Over the course of four afternoons in May at Washington Glass Studio in Mt. Rainier, more than two dozen Laurel residents had the chance to make their artistic mark on the new Laurel Branch library building, expected to open this fall.
The amateur artists, under the guidance of the studio's three lead artists and co-directors, arranged colored glass powder and bits of broken panes on glass tiles to create designs and symbols both realistic and abstract.
Craig Goerling, who was on break from college and attended one of the workshops on May 18 with his mother and two siblings, used powdered cobalt blue glass and a small funnel tool to outline a hydra, a symbol that features prominently in his favorite World of Warcraft book.
"I'm not the artist in the family," he said. "So this ended up looking more like a spider."
The tiles created by the workshop participants, along with larger squares created by the professional artists at the studio, will panel a sculpture commissioned by Prince George's Arts and Humanities Council for the front of the new library building's entrance.
Washington Glass' artists envision the work to be a 16-foot high, three-sided tower of glass and steel, lit from within by rows of LED lights.
"It's almost like a community quilt, only it's done in glass," said Michael Janis, who has been a co-director of the studio since 2003. The studio was founded by artists Tim Tate and Erwin Timmers in 2001.
The three artists limited the color palette of the tiles to blues and greens with pops of amber, Timmers said, to give the sculpture a cohesive, holistic look. It will be installed once construction on the library is complete this fall, to prevent any damage during the building process.
The art commission for the Laurel library was made possible by Prince George's County's Art in Public Places initiative, which applies at least 1 percent of construction funds for some new and renovated civic buildings to the acquisition and installation of public art.
Funds also went to artist Martha Jackson Jarvis, who is creating a mosaic tile and steel sculpture for the library.
In addition to the two sculptures, the new 31,000-square-foot Laurel Branch library, which sits on the site of the original library built in 1965 next to Emancipation Park, will feature a children's section ensconced in a dinosaur rib cage, a stone and wood exterior and a solar-paneled roof.
Construction began in May 2015 after a series of delays caused problems with the bidding process and water and sewer permitting.
Rhonda Dallas, executive director of the Prince George's Arts and Humanities Council, which administers the Art in Public Places initiative, said that Washington Glass was chosen for the library project because the studio's proposal centered around community involvement.
"Washington Glass does a phenomenal job, not just with the artistic side, but also with making sure the project extends out to the community and is engaging," Dallas said. "To have ownership within an arts project and have the community say, that's my piece right there — that's so important."
The studio's three co-directors learned the value of community engagement from a previous commission.
About two years ago, a healthcare organization asked Washington Glass to create a sculpture for a building in Anacostia, where they were told vandalism was not uncommon. The artists decided to get community members to buy into the project by having them create pieces of the sculpture.
"When we were working on this, people said gangs will destroy this," said Tate, a D.C. native. "We said, bring the gangs in, have them make a tile. Then they don't touch it.
"Everything around it has been destroyed, but that part stands perfectly," he said.
Because this method of community engagement worked so well in Anacostia — the sculpture is a gleaming 20-foot high archway paneled with dozens of panels of glass, and has yet to be vandalized — the glass artists decided to take the same approach in Laurel.
"Once you have people taking ownership of their own community, that's the important thing to us," Tate said. "How many times do people just drop some ugly thing in the community and everyone says, what the hell is that? This doesn't work that way; every person who drives by it will say, 'Oh my god, that's my art.' "
Twenty-six Laurel residents attended the glass workshops, and Dallas theorized that even more would have participated if Washington Glass Studio was located closer to Laurel.
Rita Goerling, Craig's mother, took a day off from work to attend the workshop. She said that her family frequents the Laurel library, which is temporarily located at 8101 Old Sandy Spring Road, and she liked the idea of trying something new.
"My co-workers were like, you're taking off for what?" she said. "I said, I'm going to be making glass, and they're like, what?"
She took a photo to show to her colleagues of a tile she was working on that read, "Laurel, MD."
"So now what do we do to them?" she asked.
"This is the scary part," Timmers said, to laughter. "You're going to lift it up, then put it in the kiln."
Each glass must be heated to about 1,500 degrees overnight, in order for all the powder and pieces to be fused into one layer.
"Don't breathe," Timmers said.