Former Segregated School Becomes Glass-working Paradise

The Douglass School Art Place in Murphysboro, Illinois, is a little less pristine than the average art gallery, but that works for some exhibits.
Last spring, one artist used the school’s old coal bin with a soil floor to show off his blown-glass “Parasites”. Other artists chose to hold shows there due to its eclectic nature and still others chose it based on price, but for co-founder Jan Thomas the real key to understanding “The Doug” is feeling its spirit.
Originally, the Frederick A. Douglass School was one of Southern Illinois’ first segregated schools. The original classrooms were built in 1897, a full 30 years before other area communities decided to create structures for educating African-American residents.
The Douglass School, complete with the misspelled facade, operated in Murphysboro for 70 years and was the hub of the neighborhood. “The school hosted all kinds of events, musicals, plays, choral performances,” Thomas said “And, everyone in the community was involved in the school.”
It introduced poor students to education and asparagus, one graduate told Thomas, and was a fixture in the life of many black residents. The misspelling of the famous orator’s name on the school, according to local tradition, was done by “some white guy.”
Thomas didn’t notice it until years after purchasing the school and making it into an “art place.’
“When we were looking for a site and we came to visit the school, there was something you could just feel from all the happiness the children had poured into this building,” Thomas said.
The school was the third major site Thomas and co-founder Gretel Chapman considered for the art place. “We had spent a lot of time and effort looking at other places, brought in contractors to have estimates done, but at the last place we were considering, one of the people working there warned us not to buy that building. They suggested we find Frank Crain and see if he wanted to sell the school, and we came to see it and knew this was what we had been looking for,” Thomas said.
She and Chapman bought the school in November, 1993, and began constructing the dream. The school building was basically barren, with most of the inner walls knocked down, no plumbing, very little electrical wiring and the windows boarded up. Large sections of the interior brick had been painted a dull tan with appliance paint and there were only two working doors.
Chapman, an art historian and instructor at Southern Illinois University, wanted a place to amass her libraries and an office to work from. Thomas needed a studio and they envisioned a place where artists could work and sell their work.
“Gretel was one of the first of the new wave of feminists in the 1970s. She really believed in helping women find their own place in life,” Thomas said.
Though Chapman died of lung cancer less than 4 years after the pair founded “The Doug”, her legacy lives on in the art place. One room still houses her extensive collection of art reference materials and her desk. Chapman’s library is one part of her legacy. Another is the wild flowers that bloom around the school.
Artist Cameron Smith brought out part of his master of fine arts project to help create Chapman’s flower legacy. Smith had years earlier created his “artapult”, a catapult designed to fling works of art up to 100 feet, in an effort to demystify art. The point was to be willing to detach the importance of art in general from a specific piece, usually by destroying the piece in question.
After Chapman’s death, in accordance with her wished, she was cremated and her ashes, combined with seeds for native Southern Illinois wildflowers were bagged up and used as ammunition for the artapult.
The seeds and ashes were flung about the grounds of the school, creating Chapman’s natural legacy for the school.
The art place is open year-round for exhibits and Thomas and Smith usually keep a permanent gallery of their blown-glass works there, except when they take the show on the road to various art fairs around the country.
It’s a little less active in the summer, when the oppressive Southern Illinois heat makes working with hot glass nearly unbearable. “We usually run the furnace from September or October into late May. This year, we shut down for the entire month of March, so we were actually working glass well into June before we turned everything off for the summer,” Thomas said.
Inside the school’s old kitchen, Thomas and Smith have two glass furnaces, used to mix the glass and create the vivid colors their works are known for, and three “glory holes”, gas-fired pits were the glass can be heated to the proper level for working it.
“When the furnaces are running, it’s usually 25 to 30 degrees hotter inside that building,” Thomas said. That’s why they shut it down in the summer.
In addition, that gives them a natural break from the artistic creation process to do the other things they have to do to keep “The Doug” running.
“You can buy all this equipment or you can make it,” Thomas said. “A glass furnace sells for about $25,000 or you can make one with $1,500 in materials and a lot of labor. It was a pretty easy choice for us.”
The pair create their “crystal furnace” used for clear glass in 2000 when they opened Do U Glass Hot Shop, the studio for blown glass in the old kitchen, behind the main school building. Since 2000, they have had three smaller furnaces for colored glass, because the color process makes the glass so much more corrosive to its environment and slowly destroys the color furnace.
“The second furnace lasted 4 years, which is a good run for color. Then we noticed we were starting to get some mixing of the colors,” Smith said. The color furnace can usually create two colors at a time; when the furnace began to fail, the crucibles contain the colors began to leak allowing the colors to mix.
“We were using purple and green, so we ended up with brown,” Thomas said.
This summer, the furnaces appear to be in fine condition, so the summer work is on a new project, a glass casting facility.
Smith, who has spent 31 years blowing glass, said he was ready to try something new. With the glass casting facility, he is now able to make tables that are a solid piece of glass. Currently, the process involved melting glass and pouring it into a preformed mold, packed with sand to create the design that will be the bottom of the glass table. The tabletop, once completed, is smooth.
The second prototype for the new venue is in process, still being cleaned and sanded to its final state. The table is a three-legged triangle with spiral designs reminiscent of a Zen garden or flowing water, Smith said.
The first two tables were made in two-pour process, because the furnace for melting the glass for casting isn’t big enough to accommodate enough glass to pour the table all at once.
Once the finished glass is cleaned and the table is complete, identifying the separate pours will be almost impossible because the second pour is made while the first one is still hot.
“These tables cool inside the kiln for two full weeks before we can take them out to the open air,” Thomas said.
The kiln is initially heated to 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit with the empty mold inside. Then the mold is pulled out a small rail system and placed beneath the furnace where the molten glass is added. Then, over the course of the next two weeks, the temperature of the kiln is slowly lowered so that the glass can cool slowly.
Because of the fragile nature of glass and because it contracts as it cools, letting it cool to quickly can lead to fissures and cracks and a ruined piece, Smith said.
Once the process is perfected, the tables will sell for between $3,000 and $5,000 each. As handcrafted originals each will take about a month, possibly more, to create.
One step in making that process a little quicker will be replacing the current furnace with one large enough to pour a full table all at once. That’s Smith’s summer project.
There’s a little bit of chemist and engineer in every glass artist, but having a small studio requires it a bit more, he said. Smith will be building the new furnace himself and then testing glass recipes to find out what works the best for the tables.
“There is very little tolerance between types of glass. If you use one and it cools differently than another, you get breakage,” he said.
In addition to opening up the possibilities of an entirely different kind of work. the glass casting facility will allow Smith to work with glass year round. The furnace and kiln for the casting project are completely outdoors, making it possible to work on even in the Southern Illinois heat.
Art glass work is a relatively new art form, with the old styles and production methods being revived in about 1962. “Before that, glassware was produced almost exclusively in factories,” Thomas said.
“Then, in 1962 Harvey Littleton convinced the Toledo Museum of Art to host a glass-blowing demonstration. From there, it spread slowly,” Thomas said.
One of Littleton’s students, Bill Boysen founded the glass program at SIUC and Boysen was Thomas’ teacher.
“We’re really the second generation of art glass people,” she said. Smith’s history was similar, though his training was in southern California.
And, they are ready and willing to train the third generation. Smith’s son Avery, who is still in high school, has several pieces for sale at The Doug and individual classes are available from Thomas and Smith.
For more information about the classes, exhibits at “The Doug” or acquiring studio space there, artists can call Thomas or Smith at (618) 687-3197 or reach them via The Douglass School Art Place website at www.artapult.com

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