When Trenton Quiocho first completed his time learning at Hilltop Artists, which teaches young people between ages 12 and 20 in Pierce County the art of glassblowing, he said he felt like there were some people in the larger glass community that didn’t like them. “I think because, for lack of a better word, we were [seen as] a bunch of punk kids,” Quiocho said.

Quiocho has been around Hilltop Artists programming since he was a junior at Tacoma’s Silas High School (then named Woodrow Wilson High School) simply taking an elective class. He recalled walking in the first day, seeing a glassblowing demonstration and knowing then it was something he wanted to learn how to do himself. From that class, Quiocho found a welcoming space he looked forward to throughout the school day. He was around the program, eventually joining the production team of advanced students, until he aged out in 2010.

Today, Quiocho serves as Hilltop’s production and hot shop (referring to a glassblower’s workspace) manager, teaching another generation of students glass arts. But Quiocho also wanted to find a way to uplift the past artists who have meant so much to him and the Tacoma community. This led to “GATHER: 27 Years of Hilltop Artists,” an exhibition on view at the Tacoma Art Museum through Sept. 4, which features the work of 21 Hilltop Artists alumni who have gone on to create contemporary glass artworks, paintings and mixed-media art.

“I’ve been part of this program for the better half of my life,” Quiocho said. “I grew up with all these people and my mentors and I never had seen any of them exhibited in a gallery. The main goal of the show for me was to highlight these talented artists that I grew up with.”

Originally, Quiocho’s idea was to put on a pop-up show with TAM to coincide with the Seattle-based Glass Art Society’s international conference, which was originally scheduled to celebrate its 50th anniversary in Tacoma in 2021 before being postponed a year.

“He wanted to showcase, to this international group of visiting glass enthusiasts, the work of artists who didn’t get the same opportunities to make or show their work to a greater public, despite doing great things,” said TAM executive director David Setford, adding that most of the artists featured in the show are artists of color.

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Setford sees a shared belief behind the work of Hilltop and that of TAM, a belief in the value of giving young people a creative outlet and caring mentors as well as an investment in the idea that art has the power to change lives and build better futures. This is in a world, Setford said, “where there’s precious few art programs, whatever type of art, left in schools.”

Quiocho worked with Margaret Bullock, chief curator at TAM and the curator of collections and special exhibitions, having Zoom meetings in September 2021 to figure out how Quiocho’s idea could fit into the museum’s plans and pandemic-necessitated adjustments. The museum saw a couple things drop off its schedule, which left room for Quiocho’s idea to bloom, growing from a smaller pop-up to a full-scale show that could be on view in a gallery for multiple months.

“They told me that they wanted to move forward with the idea, which is kind of shocking,” Quiocho said. “But also, it’s not a lot of time to get a show together. Most lead time is like a year, I feel, for most shows. So to be talking in September and then have the show in March is not a lot of lead time. So it’s kind of a scramble for me to get everything together.”

Though working quickly, Quiocho wanted make sure the application to be part of the exhibition was as simple as possible so that complicated application processes or fees weren’t going to be a barrier for entry for any of the Hilltop alums. He and a couple of colleagues reached out to as many former Hilltop participants as they could think of who were still making art. Still, Quiocho said he would have loved to feature even more than the 21 artists who are part of this exhibition. 

As Hilltop executive director Kimberly Keith noted, being able to feature the work of even these alumni on a stage like TAM’s is invaluable. Many times, who and what is featured in art museums determines what society considers valuable, leading them to being very exclusive places. Through “GATHER,” the hope is to highlight local and regional artists and artists of color who are often kept out of that exclusive space.

“The premise of ‘GATHER’ is that Black and brown artists in particular don’t always have a space to show their work,” Keith said. “And then in glass in particular, it’s not a very diverse medium. It’s only really been in the last 50 years that people of color and women and lots of different folks have been able to get into hot shops. We’ve been around for 27 years, and some of the students and the artists that have come through our program are changing the face of this medium.”

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Keith, who also helped start the education programs at Tacoma’s Museum of Glass, is nearing five years in what she called her dream job running this youth development organization. The nonprofit was originally founded in 1994, partnering with Tacoma Public Schools under the mission of providing young people from diverse cultural and economic backgrounds a connection to better futures through glass art education.

An inaugural group of 20 Hilltop youth met in the former wood shop at Jason Lee Middle School (now Hilltop Heritage Middle School) to learn a range of sculptural arts. Those students were taught glass art through converting Snapple and soda bottles into blown glass alongside learning woodworking. Over the years, Hilltop Artists has grown, now with hot shop homes at both Hilltop Heritage and Silas High School. Hilltop’s free programs will see around 650 young people in a typical year, ranging from students at Hilltop Heritage or Silas High School who just want a one-semester elective to others who will be around the program for years.

Hilltop program director Jessica Hogan started in Hilltop’s programming at 13 and continued on through high school at Silas. After she went off to college, she got a call that the program could use an extra set of hands, so she returned to help out with some of the daytime classes. After about 15 years working with the program and around middle schoolers, Hogan said it’s starting to rub off on her own art.

“I feel like my artwork right now is so weird,” Hogan joked, pointing to drawing inspiration from Solo jazz cups. “I feel like I love to make stuff that you see everyday, but I want to make it beautiful.”

For the TAM exhibition, Hogan’s work will be represented by large glass Cheetos, inspired by seeing students eat them and other snacks around the school. She said she felt like there can be an expectation around glasswork — that it needs to be extra beautiful — and she wanted to do something different.

Even as Hogan reflects, there’s a tone of almost disbelief that a glass program in a middle school was able to not just survive, but grow over 27 years and counting. Much credit can be given to the fact that many students, like Hogan and Quiocho, return to mentor and pass down their knowledge to the next group of students. On top of that, Hogan emphasized the value of the program being able to bring in true masters of the craft, like award-winning glass artist Pino Signoretto (before his death in 2017) and the Tacoma-born Dale Chihuly.

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Those who have been through the Hilltop program have seen its ability to teach students invaluable teamwork and leadership skills, with one person taking the lead as a gaffer (who will lift the molten glass) and one or two assistants helping to shape that glass into whatever the gaffer is working on. Keith equated it to a sort of dance, where everyone needs to learn their part and anticipate the moves and needs of others.

“As an instructor, I’ve had kids tell me this is the highlight of their day,” said teaching artist Doug Burgess. “I wasn’t the most confident kid, and I can imagine that age group could be feeling similar to how I was during that time. Just the chance that you can make their life a little bit easier if they’re going through struggles, it’s really fulfilling.”

Burgess started in Hilltop’s programming in seventh grade, following in the footsteps of his older sister who participated in the program. In high school, he said, this was kind of like being on the football team for him. Burgess grew up in Southeast Alaska in a small village as part of the Haida tribe before moving to the region when he was 10. His work that is part of “GATHER” meshes the Haida painting and carving he saw growing up with the more contemporary glassblowing art he learned after moving.

“I’m trying to find ways to reconnect with that side of myself,” Burgess explained, “because I feel like I was drifting away, kind of disassociating from all the things I saw growing up.”

His work is the second edition in a series he started last year and a collaboration with his mother, a weaver who has been an artist for over 30 years. He said he was honored to have this opportunity to collaborate with his biggest inspiration.

As the work of Burgess, Hogan, Quiocho and 18 other Hilltop alums stays on view for the next five months, TAM hopes visitors to the exhibition learn the names of those whose work is on display and take those names home to their communities. Perhaps, Quiocho said, this can open doors for some of these artists, creating new opportunities for them that previously weren’t there. In the end, this may inspire other students, who can see people from their own community highlighted on the major stage that is the Tacoma Art Museum.

“I wanted to highlight the artists,” Quiocho said. “I wanted to highlight the program that we came from. It’s a huge thing in our community to have this program. And I don’t know what I would be doing without it.”

“GATHER: 27 Years of Hilltop Artists”

10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays and Fridays through Sundays, and 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursdays, through Sept. 4; Tacoma Art Museum, 1701 Pacific Ave., Tacoma; $18; tacomaartmuseum.org

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