By: Brad Copping
Sheila Mahut began teaching glass around the time I started as a student at Sheridan. She was part of a cadre of instructors who made the experience of falling in love with glass a pivotal time in my life. Living near Haliburton, Ontario, I have had the good fortune to continue to connect with Sheila on a regular basis and as part of Contemporary Canadian Glass’s focus on education we recently took the opportunity to discuss her career as a teacher and a maker.
Contemporary Canadian Glass (CCG): I was thinking we could start with a bit of background for those you may not know you. Where and when did you begin working with glass?
Sheila Mahut (SM): I started working with glass as a student at Sheridan College’s School of Craft and Design in 1980. I was 19 years old. After graduating from Sheridan I went on to get a BFA in Sculpture (Glass) from Illinois State University in 1987. I worked as a self-employed glass artist full time until 1995 when the birth of my second child made family life a priority. From 1995 to the present I have pursued a career in glass that has been more focused on teaching than making objects.
CCG: How did you get started in your teaching career?
SM: I started teaching in the summer glass blowing courses offered at Sheridan in 1985. After getting my degree I returned to Toronto and taught in the Glass Diploma Program at Sheridan from 1988 to 2003. I was a glassblowing instructor for the first four years then became the kilncasting teacher after Peter Koegh left Sheridan. I developed the kilncasting program for the remainder of my tenure. I also taught three kilncasting courses at The Corning Studio.
The most recent long-term teaching I have done is in the certificate Glass Blowing Program at the Haliburton Campus of Sir Sandford Fleming College. I was part of the committee that wrote the curriculum and developed the 15-week intensive certificate program in Haliburton. The glassblowing class has been running for nine years and I have been teaching there since the beginning.
CCG: Was there someone or some event that was influential in your teaching and making?
SM: I got started in teaching by the good old “right place at the right time”. Once I got started I was hooked. I loved the excitement, the energy of people getting together, and making the creative process come alive. Daniel Crichton, the Studio Master at Sheridan College, actually hired me in 1985 and I would like to thank him for giving me the latitude and time to grow as a teacher under his light touch. He really let his teachers take the lead and find their own way.
So many people have influenced my teaching and making over the years. Jeff Goodman, for his pursuit of excellence by taking risk and challenge to a level beyond my comfort zone. Kevin Lockau, for his “don’t forget to throw your students or audience a curve ball”. Laura Donefer, because of her infectious enthusiasm and let it all hang out style. My husband, Larry Glatt, for endless hours of conversation about the fine art of really listening to someone. Catherine Hibbits taught me about flexibility and the sheer delight of discovery and experimentation. Every one of my students over the years, because they all have something unique to show me, whether it is about patience, an inspiring mistake, problem solving, or a different way of seeing.
In my glass making I have worked collaboratively with three different artists, Jeff Goodman, Deborah Cardinal-Ryason and Tanya Zaryski. This aspect of making glass was one the most memorable for me. I found combining two peoples views, styles and approaches to be so much greater a creative experience than working alone.
CCG: Has it always been glass-related or have you taught other things as well?
SM: It has primarily been glass-related.
CCG: How has your motivations to teach changed over the years?
SM: My motivation to teach has deepened over the years as I made the gradual shift from making work for the market place to primarily teaching. I now look at teaching as an opportunity to share with others the profound experience of creativity; to mold and change a material with intention, inspiration and experimental abandon. Yup, it doesn’t get much better than that!
CCG: In what ways has your teaching influenced your making? Has your making influenced your teaching?
SM: My making has often been informed by my teaching. In order to teach a certain technique or answer a technical question I would have to try all the ideas out myself first. So I would learn many new things. It is as if I have a box of infinite possibilities that I can extract from when I have an idea to make something. The students also provide a constant stream of wonderful mistakes that inspire me. I have a mercurial approach to making and this has been quite good for teaching. I have worked collaboratively and as a production blower. I cast glass in the kiln and in sand. I’ve mold-blown pieces. Shaped pieces that are symmetrical and others asymmetrically. I am an experimentation junky.
CCG: I know that your husband Larry is also a teacher and his involvement in Waldorf Schools has lead you to live in upper New York State, and that both your sons have gone through this program. Can you reflect on this school system and what it has meant to your own approaches to teaching or making?
SM: I moved to the upper Hudson Valley in 2004. My husband took a job as the music teacher at the Hawthorne Valley Waldorf School. Both my sons Ben and Ezra have gone through this alternative education from kindergarten to 12th grade. Waldorf education is about many things. It was the brainchild of Rudolf Steiner who created a school for the children of the workers of the Waldorf cigarette factory during post WW1 Germany.
Rudolf Steiner wanted to create an educational model that would help form a society in which World Wars would not happen. The Nazis eventually shut down his school, but his ideas had taken root and today Waldorf schools are the fastest growing private schools in the world.
Fundamentally Waldorf pedagogy is age-appropriate education delivered in a way that integrates the arts, the sciences, the heart and the intellect. The Association of Waldorf Schools of North America has a website you can visit if you want an official quote.
My approach to teaching has been informed by my children’s excellent education. I see the way integrating the notion of educating the whole person is vital to communicating information and ideas. Everybody receives different messages at different times. Every teacher has experienced this in his or her classroom, where each student hears what you say so differently. I see this as the first challenge to teaching. I try to find out how a student learns then what they are ready to learn. This is a big job especially in a one-week class. Listening and watching with as much concentration as I can, helps. But above all else a deep love of what you teach is what transmits the most to students. If you are jazzed, excited, inspired and enthusiastic it is irresistibly infectious.
CCG: I also know that you have actually built the house that you and your family live in. Has that experience impacted either your teaching or the work that you make?
SM: The house is a small one on a five-acre lot adjacent to a biodynamic/organic farm near Hudson, New York. It still needs finishing details but the building took about eight months to complete. I used the pine trees from the clearing of the property for the siding and the hard woods for flooring. The house is heated primarily with one wood stove in the basement. We burn a little bit more than one bush cord a winter. I learned how much I didn’t know about building doing this project. I know a lot more now. The front stairs took three days!! I figured it couldn’t possibly take more than one. That was the story for just about everything, just like glass eh!
Using burning wood as a connecter here the glass houses with the glass smoke coming out of the chimneys are also in the photos. They are 10 x 12 x 8″ for the house and the smokes are about 18″ long. They are mold blown into a wood mold and the smokes are free blown.
I have been making houses in a variety of forms for a long time. The shape and context is comforting and intriguing to me. So much happens in the home of my family and the home of my psyche. In these houses the wind is blowing hard and the smoke is as big as the house take what you will from that metaphor.
The other images are also recent from the last two years. They are fused glass tiles that were made for two different bathrooms. The dark amber tiles are from my bathroom and the blue ones are from a commission I did for a house in Massachusetts. Teaching fusing at Haliburton inspired these tiles. While the students work on their pieces I putter about trying stuff and voila a new way to make some stuff.
CCG: The commute to your teaching gig in Haliburton is a long one. What is it about the program at Fleming College that keeps you going back?
SM: Haliburton is a touchstone for me as a teacher and a Canadian living in the states. The Canadian Shield, the bedrock of Ontario is nourishment for me. I get to reconnect with the land, my friends, family and I get to teach, all of which is very good. Haliburton is a unique program. It is a 15-week intensive studio based glassblowing education. Each week consists of 24 to 30 hours of hands-on studio time. That is a lot of practice and demo time. It’s an introduction to a large selection of glassblowing techniques, from paperweights to mold-making to colour applications to production work and everything in between.
CCG: Are you currently teaching elsewhere? What are you working on these days?
SM: These days I am on a committee to build a new craft studio at Hawthorne Valley School. The school wants to incorporate glassmaking in its curriculum. They already do stained glass and last year I taught the Grade 11 class on fusing, which some students used in their stained glass windows. Eventually the school would like to have hot glass. Yahoo for Sheila!!!