It’s a typical Tuesday afternoon at Hot Shops Art Center in Omaha, Neb., and Jon Bleicher is inside Crystal Forge, goggles on and torch lit. A tree-like menorah takes shape at his workstation, its delicate branches of clear glass topped by cobalt blue candle cups and accented with light blue leaves. He stops to ring up a customer’s purchase and answer questions from a couple interested in taking lampworking lessons.
The artist, a retired radiologist from Creighton University Medical Center, is one of 90 who currently occupy space inside the four-story brick behemoth located on the northern edge of the city’s downtown district. The 92,000 square foot hub serves as an educational art center and living museum where its inhabitants create, collaborate and connect with all who enter through its massive wooden front doors.
In the 1990s, it was anything but.
The former Serta mattress factory, ripe for either tear down or transformation, sat somewhat unnoticed by locals in the property business until a small group of creatives from the fiery arts began to reimagine its future. Their idea: a collaborative, first-of-its-kind art center where ideas, dreams and “what ifs” are created, explored and shared. Among them were ceramicists, Tim Barry and Bob Wilson, sculptor Les Bruning, glass blower Ed Fennell and the late Ron Loken, a blacksmith. They, along with a group of private investors, purchased the building in November 1999 and began its buildout.
The following May, Omaha voters approved a $216 million bond issue to build a new convention center and arena about a half-mile from Hot Shops. “Luckily, we had the property because we wouldn’t have been able to afford it otherwise,” Fennell said.
Word of the new arts center quickly spread throughout the creative community, and potential tenants with a diverse range of mediums, skills and experience began seeking studio space there. Today, the core of the center is its quartet of hot shops (a nod to its name): a foundry, forge, ceramics studio and glass studio. Its 90 artist residents practice everything from cold wax painting to silversmithing to violin making. The newest resident is Sheree Le’Shawn, an emerging mixed media artist whose analog and digital photography-based art reflects their experiences as a Black, queer woman in the Midwest.
In addition to the hot shops and studios, the center houses multiple galleries and classroom space. The waiting list for studios is in the triple digits, and efforts are underway to raise funds for a $272,000 elevator renovation project, which will lead to the renovation of the building’s fourth floor and creation of additional studio suites.
“The greatest gift you can give a creative person is a place to create,” said Barry, who also serves as the center’s educational consultant and official tour guide. “Hot Shops is a place where you can see how good you can be – a place to explore and share the whys and what ifs of any idea, where paths cross creating collaborations that would otherwise never happen. We are creative critical mass and positive vibrations.”
Fennell, Barry’s friend and co-founder, is the man behind the center’s Crystal Forge, which started as a small studio in his home garage. In addition to serving as the creative locus for Fennell and Bleicher, the forge is home to lampworkers Margie Ehlers, Tom Friedman and Lori Skupa, and glass blowers Chris Carver, Vickie Hughes, Samuel Logeman, Matthew Shrader and Logan Woods.
Shrader, the forge’s current studio manager and the artist behind Shrader Made Glass, is one of many mentored by Fennell throughout the history of Hot Shops. A Dale Chihuly exhibition at Joslyn Art Museum in 2000 initially sparked Shrader’s interest in glassblowing. He was a senior at Omaha’s Central High School at the time. Three years later, Shrader attended one of Fennell’s weekend workshops at Crystal Forge.
“Right off the bat, he was super inviting and inclusive,” Shrader said of Fennell. “I got really hooked from then on, and Ed was very supportive along the way.”
Skupa, who owns Parrott Flameworks, is another Crystal Forge artist who got her start after taking a lampwork course there. “Being in an atmosphere that’s encouraging and supportive has been a great help for the advancement of my art and confidence,” Skrupa said. “I’ve met several wonderful people who share my love of glass and other mediums, and I’m able to teach beginners lampworking because Crystal Forge gives me access to its torches, glass, fuel and a safe area to do so.”
As the center approached its 20th anniversary in 2019, Fennell and the other founders – also two decades older – began looking for ways to sustain the facility and its operating philosophy so future generations of creatives could experience the collaborative environment that marked their own careers. The group tapped the expertise of Kim Sellmeyer to lead the formation of a nonprofit organization. Hot Shops Art Center received its official nonprofit status in 2020, and Sellmeyer was hired as its first executive director.
“The founders knew how critically important what they built was to artists and to Omaha,” Sellmeyer said. “Creating a nonprofit was the best way to ensure we could continue to deliver affordable working space for artists and ramp up our education/outreach efforts.”
That ramping up is grounded in the center’s strategic creative pipeline, which begins with tours and demonstrations, followed by single-session workshops that allow the public to make and take home something they create. For those who get hooked, progressive classes – normally four to six weeks in length – allow enrollees to learn more in-depth about a specific medium. Experiential art labs allow for large group exploration in a single outing.
Independent studies are currently offered in glassblowing and pottery, which give participants access to the studios and materials while allowing them to work alongside a resident artist.
New education/outreach efforts on the planning table include the creation of an internship program and the launch of a mobile glassblowing studio. “Our visitors are in awe when they witness our glassblowers at work inside Crystal Forge, and our mobile glassblowing studio will bring the history and artistry of this medium to schools and other locations throughout Omaha and rural Nebraska,” Sellmeyer said.
The executive director said the continuous influx of new creatives into the critical mass that is Hot Shops is crucial in helping the city recruit and retain talent. “These are the people – those immersed in the humanities – that will help us understand others, foster social justice and demonstrate empathy,” she noted.
Local business officials agree with her assessment.
Greater Omaha Chamber President and CEO Heath Mello acknowledges the center’s continuing commitment to the community and local economy. “Hosting 90 artists under one roof certainly provides a unique commercial aspect to our economy,” Mello said. “The collaborative and inclusive way Hot Shops opens its doors to everyone makes this place a centerpiece of our creative community. Their artists, classes and events reach thousands of children and adults annually, allowing creativity, relationships and dreams to flourish here in Omaha.”
Back inside Crystal Forge and nearing closing time on that same typical Tuesday, Bleicher turns off his torch to reflect on his own Hot Shops experience.
“I fail a lot,” he’s quick to admit. “I make the same mistakes over and over but believe that persistence and patience will pay off one day.” Bleicher said he’s been able to collaborate with other artists on works destined for galleries and museums across the country, but he’s just as content creating whimsical frogs, colorful zinnias or whatever’s on his mind when he enters the studio.
“My wife and I travel all over the world, and I’m always looking for places like Hot Shops,” Bleicher said. “I haven’t found one yet.”