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Alumni of Hilltop's glass arts program step into the spotlight with Tacoma Art Museum exhibit

Mayowa Aina
Folklorico by Luis Sanchez and Edelmira Jimenez Gallegos. Sanchez created the glass flowered necklace overlayed on a crocheted top his mom made. "Everything in Mexico is handmade and all the embroidery stuff, so I wanted to kind of translate that list of flowers into a necklace,” Sanchez said.

To gather means to come together. It’s also a term used to describe the first step in the art of glassblowing, placing molten glass on the end of the blowpipe or pipe at the start of a project.

The play on words is the title of a new exhibit at the Tacoma Art Museum: "GATHER: 27 Years of Hilltop Artists." The exhibit brings together the work of 21 contemporary artists who were introduced to glass arts through the well-known Hilltop Artists youth development program over the past three decades. It’s a stunning display of glassworks from little-known creatives in the museum's own backyard.

This is the first time the nearby museum has partnered with the program for an exhibit like this, said Hilltop Artists Executive Director Kimberly Keith.

“It's really important that these folks are from the Hilltop,” said Keith. “A lot of our students are Black and Brown students. And so these are people that you don't usually see represented in the museum, either as artists or staff people or audience members.”

It's a new experience for the museum and the artists like exhibit curator Trenton Quiocho, who's never curated a show before.

“It's just an amazing experience because none of us have really been showcased in a museum like this,” Quiocho said. “So to see it, it's just so much more elevated when you see your work on a wall or are on a pedestal.”

Quiocho got involved in Hilltop Artists as a high school student in 2005. Much of his recent work explores his cultural identity as a Filipino American. His delicate and eye-catching glass pieces on view interpret Filipino fish traps and a bulul, figures traditionally used by farmers to guard the rice crops.

Seeing the artwork of his mentors, peers and students go unnoticed, he wanted to create a show that put a spotlight on their work. For many of the artists, it will be the first time their work is shown in an institution of this caliber.

Luis Sanchez, 25, was introduced to Hilltop Artists as a middle school student.

“The piece that I made is something I have never made before,” Sanchez. “I've done flowers and stuff, but not this intricate before. So this kind of pushed me over the edge and had a little bit out of my comfort zone.”

Sanchez spent months making glass beads, flower petals, and branches to create a stunning flowered necklace reminiscent of traditional Mexican embroidery. The piece comes to life atop a crocheted shirt Sanchez’s mom made.

Being shown in the museum with his mom is an exciting moment for their whole family Sanchez said.

“All the work that my mom's done, all this stuff that she's crocheted, she always gives it away to the people or should we keep it at home. She never gets paid for it,” Sanchez said. “I feel like this will probably boost her a little bit.”

Doug Burgess, 24, collaborated with his mom too, to create a set of totems inspired by his Haida, Dakota, and Umpqua background.

“It's definitely a dream come true,” Burgess said. “A lot of us come from humble beginnings, we don't have notoriety in our backgrounds and it just shows you don't have to come from somewhere to make an impact in your community.”

Burgess connected with Hilltop Artists as a middle school student in 2009. He said the program was instrumental in helping him see himself as an artist and view glassmaking as a viable career path. He hopes being in this museum helps younger students see that as well.

“This is kind of a step in that direction,” Burgess said. “They see artists somewhat having success in their careers and they look like them. They say, ‘Oh, I can do that too’.”

The featured artwork includes contemporary glass vessels and sculptures, neon work, and installations as well as paintings and mixed media. "GATHER: 27 years of Hilltop Artists" is on display through September 4.

Mayowa Aina reports and produces special projects, including podcasts and series, for KNKX. Mayowa started her public radio career at KUOW in Seattle. She's worked at NPR in Washington, D.C. and Alaska Public Media before moving back to her hometown of Tacoma to work at KNKX.