Artists, Visitors Find Inspiration at the Pittsburgh Glass Center


The Pittsburgh Glass Center (PGC) has been part of the Pittsburgh art and education scene for more than 20 years. It not only provides educational classes and workshops in various glass arts, but offers a place for local glass artists to teach and showcase their work and provides a wonderful shopping opportunity for those looking to purchase local glass artwork.


Heather McElwee

Recently, PGC experienced a bump in notoriety when the center’s Randi & L. Van V. Dauler, Jr. Executive Director Heather McElwee appeared as a guest judge on season two of the Netflix reality TV show, Blown Away. To add to the excitement, in season three, PGC’s instructor John Sharvin appeared as a contestant and Chris Clarke, director of operations, appeared as a guest judge.


To learn more about PGC and their new claim to fame, we spoke with McElwee about the nonprofit’s mission, history, educational programming and more.


North Hills Monthly (NHM): What is the mission of the Pittsburgh Glass Center?


Heather McElwee (McElwee): Our motto is: “Glass Art: We teach it. We create it. We promote it. We support those who make it.” Pittsburgh Glass Center cultivates an inclusive and welcoming environment that encourages everyone, from the casually curious to the master artist, to learn, create, and be inspired by glass. We share our passion for glass locally and globally to advance a more diverse, vibrant and accessible glass art community.


NHM: Can you share a little background about the organization?


McElwee: PGC was founded by local glass artists Kathleen Mulcahy and the late Ron Desmett, who shared a vision to create an innovative glass art center that would cultivate community, foster economic growth, and thereby change the city. Over the past 20 years, we have grown to be one of the premiere glass facilities in the U.S, a vibrant contributor to Pittsburgh’s thriving cultural landscape, and an integral member of the East End neighborhood.


Our state-of-the-art facility and talented staff and instructors have attracted more than 400,000 people to view our exhibitions, take classes or workshops, or rent our studios and equipment. We have also hosted over 150 artists-in-residence to work and teach in our studios. Additionally, over 50 glass artists have relocated to Pittsburgh.


NHM: Did the glass industry play much of a part in the city before?


McElwee: Pittsburgh was famous for glass before steel. It was known as “America’s Glass City.” The city’s strategic location on an inland river system made it an ideal location for the manufacturing of this fragile product. In 1902, there were over 150 glass factories in the tri-state region. By 1920, this area produced 80 percent of the glass in the United States. Pittsburgh-produced glass has been used as fine tableware for U.S. presidents, as tiles for the walls of New York City’s great tunnels, as searchlights at the Panama Canal, and in streetlights and lamps around the world.


NHM: Who comes to the PGC and why?


McElwee: We serve a wide range of people from the casual observer in our gallery, to a first-time glass student in one of our Make-It-Now sessions, to established glass artists with our summer intensives and artist residencies. PGC truly offers something for everyone.


NHM: Tell me about your types of programming.


McElwee: We have a variety of avenues for learning. Our classes range from short, 20-minute experiences to eight-week classes. A fully operational year typically includes more than 350 classes and workshops. Advanced students and professional glass artists can rent studio space to produce art and refine techniques. This access to PGC’s equipment facilitates the production and development of glass art in the Pittsburgh region.


We also offer exhibitions and residencies; the Hodge Gallery at PGC typically presents three exhibitions each year showcasing the work of local, national, and international glass and mixed media artists. It is always free and open to the public. PGC also reaches out to the community in a variety of ways, including ten free monthly public events (Hot Jams) each year that feature glassblowing and flameworking demonstrations; free public lectures that coincide with artist residencies; and tours and demonstrations in the studios that are offered throughout the year. PGC’s mobile unit, Hot Wheels, takes glassblowing demonstrations to large events around the region as well as under-resourced communities who may not be able to come to PGC.


We also offer a teen program (SiO2) that introduces the science and art of hot glass to middle and high school students in the region through afterschool classes, tours, and hands-on activities. Scholarships and subsidized opportunities are available for under-resourced students and schools.


NHM: You and one of your instructors were involved in Blown Away. How did that come about?


McElwee: The Netflix TV show Blown Away’s first season came out in the summer of 2019. Everyone at PGC was impressed with the quality of the production and the talent the show attracted. We also loved that the show did a great job of explaining the glassmaking process and showing how difficult it can be when pieces fall to the floor and break.


Season 2 went into production in early 2020, right before the pandemic, and I was invited to be a guest judge. I went and filmed that episode right before everything shut down for COVID. The show was able to wrap all the filming and they spend the rest of 2020 editing. The second season launched in January 2021, and PGC saw a 1,000 percent increase in our website traffic the weekend of the launch. Sadly, at the time we were not offering glassblowing classes due to the pandemic.


Last summer, another call went out for contestants for Season 3. One of our staff members/instructors, John Sharvin, told me he was interested in applying and asked for the time off to go film if he was accepted. We didn’t know how long he would be gone. When he came back, we had no idea how he did—was he eliminated first or did he make it all the way? We had to wait until the show was released this July to find out along with everyone else!


In addition, another PGC staff member, Director of Operations Chris Clarke, appeared as a guest judge on episode three. We are thrilled that this fall all of our glassblowing classes are running again, and that anyone who wants to learn to blow glass after watching the show can sign up for a class or workshop.


NHM: How can the public get involved other than taking classes and workshops?


McElwee: PGC is free and open to the public and we encourage people to stop in check out our gallery, take our self-guided tour, and learn more about glassmaking by watching live demonstrations. At our store, we sell a wide variety of handmade glass from local artists at all price points.


Since we are a nonprofit, we certainly encourage donations as they allow us to be free and open to the public instead of charging an admission fee. In addition, PGC sells Glass-To-Go kits that allow anyone to create stained glass, glass mosaic, and glass steppingstone kits at home.


NHM: Is there anything else you want the public to know about the PGC?


McElwee: The public is welcome during any of our open hours, and chances are you can see live glassmaking when you stop in. No appointment is needed. On September 1, we launched a new, digital guide on Bloomberg Connects at https://www.bloombergconnects.org. The app is available for download from Google Play or the App Store and makes Pittsburgh Glass Center accessible for anyone from around the world for either onsite or offsite visits through photo, audio, and video features offering insights into the science, art, and history of glass in Pittsburgh.


To learn more about the Pittsburgh Glass Center, visit www.pittsburghglasscenter.org.

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