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Tacoma Art Museum exhibit celebrates grassroots program that turns at risk students into artists

21 Hilltop Artists alumni are showcased in the museum's colorful exhibit. #k5evening

TACOMA, Wash. — At the Tacoma Art Museum exhibit, Gather: 27 Years of Hilltop Artists, there are works made entirely of glass, colorful paintings that celebrate heritage, even sculptures made with neon.

What could they, and these artists we met at the exhibit, all possibly have in common?

 "The common thread here is that all of us came up from Tacoma," said curator Trenton Quiocho. "And we all went through the Hilltop Artists program."

Co-founded in 1994 by Tacoma's Dale Chihuly, the most famous glass artist of our time, the program's original purpose was to keep at-risk kids from dropping out of school.

"It's probably the only youth program in the country, if not the world, that uses glass art to connect with youth," Quiocho said.

Over the years some of those youth have grown up to be full-fledged artists. David Rios was 13 when he joined the program. At the exhibit you'll see an ofrenda, an offering, he created to remember friends and family members who've recently passed away.

"This piece really brought me to a place where I am a lot better mentally," Rios said. "It brought me hope."

Rios works at the Museum of Glass and teaches at Hilltop.

"I always tell my students to have confidence with every step that you take," he said.

Emily Martin dedicated a piece called "Lola's Rosary" to her mother. She has been creating glass art since she was 11.

"What I love about working with glass is that it's alive," Martin said. "I can manipulate it. I can move it. It bends the way that I want it to bend. And nothing is one in the same."

Credit: KING TV
Hilltop Artists Program alumni discuss a work at the exhibit Gather: 27 Years of Hilltop Artists.

Quiocho joined the Hilltop Artists program as a student in high school and has been teaching there since 2013.

"Once I worked with the material I was highly addicted to it," he said. "I could not get enough of it. And it led me to where I am at today."

He's been an artist in residence at the Museum Of Glass where he made these pieces called "Trapped."

"I'm paying homage to my Filipino heritage," Quiocho said. "And then I am using these very Venetian techniques to create these patterns.

Credit: KING TV
Mindfulness Totems is a piece Douglas Jan Burgess II made with his mother.

Every piece in the exhibit represents hundreds of kids who've had a chance to forge a new path in 21-hundred degree heat. They may not all be artists, but they've all had an opportunity to create.

"I think the beauty of Hilltop is that it empowers everyone," Rios said. "That we are artists, that you are special and that you are important."

"Gather: 27 Years of Hilltop Artists" runs through September 4, 2022 at the Tacoma Art Museum.

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