Newark Nonprofit Reveals Transformative Power of Glassmaking

GlassRoots provides a safe space for learning the unique art—and so much more.

glassroots

A student gets a fiery lesson in glass art at GlassRoots. Classes include jewelry making and glassblowing. Courtesy of GlassRoots

Working with glass transforms raw materials into art. It can also transform people. That holds true for Ya’zmine Graham, who discovered glass art through GlassRoots, a Newark nonprofit that engages inner-city youth through glassmaking.

Graham, 27, first came to GlassRoots on a middle school field trip. “I came back with my friend one day and came back every day after,” says Graham. “We kept coming back and glassblowing, making mosaics and making beads.”

Indeed, the glass-art experience, says GlassRoots CEO Barbara Heisler, can ignite an inner spark for inner-city youth.

Founding executive director Patricia Kettenring, a glass collector and a professor of business at Rutgers-Newark, started GlassRoots in 2001. She had been seeking an outlet where she could marry the beauty of glass with her business acumen and impart this combined knowledge to young people.

Today, GlassRoots offers yearlong academic programs, school field trips, youth entrepreneurship programs, and college-and-career-readiness programs—all targeting youths age 10 and up and young adults. For these students from Essex County and beyond, GlassRoots is a safe space where they can learn a unique art form, connect with fellow budding artists, and develop vision, ambition and skills. 

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Classes include kiln forming (shaping glass with the use of heat and gravity), mosaics, lampworking, glass fusing, jewelry making and glassblowing. These creative avenues intersect with an understanding of science, mathematics, color theory and entrepreneurship. 

GlassRoots’ classes and core youth programs are supported mostly by an annual fall fundraiser, online store sales, commissions, fees from adult classes, and donations. Eighty percent of every dollar raised by GlassRoots goes to its programs, says Heisler. Students or their parents and guardians pay for classes and programs on a pay-what-you-can basis. No student, says Heisler, is ever turned away due to lack of funds.

This spring, GlassRoots plans to expand from its current 5,700-square-foot location to a 25,000-square-foot space on the site of the old St. Michael’s Hospital. The larger facility at the Newark Arts Commons will allow an expansion of programs, students and staff.

“We want our students to see everything,” says Heisler. “And we want them to see the best.”

Graham is now a GlassRoots instructor, a full-time architecture student at Kean University and living proof of the transformative power of glass art. “Be patient,” Graham tells students if they are unsure of their abilities. “After four months,” she says, “they’re doing everything we’ve taught them on the first day.” 

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