The art of glassblowing is, by necessity, one that bestows its practitioners near-constant lessons in patience and persistence. It takes a decade to learn all the steps by heart, glassblowing teacher N’Kosi Barber told The Trace — and even then, at the end of the day, a piece is still delicate. Glass is always liable to shatter.

Barber works at Firebird Community Arts, a nonprofit studio on Chicago’s West Side, and manages the studio’s Project Fire, a trauma recovery program for young victims of gun violence. Project Fire, a collaboration between the studio and a local hospital-based violence intervention program, draws on principles of art therapy to help survivors overcome their trauma, providing them with mentorship, community, and a supportive space. The craft of glassblowing is itself a study in resilience. Students may spend hours on a piece, only for it to break into a thousand shards — but then, it’s back to work on the next one. It’s practice, says Firebird’s executive director, for “when you experience loss, and have to let go.” 

The Trace’s Justin Agrelo, in collaboration with Stranger’s Guide, profiled Firebird for his latest feature. I spoke with Agrelo about the reporting process and what makes the studio unique in Chicago. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Sunny Sone: How did you find out about Firebird, and what made you want to pursue this story?

Justin Agrelo: I learned about Firebird through my engagement work last year. In my role, I often speak with people working in the violence prevention space to learn more about how The Trace’s coverage can better serve community needs. I was interested in telling this story because I personally had no idea that healing could look like this. 

In this contemporary era of social media and #SelfCare, we’re often fed very specific images of what healing looks like — that it happens on a couch in a therapist’s office, or in a quiet room filled with candles. Healing is often marketed, and commodified, as a very individual experience. What was interesting to me about Firebird is that they sort of reject those ideals. I think at the heart of their work is this recognition that healing is just as much a communal process as it is an individual one, if not more so. And that healing can happen in many different spaces — even a glassblowing studio — so long as you have the right people and structures in place to support you. 

It seems like you spent a lot of time in the studio with this program. Were there any experiences you wish had made it into the story? (And did you do any glassblowing yourself?)

I had the chance to see Chiontea, one of the Project Fire participants in the story, make her signature dolphins. It was mesmerizing to watch her sit at this worktable, with a blowtorch just inches away from her face, turning this blob of glass into a structured piece with a beak and fins and everything. I kind of got to experience the meditative benefits of glassblowing just by watching her. Because you’re so enthralled by the flame and the artmaking, you sort of forget what’s happening around you. 

Unfortunately, I don’t know much glassblowing outside of the basic steps — and what not to touch in a studio. I actually burned myself after picking up a piece of glass from the ground that I thought was cold but was scorching hot. N’Kosi, the main teacher in the story, gave me some burn cream, which helped. After that, I was too afraid to touch anything, so I kind of just walked around with my arms glued to my side.

One thing that struck me about your description of the studio was this idea that it functions as a kind of dual sanctuary, a refuge from the outside world as well as a safe space for creation. How did this idea of sanctuary play into your reporting?

In Chicago, there have been some recent conversations about how there aren’t many “third” spaces for people to just be amongst one another in a safe place that isn’t heavily policed or that requires money. That feels especially true for the young people I’ve spoken with throughout my time at The Trace. The previous mayor took steps to keep teenagers out of public spaces last summer, with changes to Chicago’s curfew law after a 16-year-old was shot and killed downtown. All of that was under the guise of “public safety,” but it’s actually very alienating and frustrating for young people who love their city and want to enjoy living here. 

In some ways, organizations like Firebird help fill gaps in infrastructure and public policy. Oftentimes, I’d visit the space and no one would be blowing glass. For some folks, it was their off day, and they were there just to hang out and listen to music. I think that says a lot about the kind of city Chicago is for many people, especially Black and brown people. It wasn’t lost on me that many of the Project Fire participants who visit the space in their free time are also from parts of the city that have been systematically disinvested in. 

I think it speaks to this larger need for Black and brown Chicagoans to have access to more spaces where they feel welcomed, safe, and supported — and can show up fully as themselves without being expected of much in return.

Sign up for our Chicago newsletter to keep up with Agrelo’s community engagement work.

From Our Team

Chicago Gun Violence Survivors Find Solace in Glassblowing

N’Kosi Barber lost a friend to gun violence. He’s helping others who have endured similar losses move on through the craft of glassblowing.

How Minnesota Became the Surprising Success Story of Gun Reform

After a sweeping electoral victory, state Democrats seized “a once-in-a-generation opportunity” to reimagine gun violence prevention.

What to Know This Week

A U.S. District Court judge issued a nationwide block against a new ATF rule restricting the sale of “weapon parts” and kits used to assemble ghost guns. [Mark Joseph Stern via Twitter/U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas] Context: Ghost guns are homemade, untraceable firearms that have been used in a number of mass shootings, as well as high-profile shootouts with police.

Philadelphia is suing two firearms manufacturers, Polymer80 and JSD Supply, alleging that the companies “intentionally undermine” state and federal laws by selling gun components and assembly kits without conducting background checks. Mayor Jim Kenney announced the lawsuit after police said ghost guns were used to carry out one of the deadliest mass shootings in city history earlier this week. [WHYY

Independence Day is the most dangerous day of the year for mass shootings, according to recent analyses of Gun Violence Archive data. This year, there were at least six mass shootings on July 4 alone, and more than a dozen over the extended holiday weekend. [USA TODAY/CNN/NBC]

The number of “clear and present danger” reports, or warnings that someone might be too dangerous to be granted a gun license, sent to Illinois State Police more than doubled in the year following the mass shooting at a Fourth of July parade in Highland Park. Use of the state’s red flag law also spiked. [Chicago Tribune

The same day that former President Donald Trump publicly posted to social media what he claimed was the home address of former President Barack Obama, a January 6 insurrectionist armed with guns and hundreds of rounds of ammunition was arrested near Obama’s property. [Associated Press]  

How can adults protect children from gun deaths? Pediatrician and violence prevention scholar Dorothy R. Novick argues that teaching people about safe firearm storage, rather than focusing on divisive politics, is a promising strategy. [The Washington Post

Teenagers who are exposed to various forms of violence — including violence that does not involve a firearm — are more likely to carry a gun than those who have not witnessed violence, a new University of Michigan study found. [Detroit Free Press

Mass shootings upend every part of survivors’ lives. In addition to staggering medical bills, PTSD, and grief, seemingly minor activities like walking a dog or going to the movies become colossal challenges. [Associated Press]

In Memoriam

Revell Andrews, 18, was a gifted sousaphonist, a straight-A student, and “one of the best children to ever be a child,” Katy Reckdahl wrote in a tribute for The Lens. When he landed a summer work placement at a local theater in New Orleans, Andrews wasn’t an actor — but staff members immediately recognized that he had the stage presence for the job. Andrews was on his way home from a theater class when he was shot and killed last month. A recent high school graduate, he had just made a last-minute plan to attend Southern University in Baton Rouge. His friends and family said he was kind when others were harsh, “an old man in a young man’s body” who could still crack jokes with the best of them. “Revell was a magnet that drew everyone to us,” Reckdahl wrote. He was “the picture of potential.”

We Recommend

After the Police Kill Your Loved One, Who Can You Lean On?: “Although police brutality has long beset communities of color, it’s only within the past decade, she says, that victims’ family members have teamed up like this on the front lines, offering each other the care that no one else can. … Together, Austin and Blake hope to help families get the national attention they deserve without speaking over them: to listen to each person’s needs and be a sounding board as they navigate situations that often lack a clear path forward.” [Mother Jones]

Pull Quote

“There is a lot of focus on the people that are killed. And I’m grateful for that. … The downfall is the rest of us are still suffering.”

— Ashtin Gamblin, who was wounded in the mass shooting at a queer nightclub in Colorado Springs last November, on the aftermath of the attack, to the Associated Press