By Ellen Thompson/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
BOX ELDER - "The next day is always Christmas," Thomas Marinkovich, Box Elder High School art teacher, said as students buzzed around him.
Ten students from a Conrad school visited Box Elder on Monday and Tuesday and learned from Marinkovich and his regular students how to blow glass. Utterback Middle School is the second school to visit the studio, one of only three glass-blowing facilities in the state.
If the next day is Christmas - the day the cooled glass can be handled and admired - from the look of it, the day before Christmas at the studio was the day Santa's helpers made the toys. Two annealing kilns blazed red hot while sixth-, seventh- and eighth- graders navigated the room holding 6-foot-long metal rods capped with molten glass. If the scene appeared precarious at first, the impression faded.
"It's highly controlled," Marinkovich said, as he leaned back and watched his students dance the dance he taught them.
"I was nervous to make the actual bubble," Utterback seventh-grader Jenny Silbernalb said. Their first day, the Utterback students made paperweights and roses, no blowing involved. Day two was vases, which requires glass blowing, and by the end of the day each student was on a second, third or fourth try, with many successes.
Utterback Middle School shop teacher Dan Brown observed eighth-grade student Cameron Rodriguez's excitement. "I thought yesterday he was going to have to walk sideways to keep from running" as he entered the studio, Brown said.
Box Elder students gave demonstrations before each project, and then they served as aides, watching.
"It's always good to watch. ... Even the pros watch," Darren Stump, a Box Elder 11th- grader, said.
Teamwork is an essential part of glass blowing.
"You can't see everything. You can't do everything," Marinkovich said.
The students place long steel rods - pontils - in the kiln to gather a first layer of molton glass on the tip. As they blow through the rods, a bubble forms.
The students cannot see their own progress. Stump, kneeling on the floor, lets them know when to stop blowing and take the glass back to the kiln to gather more molten glass on top of it. The process works something like a cotton candy machine.
Later, when the Utterback students began forming an opening to create a vase, they needed help again. As Stump helped one student, Box Elder senior Ventura Campbell explained what he was doing.
"When all the red gets out of the glass, then you're able to go back" to the kiln, she said.
The person who was creating the opening with tongs watched, but also listened.
Stump said he was listening for a tinkling sound, which means the glass has cooled too much. It has to be as hot as possible to be manipulated, he said.
Box Elder School got its glass studio last year after Marinkovich brokered a deal. Normally he would take 10 students to Dillon to do a glass workshop at the University of Montana-Western. He said that once all the costs were added up, it came to $5,000 a year. He forewent two years of glass workshops in exchange for the lab.
Box Elder Superintendent Robert Heppner said that helped, but that money for the glass studio, as well as a new shop - $400,000 -came from a federal grant.
"It's a unique feature that we've always wanted. And we've been lucky to have the resources to do it," he said. "It helps bridge the gap between us and other schools."
But for the first year they had the studio, Marinkovich wasn't around to enjoy it. An accident in a neighboring studio 18 months ago injured Marinkovich and kept him out of the classroom for more than a year. A propane tank exploded, just as he was going to shut it off. The blast sent Marinkovich across the room. He suffered multiple concussions, burns and broken bones and said he still feels the effects of the accident.
Two students were also injured, he said, though not as seriously. One was treated in Salt Lake City for burns.
"I love what I do," he said, explaining his return to the school.
The next school to visit the Box Elder studio will be Chester High School, which is trying to get its own glass studio.
"We'd like to turn the area of north-central Montana into its own little glass hub," Marinkovich said.
He said Box Elder School is one of only five K-12 schools with a glass studio west of the Mississippi River. Three are in Seattle and one is in New Mexico.
At Box Elder, Marinkovich said he has a lot of support from the administration.
"It's a proven fact that the art program keeps kids coming back daily," he said.
But intentions alone can't make money appear. Keeping the studio going is costly. The kilns have to burn around the clock and use up a gallon of propane an hour. Without a grant, he said, the studio will only run for the second half of next semester. Visiting students pay a $20 lab fee for two days, a fee he said helps but does not make up for the major costs.