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Wellness Center workshops encourage mindfulness and creativity

Courtney’s glass owl, named Philip (after Philip Glass).
Courtney’s glass owl, named Philip (after Philip Glass).

The Murphy-Nimocks Meditation Garden at the Student Wellness Center has always been a rejuvenating environment for students seeking space to simply breathe. The glassblowing workshops that occurred there Oct. 18, however, took the concept of breathing as an aspect of wellness to an entirely new level. 

Whenever I visit the garden, I’m drawn to the natural soundscape of trickling water, rustling autumn leaves and maybe even the distant noise of construction work from the quad. On a busy day, I usually curl up in one of the egg chairs or meander through the walking meditation labyrinth during a quick break between classes. But last Friday, I found myself spontaneously signing up for a glassblowing class. There, I would learn the basics of a craft I had only witnessed through novelty paperweights and photographs of Chihuly chandeliers.

The “Glassblowing in the Meditation Garden” event was organized by Duke Student Wellness and the Campus Center and was led by George-ann Greth, a master glassblower with over 30 years of experience. She started her education at Penland School of Craft, a community for experiential arts instruction humbly located in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Greth then apprenticed up and down the East Coast and received her degree in glass from the Tyler School of Art and Architecture at Temple University. Now, she runs Bee Creative Glass Blowing and teaches all over North Carolina and the United States with her mobile glass blowing unit. During her two days of workshops at Duke, she tasked us with making glass blown owls.

After we went over safety procedures, we carefully watched the master gaffer mold the glass figures that would eventually compose our sculptures. With her detailed instruction, we continuously rotated the metal tube as she methodically placed it in and out of the furnace. The intense heat from being even in the surrounding area of the fire was striking. The glass was quite malleable, as it easily expanded when we carefully blew through the metal tubing.

In a video discussing her work with STEAM Junction in Burlington, N.C., Greth recalled how her interest in glass blowing began: “We took a family vacation to Ireland and I got to see the Waterford Factory, and it was there that I got to see glassblowing for the very first time.” 

For many of us that day, this was our first experience glassblowing — maybe we were all akin to a four-year-old Greth, awakened by childlike awe. She admitted that, having done so many workshops, she sometimes dreads to make the same glass hearts and eggs over and over again.

“But when I show up and see the magic in everyone’s eyes, I could almost cry,” she said. “They’re just so happy, and it’s a wonderful day all over again. Glass is very magical.”

After the class, I decided to walk back to East Campus, which allowed me some time to reflect on these words. I started listening to one of my favorite postmodern albums, “Glassworks.” (You can listen to it here.) This work was my introduction to minimalist music — I find that the poignant harmonies and steady drones of Philip Glass’ music seem to complement the introspective nature of glassblowing, and by extension the reflective atmosphere of the Student Wellness Center and those seeking solace in it.

Now, let’s consider my glass owl. His name is Philip (I really like Philip Glass, okay!), and only with the most generous interpretation can he be considered in the same vein as one of Greth’s owls. The arts are becoming more accessible to students of all backgrounds and disciplines on campus, which allows novices like me to create pieces regardless of experience. Philip will be a nice addition to my collection of DukeCreate crafts. Fragile yet elegant, my deformed glass owl with weirdly shaped eyes now has his own place on my dorm room window sill.

The Wellness Center supports these creative workshops because it is a great way to release negative energy, a sort of catharsis. Their “Moment of Mindfulness” program holds knitting groups and painting nights that have become increasingly popular with students. The goal of these workshops is not to invent something new, but to personalize within the art being taught. At a university where everyone seems to be an expert at something, it’s difficult to take the leap to try something new. But I urge you — breathe, and with your exhalation, make something that speaks to you.

Correction: This article has been updated to include the Campus Center as a sponsor of the event. The Chronicle regrets the error.

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