A special message from Executive Director Dr. Kimberly Keith
It will come as no surprise to you that I think Hilltop Artists is a remarkable organization.
Since 1994 we’ve been committed to creating long-term positive change on the Hilltop.
Our mission to connect young people to better futures is infused in all we do (from teaching to grant writing to Outreach Services to participating in collaborative partnerships); and we uniquely combine Youth Development (developing social, emotional, ethical, physical, and intellectual competencies) with technical skill building in glass arts (hot glass blowing, flameworking, fusion, and mosaics).
But what makes Hilltop Artists so remarkable?
I think our “special sauce” is our staff, and how mentorship is cultivated and passed down from person to person.
Five of our nine teaching artists started as students in our program when they were in middle or high school.
And all five of them were trained by Greg Piercy, who has been with Hilltop Artists since its inception in the 90s. This tradition of students becoming teachers and mentors is at the heart of our work and mission.
I met with Tony Sorgenfrei and Trenton Quiocho, two of our instructors who are also alumni, and asked them to share their Hilltop history to give insight into how our special sauce is made.
Tony started as a Hilltop Artists student at Jason Lee Middle School when he was 14, and Greg was his first glass instructor. He continued building skills at Wilson High School with Patricia Davidson as his teacher (this is when I met Tony for the first time, as an intern at the Museum of Glass in 2002).
A little more than a year after graduation, Tony returned to Wilson to assist with daytime instruction and manage the After School Program. When he began teaching at Wilson, Trenton was a junior and had just started learning to work with glass.
Tony remembers his early experience teaching Trent (pictured as a young student, to the left).
“After every year teaching with kids, they recharge your battery. The excitement they have for the medium recharges your battery so you continuously have excitement for the medium. And Trent brought that in spades. He was so excited. It was awesome.”
Tony was impressed with Trent’s curiosity, enthusiasm, and drive to try new techniques.
And Trent appreciated that Tony never held him back. If Trent wanted to learn a new skill, Tony would always support him, no matter how big the challenge.
“Trent learned really fast. It was ridiculous. You would teach him, and you’d turn around and the next day, Trent would be teaching other students what I just taught him. By the end of his senior year, we were working on really complicated techniques, like [putting] Encalmo necks onto vases that were hella dialed. No student has done something that complex since.”
Trent thought back on his early experiences and connected them to his work today.
“Students have to meet you halfway in order to learn, and sometimes, if you’re lucky, they are ready to meet you all the way and you can share all your knowledge, and feed them everything. That’s how it was for me with Tony. I could go to him with a project, even ones that were way out of my league, and he would say, ‘alright, let’s try it.’ Tony was always open and willing to share his knowledge, and I was just really into the medium and excited to be there every day, because going into the hot shop and making stuff was the highlight of my day.”
“Me, and my brothers, and everyone we were blowing glass with were trying to learn as fast as possible and after you get exposed to Pilchuck Glass School, you come back and want to try everything,” Tony explained.
“Some teachers would tell us we would need to ‘walk before we could run, you’re not doing Zanfirico or Reticello,’” Tony said.
“And our response was, ‘No, we are, and you can just stand over there. You don’t have to help.’ And then we would do it, and we would fail and we would do it again. That’s what I went through and I’m not going to do that to students. I’m like, ‘let’s get in a spaceship before we walk. Let’s try to figure this out. We’ll mess up and try again. It’s going to be fun, we’re going to learn, regardless.’ That’s my teaching style.”
Trent took all the glass classes he could at Wilson, appreciating the time with the curriculum and the opportunity to continue to work with Tony.
For one class assignment, students wrote about the artists who inspired them. In Trent’s paper he noted famous glass artists, and he also included Tony as an important and influential artist in his life.
Trent followed a similar path to Tony’s: graduating, taking a year away from Hilltop to work at glass studios in Seattle, then returning to assist with Hilltop Artists’ advanced production students.
Tony and Trent continue to work as instructors for our After School and Team Production programs; Tony has been with us for 16 years and Trent for 8 years.
They were both instructors for the veterans in the Hot Shop Heroes program at the Museum of Glass, and they continue to support each other: Trent assisted Tony at his Museum of Glass residency in 2019, Tony will assist Trent in his residency next year (rescheduled from May 2020), and they are both excited about the idea of further collaboration.
Tony said of their collaboration, “It’s awesome, we have come full circle, where now Trent can help me with my art, and I can help him. It’s really cool.”
Trent and Tony are planning a collaborative demo for the Glass Art Society conference coming to Tacoma in 2021. “That’s going to be bad A,” Tony exclaimed, “two Tacoma cats, blowing during the GAS Conference. I don’t even care what we make, that will be a pinnacle for me.”
There is a lot of admiration and respect between these two. “Trent won’t get in the box” according to Tony, describing how Trent’s creativity and ethic inspire him.
“A lot of people will pick a lane, and they stay in that lane.” Tony continued. “This happens partially because of collectors. Collectors want you to make something consistently recognizable, but Trent won’t get in that lane. He’ll make goblets and cane for a year, and then drop it and make sculpture for a year. And then he’ll drop that and go do inside-out bubble sculpting for a year. He won’t pick a lane and that’s awesome. I admire that.”
“Tony’s work is amazing,” Trent responds, “and to me it is just kind of weird that Tony isn’t recognized for his work, and hasn’t had a big show. I’m surprised he’s not in more galleries and selling work, because he learned from some of the best. He was a kid, learning from Pino [Signoretto]. So a lot of that pure Muranese and Venetian style and technique, when it comes to sculpting, is in Tony’s work.” (If anyone is interested in exhibiting Tony’s work, let me know!)
This long-term relationship building, the sharing of skills and support, and commitment to craft have made Tony and Trent exceptional artists, lifelong friends and fishing buddies, and incredible instructors.
Relationships like theirs are woven throughout our staff and have led to an organization like no other I have experienced.
And your support is a part of this legacy – an essential secret sauce ingredient.
Please take a moment and make your year end donation to Hilltop Artists, and consider joining our Murrini Club and making your donation a monthly recurring gift.
Thank you for being a part of our Hilltop family. Your care and enthusiastic support has helped us to survive this challenging year, and has inspired all of us each day.
As Trent, Tony, and I wrapped up our conversation, I had to tell them:
“You two are really special. What you have done, coming up through the program, and teaching, and becoming artists; you are both remarkable. And what you do for students: you are changing the world one person at a time. Your stories excite me – this is the special sauce. What is the best of the best of what we do? You are examples of the best of what Hilltop Artists aspires to, and can, accomplish.”
And so are you.
Thank you for all you have done for Hilltop Artists and I wish you a safe, warm, and wonderful winter.
Dr. Kimberly F. Keith