Water Street Glassworks keeps the flame alive in the Arts District

Sometimes it takes an artist's eye to see what might be in a neighborhood of dilapidated buildings and weed-infested, broken sidewalks.

It helps to have the financial support to see that vision through. And when the two come together an aging downtown can turn into an Arts District and new events can quickly become traditions.

On May 28 what has become a new tradition will take place at Water Street Glassworks in downtown Benton Harbor.

Extinguish the Fire marks the end of the season for the glass studio, gallery and school. It's the time when the glasswork's artist in chief, Jerry Catania, heads off to teach at Ox Bow and so the furnace is shut down for the summer.

It has turned into an opportunity for supporters to get together to enjoy a meal together. Not your ordinary meal, but one created by chef Timothy Sizer of Timothy and Tim's Too.

Sizer prepares the evening's meal over molten glass. Those who have seen and tasted the meals before say it's an event worth repeating.

The evening is a fundraiser for Water Street Glassworks and a new tradition for the area that is now known as the Arts District of Benton Harbor.

Transformation of the area began in 1996 when Herbert and Audre Mendel offered a $1 million challenge grant to launch the Community Renewal Through the Arts Program in cooperation with Cornerstone Alliance, which already had begun work in the neighborhood. The Mendel's vision was to use the arts as an economic development tool to bring about reinvestment in the area and revitalize the downtown.

The first project was Richard Hunt Studio. Hunt, one of the most sought after sculptors of abstract metal art works for public places, converted a former industrial site into a studio.

Another early pioneer in the neighborhood, Bob Weber, showed Jerry and Kathy Catania the condemned Hinkley Building. Half of the building had collapsed in on itself. The second floor had pancaked to the basement. Part of it was missing a roof. The Cantanias spent the next eight years getting the building into shape. It opened for classes in January, 2004.

Kathy Cantania says that when they saw the building they knew it fit their needs despite its condition. Since they have refurbished it, the community has been very supportive of the educational programs, art gallery and other offerings at the glassworks.

The local economic development agency Cornerstone Alliance says it has worked closely with the Catanias to help them obtain local matching dollars needed to receive several phases of grant funding and other services necessary to make the Water Street Glassworks a reality.

Since 2004, the glassworks has offered Fired Up!, an after-school glass program for Benton Harbor teens made available free of charge to young people. They received $1,200 scholarships to participate. Students make a two-year commitment to the program, which offers an opportunity to learn glass blowing, glass bead making, fusing and stained glass.

Because working with molten glass requires concentration, students who apply themselves often find themselves changed by the experience. They also learn teamwork and patience along the way. Students are taught about designing art for a broad market and their work is exhibited as part of the program. When their artwork sells they are allowed to keep 70 percent.

Some students have stayed with the program for six years and the possibility of coordinating further work with area colleges for students who want to continue is being pursued.

The Water Street Glassworks is just one of the businesses that have helped bring about the transformation of the Arts District. The Citadel Dance Studio came in 1999, finding a home in the renovated Salvation Army Building. Its educational programming expanded from dance to include music in 2008. Music of another sort is heard at the Livery, a craftbrew pub that helped get things moving in the Arts District.

Cornerstone Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Greg Vaughn says no single event signifies a turning the corner for the Arts District, although from a visual standpoint a $2.4 million streetscape project made a big difference. Ground broke on the project in August 2007 and when it was done there were new sidewalks, better parking, trees and other plantings. Historic street lighting cast from molds of Benton Harbor's original street lights from the 1920s further enhanced the transformation of the area.

The success of the district has translated to success for the Water Street Glassworks.

"A lot of things have changed in the past year," says Sarah Hess, Water Street Glassworks executive director, over coffee in the shop decorated by a piece of artwork with stainless steel and fused glass.

The number of studios in the 8,000-square-foot space expanded from three to four. Stained glass classes were added. The Blossom Fehlberg Metal Studio was dedicated in June 2010 and classes started the winter semester of 2010. The gelato shop opened its doors and continues to attract people who did not know the glassworks existed in downtown Benton Harbor.

In the adjacent studio, work by five Detroit glass artists -- many of them bearing stickers that show they have been sold -- is exhibited in the show Artists Pawn Shop: Detroit Under 30, which was up through May 7. 

From a catwalk visitors can look down into the hot shop where kilns and annealing ovens stand ready for glass artists.

Throughout the rest of the building work stations show where beads are formed and stained glass assembled.

Rough-hewn beams throughout the lower level show the age of the building and give a hint of its history.

Artists attracted by inexpensive property are often the pioneers who take on what others think cannot be rehabilitated. The Catanias left a gallery and studio south of Saugatuck to take on the work in Benton Harbor, their hometown. 

Today, their work has exceeded what they set out to accomplish.
Kathy Jennings is the editor of Southwest Michigan's Second Wave. She is a freelance writer and editor.

Photos by Erik Holladay.

Kenadee Cohrnfair, 14, heats a ball of glass at the Water Street Glass Works in Benton Harbor, Mich.

Glassworks artist Jerry Catania helps Mahalah Fuller, 15, form the heated glass.

The students lay out their materials on a bench as they prepare to make swirled glass paperweights.

Crushed glass is rolled into a molten piece of glass to form melted speckles.

Sandalia Atkins, 15, heats a long strand of white glass on to her bead creation.

Kenadee Cohrnfair, 14, is reflected in a mirror as he forms the glass into a piece of artwork.

Water Street Glass Works is located in Benton Harbor, Mich.

Emma Schaper, 18, uses a tool to create swirls and bubbles within the paperweight.

The final step is to heat a ball of glass and use a wood stamp to create the seal of the Water Street Glass Works.
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