Gets Real: Tacoma Art Museum celebrates work of Hilltop artists

TACOMA, Wash. — In a hot shop in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood, artists are being forged in glass.

The Hilltop Artists program was created for at-risk youth during a turbulent time in the Tacoma community.

Now the work of 21 alumni is on display at the Tacoma Art Museum, in a first-of-its-kind exhibit.

It reflects the vision of a legendary glass artist whose name you likely know.

They are unlikely artisans: teaching artist David Rios and hot shop production manager Trenton Quiocho, using heat and an artistic eye to train another generation of Tacoma students in the art of making glass.

“It’s to get kids from different cultural and economic backgrounds to better futures is the main goal,” said Quiocho.

One of those kids is 14-year-old Eddie Gibbons.

When asked what they like about working glass, they said, “like almost everything about it. Yeah, my favorite thing has to be the people though, being able to work with everybody.”

Fourteen-year-old Destiny Celing found her way there, too.

“I don’t know a lot people (who) can say, ‘Oh, I’ve dealt with hot glass while it was still melted and moving,’” Celing said. “It’s crazy.”

Indeed, it must have seemed crazy back in 1994.

With Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood in the grip of rampant gang violence, world-famous glass artist, Dale Chihuly, Tacoma’s native son, co-founded a creative outlet for kids, a space to create glass as an alternative to gang life.

Thus, the Hilltop Artists was born.

“I got involved in 2005,” said Quiocho. “I was 15 at the time.”

It has become his life.

“I was really intrigued by the material,” said Quiocho. “And I gravitated toward it and kind of just never stopped.”

For Rios, it was love at first sight.

“And I can already tell which will be the tail end,” he told the students, “just because of the way it’s kind of spitting out right now.”

He was in sixth grade.

“Now I have the honor and blessing to be on the other side and keep encouraging them to explore this silly idea that we don’t know where it started,” said Rios. “But we know that it’s a voice for the student at the end. And it’s become a voice for you. Yeah, absolutely.”

Some 27 years after Hilltop Artists began, his and the works of art of 20 other alumni, are now on vivid display at the Tacoma Art Museum.

His pieces are an homage to his heritage.

“It’s a perfect representation of who I am being Mexican-American and trying to fit in between these two cultures,” said Rios.

Quiocho curated the show, including his work, too.

“My own grouping of these Filipino fish traps,” said Quiocho. “It has to do with my Filipino heritage and identity. But also there’s a lot of Venetian influence if you look at the patterns and the techniques that I use.”

The people at Hilltop Artists aren’t expecting everyone’s work to end up at a major art museum, but what they will take with them are the life lessons forged in glass.

There is plenty of time to see their work in person.

“GATHER: 27 years of Hilltop Artists” will be on display at the Tacoma Art Museum through September 4.