“If it wasn’t for glass, I don’t think I’d be alive.”
Those are the words of Clare Shepherd, a retired Army transportation logistics officer and now instructor of a glass fusing workshop, dubbed Veterans Glass Studio, at Maryland Hall in Annapolis.
The free workshop for veterans and servicemembers is designed to teach the fundamentals of glass fusing and offers those who have donned the uniform a haven to explore artistic expression.
“I have PTSD, and I struggle with it all the time,” Shepherd said. “Relating to people my own age is hard.”
She has no trouble relating to fellow vets — even more so if glass is involved. Shepherd initially tried some pottery classes at the Bethesda, Maryland-based Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, but she was seeking more vibrancy than the earthen colors that medium provided. Once she found glass, she didn’t look back and embraced the heightened challenges that working the new material afforded her.
Amongst the sounds of breaking glass and military memories being shared, Shepherd could also be heard giving advice or nudges of recommendations as the Edgewater resident strolled the workshop, appearing as comfortable in civilian clothes commanding a room as she once was when she was the recipient of salutes.
Shepherd doesn’t only instruct fellow veterans on the art of glass fusing, but she also was instrumental in bringing the monthly workshop to the building that used to house Annapolis High School until 1979.
“I always wanted to offer a class to veterans to give back,” Shepherd said.
By sharing her story of trauma in the military, Shepherd helped Maryland Hall secure a $10,000 grant through the Creative Forces Community Engagement Grant program. The program is part of the National Endowment for the Arts’ Creative Forces initiative, and this grant program aims to improve the health, well-being, and quality of life for military and veteran populations exposed to trauma, as well as their families and caregivers, through experiences of art.
Arnold resident Susie Cooper is a retired Marine Corps major who spent more than 21 years serving her country. She now works as a therapist. It’s no surprise that Cooper was able to push to have her thesis topic at the Naval Post Graduate School switched from what the Marines wanted her to do, Russian weaponry, to what she wanted to do, operational stress control and rehabilitation.
“I believe in doing exercises in meditation, catharsis, experimental things to get out of my head,” Cooper said. “As military, there were extra things that kind of invade our brains, experiences outside of the civilian norm, and anything that is a nervous system reliever to me is super important as a self-care.”
Cooper was so impressed with Maryland Hall’s initial workshop offering in July that she did it again in August. That’s no small feat to garner the attention of the San Jose, California, native, who has stood on the summit of Mount Fuji in Japan, strolled in Siberia during the height of the Cold War, participated in an international cold-weather military exercise in Norway and lived in Israel for four years.
During the workshop, participants have multiple styles and colors of Bullseye Glass material to use when making a decorative dish. Shepherd pointed out that striving to create something abstract is an easier undertaking for a beginner than to create a more literal design. As students began by preparing borders, making it easier to cut glass to fill in, rulers came out for measurements, and the snaps of glass breaking filled the air of the workshop.
The August participants created a variety of pieces from a flamingo to abstract. Some had a plan going in, others were winging it. But for two hours, the veterans in attendance were able to get lost in camaraderie while creating art with glass.
For Cooper, she didn’t have a plan, but her head was filled with anxiety.
“This is what we’re letting go, this idea that you have to be perfect, and I worked through that,” Cooper said. “I deserve to have fun, let me chill the F out, and then I shifted to that.”
Once students finish a piece, the creation is fired in a kiln and then put in a mold to shape it like a dish where the art can be picked up in the following days.
Both Shepherd and Cooper stressed that not only does glass fusing offer a multisensory experience but doing an art activity surrounded by people with a common bond, such as the military, provides something classes for the general public can’t offer.
“I think we experience what I call tolerance fatigue,” Cooper said. “We are bombarded with so much extra and so the tolerance and fatigue has us tired, and we’re even more tired when we anticipate a conversation with somebody who won’t understand where we’re coming from.”
Shepherd estimated that each class consists of a $115 value for the veteran. But the opportunity to work with a medium like glass, which not everybody has access to, and the ability to try something they may never would have, are points Shepherd is big on.
“I love it, and I want them to love it too,” Shepherd said. “Glass is like yoga for my brain without having to do anything physical.”
Cooper noted that the mindfulness aspect of the workshop allows participants to be in the moment, channeling one of her sayings at work — present over perfect.
“I think we were getting all our senses filled in a safe environment, with the fun factor, because we all knew we were either doing this for fun or self-care,” Cooper said.
Shepherd looks forward to welcoming new faces to future workshops. The current grant provides resources to provide the free monthly workshop through July 2024.
“I love watching new students try something because they’re less inhibitive,” Shepherd said.
More information is available at www.marylandhall.org/classes/fall-2023-glass-fusing-classes. Class sizes are limited to 12 participants each month.