It’s a chilly Sunday afternoon in February, and N’Kosi Barber is taking great care to stay focused. “Never pick up glass,” he says, referring to pieces on the floor. Glass can be deceptive, he explains. It may look cold, but it can be several hundred degrees hot.
Since 2015, Barber, a 30-year-old with a scruffy beard and a calm demeanor, has been a glassblowing teacher at Firebird Community Arts, a nonprofit arts studio in East Garfield Park, on the West Side of Chicago. He now manages the studio’s Project Fire, a trauma recovery program for young victims of gun violence.
Hundreds of people are shot every year in Chicago. During the first few months of 2023, however, the rate was 14 percent lower than the same period in 2022. Many factors contributed to this drop, and some say they include the work of community-based gun violence prevention groups like Project Fire.
Housed in what was once a warehouse, Firebird’s art studio is mostly quiet, except for the buzzing of furnaces and a few voices in the distance. Wearing a hoodie, black beanie, sweatpants and clear safety glasses, Barber helps intern Janette Torres create a bluebell flower. He encourages Torres to move with the urgency the glass demands; he is quick to point out when Torres is too slow. Speed is important because as glass loses heat, it hardens, becoming more likely to shatter. “A lot of the time, y’all are moving too slow and that’s why your glass is so cold,” Barber tells Torres. “Remember, we only got a couple seconds to make this happen.”
To learn the art of glassblowing is to learn how to be patient. Barber says your 11th year of blowing glass is actually your first. It takes a full decade to memorize its steps and to perfect your groove. Many Project Fire participants are new to the medium; for them, the learning curve can be a challenge. Knowing how to maneuver the glass in just the right way, so that it contours to match the image in your mind, takes years of experience. Barber is in his 10th year of working with glass, and he still reminds himself of a lesson when he gets frustrated: “It ain’t like drawing, where you can just erase or you can just go back to it later,” he says. “You gotta finish it. You can’t just put it down.”
Firebird Community Arts faces Chicago’s famous Lake Street Elevated trains. The one-story building is covered in vibrant murals; out front, along a bright pink backdrop, is the image of a raised, clenched fist, set against large cursive letters that spell out “Black Lives Matter… Abolition.”
Inside the building are all the trappings of a glassblowing studio: concrete floors, cinder block walls, metal tables and tools. When you first step inside, you’re overwhelmed by the scorching heat emanating from glowing furnaces that line the wall on your left. To your right is a gift shop that displays an eclectic collection of glasswork: ornate vases and decorative cups in bright reds and dark blues, an eagle with its wings extended, two faces — one black, one white — staring into each other’s eyes.
On a Saturday afternoon, the Project Fire women’s group is celebrating one of its member’s birthdays. Using a piece of chalk on the concrete floor, Barber is sketching out plans for the group to make a birthday cake out of glass — she requested a blue one. The pace in the studio is relaxed. Several women huddle around a table in the kitchen, which doubles as a meeting room. A baby in a carrier sleeps on top of the table; a small toddler keeps trying to escape the room.
“It’s hard to be a mom and blow glass,” Firebird staff member Bre’Annah Stampley says matter-of-factly.
A glassblowing studio, with its hard edges, hot surfaces and industrial feel, might seem an unlikely place for healing. But Project Fire draws on principles of art therapy to help survivors overcome their trauma. The program is a collaboration between Firebird and Healing Hurt People-Chicago, a hospital-based violence intervention program. Participants are paid $15 an hour to learn glassblowing at their own pace, with other survivors. Most of them come from the South and West Sides, where Chicago’s gun violence is most intense.
The glassblowers meet twice a week for four hours. The first three hours are dedicated to glassblowing, and the last hour focuses on a trauma support group called S.E.L.F., which stands for safety, emotion, loss, and future. At these meetings, survivors set personal goals and work through the lingering social and emotional effects of their injuries with a social worker from Healing Hurt People.
The idea is that by paying survivors to learn a skill in a supportive space, connecting them to a community of survivors and offering them mentorship, they may find healing.
The act of blowing glass, too, offers important lessons of its own. The risk of getting burned while working with molten glass requires participants to rely on each other for safety. That can mean using a wooden panel to shield your partner from the heat of a glowing orb of lava. Or it can be a simple spoken warning of “behind you” while carrying something hot across the studio floor. Glassblowing is a team effort, says Karen Benita Reyes, executive director of Firebird Community Arts. The technique fosters trust among survivors who may be struggling with that after they’ve been injured. It also teaches survivors how to cope with loss and disappointment. Sometimes students will spend hours on a piece, and in an instant, their hard work is lying across the floor in a thousand shards.
“That doesn’t happen all the time, but it happens regularly enough that it’s sort of part of the art making,” Reyes says. “It’s a way that you can practice healthy emotional regulation in a supportive, protective space and then try to translate those skills into your own life when you experience loss, and have to let go.”
Barber stands near a wooden worktable just outside the kitchen as one of the women approaches him in a hurry. She explains that she needs to go to the grocery store later but doesn’t have a ride. To her relief, Barber offers to call her a Lyft. He later explains that part of Project Fire’s approach is meeting survivors where they’re at. Some days, participants just need a place of refuge away from the hassles of their everyday lives. Other days, they might need help figuring out those challenges. For Barber, knowing when to pull back and allow people to simply exist in the space, without expectations, is part of what makes a good teacher. It can be hard to blow glass when your basic needs aren’t met.
Barber’s role is to create an environment in which survivors feel safe enough to learn and fail and express themselves. “Sometimes they don’t come here to blow glass,” Barber says. “They come in to get peace of mind.”
Chiontea Thomas joined Project Fire four years ago after surviving a shooting. She describes Barber as a teacher in tune with his students’ emotional needs. His feedback is direct but encouraging. Some days, his coaching focuses on what Thomas could’ve done better. On other days, he tells her not to be so hard on herself. Thomas says when life outside the studio gets challenging, she visits the shop as a refuge. Glassblowing is calming, she says, because it requires intense focus at all times. Although she’s required to be at Project Fire only twice a week, she finds herself in the space almost every day, working on her signature dolphins.
“Coming in here is like I got a breath of fresh air,” Thomas says. “I’m relieved.”
Chicago is often largely — perhaps unfairly — seen as the gun violence capital in the country’s public imagination. Chicago’s homicide rate is higher than that of other major cities like Los Angeles or New York. But the frequency of violence here mirrors that of other Midwestern cities like Detroit or Milwaukee. In fact, Chicago’s homicide rate is actually lower than those of its regional counterparts, according to FBI data analyzed by Crain’s Chicago Business.
Gun violence is still, however, a pressing crisis in Chicago, used as a talking point in presidential debates and taking precedence in the city’s latest mayoral election. In 2022, 3,512 people were shot here, and that violence has disproportionately harmed Chicago’s Black neighborhoods — communities that have also suffered the catastrophic effects of decades of economic disinvestment, political abandonment, unemployment, and concentrated poverty. In the same year, 76.6 percent of the city’s shooting victims were Black, according to city data. Most were young men. To stem gunfire, the city has relied on some of the strictest state gun laws in the country and police and prisons to enforce them. The crisis persists despite the fact that Chicago has a higher per capita rate of police officers than New York or Los Angeles, cities with less gun violence.
Local leaders, community groups and survivors themselves have called for investments in public safety that move beyond policing and that address the root causes of gun violence. And it seems many residents agree. In April, Chicago voters elected former Cook County Board Commissioner Brandon Johnson as the city’s new mayor. Johnson beat out former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas’s tough-on-crime rhetoric with a public safety platform that centered investments in jobs, mental health, education, and violence prevention in communities where shootings are common. Places not unlike where Barber is from.
Barber grew up on the South Side, in Bronzeville and Hyde Park — two communities with a rich history of culture and arts. For most of his life, he would hear gunfire while showering at night or drive past a crime scene on his way to school — the instances that can punctuate everyday life in Chicago. But he remained some distance from the city’s gun violence. That changed in 2010, when Barber’s friend, Tito Lindsey, was shot and killed on the far South Side. “In those types of moments, you just know life’s short and the price of people’s life be low,” Barber says. “It takes nothing for somebody to take your life.”
Barber discovered glassblowing by chance. He was a 19-year-old attending his second high school, Little Black Pearl Art and Design Academy, trying to finish up the few credits he had left to graduate. Barber spent his free periods cooped up in the art room, mostly drawing. One day, a glassblowing teacher noticed one of Barber’s drawings of a jungle hanging in the school’s foyer. She tracked him down and suggested that he check out the glassblowing studio. Barber had no idea the school even had one. When he visited the shop, something in him lit up.
“Where I’m from, you don’t see things like that,” he says. “It was just amazing to me.”
When he got home, Barber searched for videos of glassblowing on YouTube. He fell in love with what he found. He had thought of glass as rigid, unyielding, sharp even, but he was fascinated by how malleable the medium actually is. While watching those videos, Barber noticed something else: all of the artists were white.
“I’m like, ain’t no Black people doing this?” Barber remembered. “Aw man, let me get into this ’cause I don’t see us doing this. That was really like my drive, too.”
For Thomas, the peace she finds at Firebird comes from the people who rally around her. “The people’s energy is great,” she says. “It’s like you don’t have to be too much.”
Antonio Wheeler, a trauma intervention specialist with Healing Hurt People, says collaborating on art helps people “gain the language to define what it is that they’ve been through.”
Glassblowing also provides a respite from Chicago’s ongoing trauma. “We have a lot of participants that have been shot more than once,” Wheeler said. “We have a lot of participants that still live in the same neighborhood, and they don’t feel safe. I think what [Project Fire] provides is that ongoing maintenance of being able to deal with that trauma.”
Although there’s limited research on the relationship between glassblowing and healing from trauma, Reyes says she has witnessed the positive effects the medium has on survivors.
“One symptom of PTSD is reliving the experience of trauma,” Reyes says. “All of a sudden, when you’re faced with 2,000-degree glass, you can’t focus on that anymore. It takes you out of that experience in a way that’s very helpful.”
Rochele Royster, an art therapist and former Chicago public school teacher, also sees how survivors can apply what they learn from the glassblowing process to their lives outside the studio. “Glass is so fragile, but it’s so powerful,” she says. “Sometimes you don’t know what you’re going to turn out with. Is it going to crack? Are you going to be able to fix it? Life is also amazing. It’s also powerful. It’s fragile. It breaks. And then you figure out what to do next, and you keep on going.”
On a winter afternoon, Barber walks around the studio, describing some of the work he’s completed. He holds up a figurine that has a smaller figure tucked in its arms, meant to represent his mother and him. Another piece has a pill in the middle of a long, outstretched tongue, symbolizing addiction.
Aside from the part-time job he works caring for his grandma, Barber spends most of his days in the studio. When asked about life outside glassblowing, he struggled to answer. He said he’s trying to find time for friends and dating. As a visiting artist and teacher, he’s been able to complete a longtime dream of traveling. On a recent trip to the Pilchuck Glass School in Stanwood, Washington, he got to make art on the side of a mountain. He’s still getting used to being one of the few Black people in these largely white spaces, but he tells himself that his talent is what opened up this new world for him.
“Glassblowing really helped me feel like a person with some type of value,” Barber says. “At first I was like, what am I here for? When I started doing glassblowing, it gave me a purpose.”
Barber recognizes the limitations of programs like Project Fire: while the studio might offer a few hours of solace for survivors, many of them still have to return to the same communities where they were injured. But he’d like to see other art-based violence prevention programs bloom around the city because he’s witnessed the positive impacts they’ve had.
He points to Thomas, who has also had the opportunity to travel the country through her art making. Another participant struggled with planning for his future when he joined the program. “He was like, ‘I don’t got no goal,’” Barber says. “‘I might die tomorrow, so I just gotta live my life currently.’ Over maybe three years of him saying that, now he’s actually thinking like, ‘alright, I probably will live two years from now, five years from now. Let me start planning some stuff out.’”
One of Barber’s favorite art pieces depicts a falcon. He spent hours perfecting the bird, engraving ridges into its wings, contouring its beak into a perfect curve. The piece eventually broke.
“Falcons fly at like 230 miles an hour — that’s just raw to me,” Barber says. “I read that when the storm comes, it doesn’t have to take shelter. It can fly over the storm. And I think … what this program actually is helping you do is fly over that storm that’s going on outside.”