“From the ashes, a fire shall be woken, a light from the shadows shall spring…” — J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring.
Who could have imagined the reincarnation of Tolkien’s magical landscape and fantastical middle earth as a living and breathing beacon of hope inside the walls of Chicago’s Firebird Community Arts (FCA)? Like the great symbol of a firebird representing the human soul and the cycle of rebirth, this glassblowing and ceramic arts studio transforms the lives of victims rising from the ashes of pain, poverty, and gun violence.
Pearl Dick is the Artistic Director at FCA, located in East Garfield Park and serving neighborhoods in the South and West Sides. She uses her unique artistry and leadership to steward FCA’s two phoenix-like programs in the West and South. Project FIRE, the flagship program, focuses on participants who have been shot and traumatized by gun violence.
Pearl helped co-found the program in 2014 with Brad Stolbach and relaunched it in 2015. It currently serves 26 young men and 8 women, with a waitlist of other needy 14-21 year-olds. Each student enrolled in the FIRE program benefits from mandatory, intensive trauma and psychological training programs that are an integral part of the glassblowing sessions.
The other programs at FCA fall under the Healing Wellness umbrella group and focus on veterans, cancer survivors, formerly incarcerated individuals, undocumented and immigrant populations, and teenagers. The same basic philosophy and approach to healing are manifest in every arts and glassblowing program which sees art as a healing lens for teaching a trauma-informed way of living. Phrases like “empathetic approach” and “regenerating growth” speak to cultivating wellbeing and reimagining futures. FCA also partners with many organizations in Chicago and is, for example, a popular program choice for high schoolers enrolled in Chicago’s popular After School Matters.
As someone who taught high school and lost a son to gun violence, I was especially interested in Project FIRE and Pearl’s visionary leadership. While driving back to Ohio to visit family, Pearl shared the compelling practices and outcomes of FCA with me, as well as some of the emotional stories of transformation. She emphasized the close work done with clinical psychologists and caseworkers, and an added youth worker who forges a personal connection with the students while gaining valuable leadership tools.
It’s obvious, however, as I talk with Pearl, that the vision and mission of FBA thrive as much because of her overwhelming personal commitment to every student and the creative space for her joyful art. Turns out, Pearl has been a glassblower for 25 years. Born in Toledo, Ohio, an area steeped in a rich history of glass art, Pearl discovered her passion for glass at Alfred University in New York City.
Her initial interest in painting and drawing took a back seat to glassblowing the moment Pearl she discovered its meditative process. The art is, at once, both fragile and perfect. Only 1% of artists choose glassblowing because it is expensive and exclusive when you consider additional necessary costs like electricity, a large space, the baking oven, and glass blowing equipment and materials. The FCA space is
There is a unique risk factor in the art that implicitly connects victims of gun violence to it. What’s special, according to Pearl are “four fundamental aspects of someone’s life that are disrupted when they have experienced acute or sustained trauma.” The fear of safety, the emotional trauma, the loss from injury, and a limited sense of future all require special healing.
Project FIRE utilizes 4,000 square feet of space, which Pearl hopes to double in two years. While students never want to leave the program, FCA and mentors like Pearl stay in touch. Additional programs to help students to cope with housing, education, and employment also exist, like the partnership with Harold Washington College. This network of programs feeds into what Pearl hopes will become a self-sustaining model within the larger community for healing and growth.
The greatest love for Pearl is the relationships forged and watching the personally rewarding and impactful work. “Nothing makes me happier, no matter how tiring the day is when I see how we can all lift each other up,” says Pearl. When asked about stories of kids who have really affected the energy she brings to her work, Pearl speaks of a 14-year-old teenager shot three times having lived on the streets since the age of 12.
“These kids have experienced so much trauma and anger towards the world – but, hey, who wouldn’t be angry? Pearl adds. “This one student is funny, creative, honest – in fact, the most honest and amazing people I’ve ever met.” Pearl says he’s a teacher at the school now and managing the production team. “He’s so eager to give back that he’s the first one in to the studio and the last one to leave every day.”
In a pilot program initiated last year, FCA received funds to do a program that helped teenage mothers like one young woman that Pearl says is one of the most talented artists yet to come through the program. “She didn’t speak for a year despite being a natural leader. Her sense of self-sufficiency and emotional intelligence is astounding. I think it’s related to the challenging circumstances early in life, and the trauma, these kids face.”
The Firebird Community Arts program needs funding for youth employment programs, and living expenses like housing, scholarships, transportation funds for kids to get to the FCA center. I can’t help but think of the impact each of us can make by donating to programs like FCA that heal and prevent the need for more costly, long-term government programs from incarceration to drug addiction and medical interventions.
Pearl has devoted her life to glassblowing and the art of healing young hearts and minds. There’s a beautiful symmetry to the ancient work of glassblowing and Pearl’s work with underserved and under-resourced youth. The transparent and transformational art of glassblowing that happens with careful attention to every detail, is a great equalizer in a world rife with social challenges and hardened hearts. Thank you to Pearl and all those involved in the joyfully creative and empowering program. And to our readers, let’s help these kids spread their scarlet-singed wings and take flight with renewed plums of gold.