The big glass garage doors are wide open to let in wafts of wintry air but I’m still sweating under my t-shirt and feel my face pull tight from the heat. I’m standing in front of a glowing, 12000F barrel-shaped oven, spinning a molten glob of glass around and around at the end of a long metal stick. It’s high-stakes marshmallow roasting that delivers a mixed rush of fear and joy.
It’s what I need right now.
I’m at Lumel Studios: a big, bright glass blowing workshop and retail space in downtown Whitehorse. It’s the early days of winter and the sun hangs as low as my moods. It’s how October and November make me feel every year. Glass blowing, as it turns out, is the perfect antidote to psychological ailments big and small.
I’m not the first to figure this out. Luann Baker Johnson, owner of Lumel, felt the grips of her debilitating grief loosen whenever she worked with glass. After her 19-year-old daughter died of leukemia in 2006, she could no longer laugh or feel joy. One day, over a year later, she found herself giggling hysterically with her children. “I said to my husband Mel, ‘I feel good. How do I get this back?’” she recalls.
He suggested she sign up for art school—she always loved drawing—and so she enrolled at the Alberta College of Art and Design. She took an elective in glass and decided she would become a glass blower after her first experience with the molten medium. “When you are working with 12000F glass, you can’t think about anything else,” she says. “It relieves you. It creates new synapses. It brings you a moment of pure joy.”
I hold the long metal rod parallel to the ground and gradually spin it. An orange lump of lava-goop is stuck to the end like a lollipop only a dragon could lick. Unlike candy, it’s not brittle or sweet—it’s an angry ball of liquid heat that wants to drop to the ground. It requires my absolute attention not to screw this up.
While Baker Johnson was in the third year of her program, she started talking to classmates about her vision to open a studio in the Yukon. Five of her art-school friends followed her North and are still working with her here. “We knew from the beginning what the personality of the studio would be—who we wanted to be as an artist group,” she says. “And now we’re successful because of this vision. To work hard, but be relentlessly positive.”
By “positive” she doesn’t mean merely cheerful—although there is an undeniable summer-camp glee in the studio. Happiness, she says, is a by-product of glass blowing she and her team want to share with as many people as possible. Open nearly 12 hours a day, Yukoners can basically walk through the doors at any time and get to work. The bulk of Lumel’s business is made through group sessions for birthdays, funerals, bachelorette parties and the like. Their most popular offering is called a “hot date”—an hour session for two people to work together on a project with the assistance of an in-house glass artist. They’ve had over 3,000 hot dates since opening their doors in March 2016.
But her true vision is to share the healing power of glass with marginalized youth and adults. The studio is located on the path between the liquor store and the waterfront, and Baker Johnson has befriended the people she calls “river walkers”—the oft inebriated, mostly homeless people known to hang out along the banks of the Yukon River near her shop.
She began inviting them to try the craft when they’d stop to chat while she was first building the bright yellow and blue workshop. Although these sessions are unscheduled—river walkers are free to come to the studio anytime— she started with an open house day. The morning was slow. She had to go to the Salvation Army at lunch to rally some participants. “I had one person I knew really well there,” she says. “He stood up and said, ‘Hey guys, you can trust her.’ That afternoon it got really really busy.”
While working with glass you need to periodically heat it up, to keep it soft and pliable. Roasting in front of the barrel-shaped oven, I feel this may be as close as I’ll ever get to standing in front of a volcano. The effect, combined with my open-heart surgeon’s concentration, is, well, mind-altering to say the least.
This is the feeling Baker Johnson says the river walkers and at-risk youth enjoy. They get a break from that which crushes them. “We can’t take away anything that happened in the past but we can offer a moment of pure joy. That’s what we make possible for anyone who comes here. A moment of pure joy.”