Yukon’s first glassblowing studio is a place of healing and community.
Walking down the streets of Whitehorse, Yukon, in the frigid -40° C weather, the last thing you expect to see is an open door. It was a surprise, then, to stumble across LuMel Studios with its large garage door flung open to the elements. Just a few steps in and the contrast with the blistering cold outside could not be more extreme. Attending to a series of large furnaces in the middle of the room, six people in short sleeved shirts run around each other carrying molten glass as a large crowd stands gathered around, watching.
After the presentation is over, we stick around to talk to the founders: Luann Baker-Johnson and Mel Johnson. After having lived across Asia, North America, and Europe, they decided to move back to the North and found Yukon’s first glass blowing studio. Talking to them, they repeatedly emphasize how they wanted to "bring something for the community that can bring joy and healing."
Healing through glass
The healing properties of glassblowing is something they know well. After losing a daughter to leukemia, Luann decided to return to art school in 2007 to heal. She emphasized that it was through glassblowing that she "learned to laugh again."
Despite the challenges of dealing with 1,200 degree molten glass, Luann says she fell in love with glass after the first class. She studied at the Alberta College of Art and Design and graduated with degrees in ceramics and glassblowing and jokes that they’re degrees in "comfort" and "struggle" respectively.
Mark Steudel, originally from Calgary, met Luann and Mel while studying in the same program.
While he also highlighted the healing aspects of the art, saying that "There’s something therapeutic and relaxing about sitting in front of the fire," he didn’t sugar coat the challenges of glassblowing: "It’s endurance heavy, you need to have a good understanding of the heat, and be fine sweating all day."
He, along with a handful of other artists from the same program, came north with Luann and Mel to found the studio. Some, like Mark, came early and found jobs while they waited for the studio to be built.
Despite excitement in the community at the arrival of the first glassblowing studio, the road wasn’t always an easy one. Having bought their lot in 2013, construction only began two years later. Further complicating matters, shortly after they began building they had over $6,000 worth of tools stolen from their site.
To help finance the studio, Mel came out of retirement and now commutes between Whitehorse, and Cleveland, Ohio, to support the dream. Although not directly involved in glasswork himself, Mel hopes to become the studio’s “#1 Busker” when it becomes financially independent.
River walkers program
One thing that Luann and Mel didn’t foresee when they were building their studio was that their location—between the local liquor store and the Yukon River—would be ideal for getting to know the city’s transient community. These "river walkers," as Luann rivers to them, are often homeless or suffer from addiction problems.
Because they passed by the studio so often going to or from the Yukon river, the artists got to know many of the river walkers. "They stopped in during the build, and we got to know them," recalls Luann, "there was lots of laughter."
Going forward, the studio hopes to hold weekly glassblowing workshops geared specifically towards the river walking community.
This is not the first time and glassblowing has been used in community outreach, and the artists at LuMel mention being inspired by the work of Hilltop Artists, a non-profit group based out of Tacoma, Washington.
Inspired by her own positive experiences with glass, Luann makes a convincing case for the healing powers of glasswork. She explains that when you’re handling a piece of 1,200 degree glass, it consumes your entire attention: "you can’t think of anything else, it’s a wonderful escape."
Thinking back to the crowd staring wide eyed during the presentation, I believe her.
When asked about the impact of her river walker program, Luann is quick to respond: "We can’t change anyone’s history. No miracles expected—just moments of sobriety and; hopefully, joy."
Beyond the river walkers program, LuMel studios hopes to host a separate outreach program to work with disenfranchised youth in the community. For the launch of this program this coming May, they’ve invited the founders of the Tacoma based Hilltop Artist’s to come up and host the inaugural workshop and learn what made their program so successful.
Returning to the North
After years living across Europe, Asia, and North America, Luann and Mel found that glassblowing was something they could bring back with them to the North. In turn, they emphasize that the North has had an important role in shaping their work.
"Breath in the incredible space we have; expansive valleys and the mountains that rise up before you. It’s that space in between that we try and capture in our work. The beautiful lakes of so many colours, the mountains, and above all that are the northern lights."
Perhaps not surprisingly, the studio’s signature line is named after the iconic northern lights. An on-going experiment, it’s a collaborative effort between all the artists in the studio who developed the line during the first three months before the studio opened to the public.
When asked about the Arctic more generally, Luann is quick to encourage people to head North: "I hope everyone comes North and visits; not necessarily LuMel, but the Yukon. The North is an amazing place and the studio is just one minor aspect. It’s an incredible place."