now housing small businesses and art studios.
On the second floor of the complex, glass artist Albert Young operates, owns and teaches at the Michigan Hot Glass Workshop. He credits himself as a “pioneer” in the transformation of the building from giant eyesore to artists’ hub.
Built in the 1920s, the complex was originally occupied by the Murray Body Company, a Ford supplier, until World War II, when it became a factory turning out airplane wings. Now, Young says, “it’s the best studio in the city,” citing its size (the workshop, gallery and glass studios occupy 17,000 square feet — Young says at that size it’s the largest independent glass studio in the Midwest) and convenient location off I-75 as reasons for his move to the building after a five-year stint in Pontiac. Other artists followed suit and now Russell Industrial plays host to photographers and woodworkers alike, making it what building manager Elena Sciopu calls a “happening” place in the art community.
Glass is hard
On a recent visit to Young’s studio he offered to let me attempt glassblowing. I was excited to try my hand at forming the hot molten goo into something at least nice to look at with the scorching, heavy rod and metal tools used by glass artists. To blow glass you must turn a wheel and sculpt at the same time. Let’s just say I was an utter failure. Even my blob was an ugly blob.
Glassblowing is tough, tedious, meticulous work. During my visit to Michigan Hot Glass, artist Jennifer Doyle, one of Young’s advanced students with three years’ experience, offers me a green drinking glass she made for a wedding gift. She explains she can’t use the glass for its intended purpose because of an almost invisible drip-mark down the side of one of the pieces.
When asked why she sticks with the craft, she pauses.
“I don’t know why. Even though it’s frustrating, I still love doing it.”
As Young says, “Glass is a seductive material.”
Young’s workshop houses six studios and workspace for 36 glass art students — classes are open to the public but fill up fast with artists-in-training. The teaching area, instead of chalkboards, is filled with ovens and furnaces that produce an orange glow, making them look like black jack-o-lanterns.
Four students hover over the big ovens, gathering and re-heating globs of glass. In its molten state the glass resembles balls of thick, slow-moving honey. Young criticizes and instructs his students, reminding them of the importance of speed: “Go, go, move, move, move.”
He pauses for a disclaimer: “I have a special relationship with these guys. If it seems like I’m being mean to them, I still love them.”
If the students are offended or intimidated, they don’t show it. They say they appreciate Young’s expertise and the way he has opened his shop for classes.
“It’s hard to find a group that can share studio space like that,” says Andrea Daoud, one of Young’s advanced students. “[We’re like] a little family.”
In this family, Young is the patriarch. He’s been blowing glass for more than 20 years since discovering the art form while studying ceramics at what is now the College for Creative Studies. Young says he tried glassworking one day and “got hooked.”
Not long after graduating from CCS in 1982, Young opened his first glass studio. In 1994, he opened Michigan Hot Glass Workshop in Pontiac; the studio moved to Russell Industrial in 1999.
In its simplest form, glassblowing involves sticking a blowpipe into a vat of molten glass pooled at the bottom of a furnace. When the pipe is removed, its tip is coated with a thick skin of glass that quickly begins dripping and hardening. Young forms the glass by blowing air into it and then shaping it with an assortment of tools; smoothing, clipping and stretching it into shape. It’s kind of like plastic surgery for dinnerware and, when Young does it, it looks effortless.
In reality, the rod is heavy, the glass is quick to drip and the furnace is just more than 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The biggest challenge is figuring out which tools to use to mold the glass and then using them before the glass cools.
Young offers six 10-week glassblowing classes, capped at six students each. He says he turns eager students away at the end of each session.
Every year the workshop hosts three showings of student work. One of the biggest is held in December, when Young says his studio turns into a veritable Santa’s workshop, with students making gifts for everyone they know.
For Young, the biggest challenge is turning the craft of glassblowing into an art, by making the glass into something that surpasses its functionality. Or as he explains, to make something that is “more than what it is physically, more than just a beautiful element.”
With an associate degree in machine tool and welding technology, Young’s studio is dominated by a pile of corrugated, rusted metal. He refers to it as his “own private junkyard.”
Most of Young’s sculptures are constructed out of steel with glass strategically placed to create an element of apprehension, tension or wonder. In this way, the Ferndale resident says he’s not only creating art but also paying homage to Detroit.
“What I do has as much to do with the city as it does myself,” he says. “I’m resurrecting elements of our decay and turning it into artwork.”
Michigan Hot Glass Workshop is located in the second floor of the Russell Industrial Center at 1604 Clay Ave. Fall classes start Sunday, Sept. 12. For more information call 313-871-1798 or visit michiganhotglass.com. There will be a student show and sale in October and a holiday show and sale in December, dates TBA.Katie Walton is an editorial intern for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]