Firebird Community Arts rises from the ashesBrianna Wellenon May 19, 2020 at 7:30 pm

Fire can heal. It’s an idea that has been the center of ArtReach’s practice since the introduction of Project Fire in 2015, its flagship glassblowing program focused on serving young Chicagoans dealing with violence-related trauma. Since 1990, ArtReach has existed in one form or another to connect traumatized communities in the city to arts education and practices. Now, in its 30th year, the Garfield Park-based organization is changing its name to Firebird Community Arts and focusing further on the flame.

“The new name, Firebird, is in relation to phoenixes, that through fire recreate and renew themselves,” says executive director Karen Benita Reyes. “Both the art forms that we use in our studio, glassblowing and ceramics, require fire and extreme heat, but also we’re using them as a way for people to renew and reimagine themselves and their communities.”

While the rebirth and renaming were originally slated to be announced at the organization’s spring fundraiser, the group was forced to pivot due to COVID-19 and instead reintroduced themselves to the world through a week of virtual events, including a glassblowing demo with artistic director and master glassblower Pearl Dick, drawing workshops with teaching artists, guided yoga and meditation sessions, and more. In addition to those public-facing programs, Firebird has continued and increased virtual trauma psychoeducation group sessions for the young people who were already participating in the programs in person.

A typical Project Fire program starts with a three-hour glassblowing session followed by an hour of a trauma support group. “If we walked in and were like, tell us what happened to you and how you process it, people would clam up and be like get out of my face. Whereas after they’ve been through all this trust building and team building and working nonverbally in this space, all of a sudden they sit down and feel a sort of comfort with each other and are ready to talk,” Reyes says. She’s found the glassblowing to be particularly beneficial to folks with symptoms of PTSD because it demands full attention–not only is there the immediate danger of burning yourself or shattering glass, but there’s a glowing orb of molten lava holding focus. Ceramics work is similarly hypnotic, but in a more calming, tactile way. Reyes says they use that form particularly with people who have language difficulties and with communities that are blind and vision impaired. Final pieces for both art forms are forged in fire, and throughout the process folks are able to connect with others, face their traumas, and participate in a creative experience typically only available to rich, white communities.

Of course, some things have changed during the pandemic–it’s not possible to send everyone home with a torch for glassblowing, especially if they’re not properly trained, and there’s limited capacity for pickups and drop-offs to the kiln for ceramic projects. But Firebird’s core values have remained. Maintaining a community around open communication and discussion about dealing with trauma is at the top of that list. Reyes says she’s found their young participants are more involved than ever in those sessions. And Firebird’s employment program is still fully funded through the end of the year. That means that teaching artists and youth participants in trauma psychoeducation group sessions are still being paid for their time.

Reyes says she’s been blown away by the discussions the Firebird teens have been having in the past two months, talking about the deep emotional processing they’re having to deal with. Until they can return to the studio again, she’s taking in the wisdom of the communities she serves. “Unfortunately a lot of the young people who we deal with are really way too accustomed to having the outside world be dangerous to them,” Reyes says. “And that ranges from contact with police to street violence, so having physical confinement to a place to be safe and having to limit one’s movements based on that is not new to these folks. So in that way, I’ve been talking to people a lot about how they’re the experts we need in how to handle trauma in isolation right now.” v

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