When the Student Becomes The Teacher: C’Zarriah Davis Smith

Cathy Niland | 8.13.2021

As C’Zarriah Davis-Smith turns on the gas line and gathers her glass frit, a sense of calm falls over the flameworking studio. It’s a feeling often found in the presence of someone who loves what they do. And 18-year-old C’Zarriah loves working in glass.

Just over three years ago, when C’Zarriah was still a sophomore at Oakland Tech, she visited The Crucible for one of our four annual Field Trip Days. During Crucible Field Trips, Oakland public school students visit our studio for a free day of live, interactive demonstrations in departments like blacksmithing, welding, woodworking, and glass flameworking. For many students, including C’Zarriah, it’s their first exposure to the industrial arts.

At Oakland Tech, C’Zarriah studied drawing and painting, but her visit to The Crucible made her see artmaking in a new way. “That field trip to The Crucible changed my perspective on art,” C’Zarriah explains. “I thought I could only do 2D art, more traditional art. It didn’t cross my mind that I could do industrial art like flameworking or glass blowing.”

Shortly after her first visit to The Crucible, C’Zarriah learned about available scholarship opportunities for Oakland youth. With support from The Crucible’s scholarship program, she registered for her first class, Youth Glass Flameworking. She couldn’t wait to get started on her new creative journey. “Trying a new medium where you don’t know anything or how to best approach it is exciting. My first summer at The Crucible, I discovered that I really, really enjoy flameworking, more than just a hobby. It makes me happy!”

Despite having never worked behind a torch before, her instructors were immediately impressed with her drive and commitment to improving. Crucible staff encouraged C’Zarriah to apply for our two-year Fuego Youth Leadership Program, an opportunity where high school students spend four weeks expanding their industrial arts knowledge and developing leadership skills during Youth Summer Camps.

C’Zarriah was accepted, and during her first and second years as a Fuego, she worked with mentors Heather Katz and Janet Hayes respectively, to design and create a final project in glass flameworking. Her second-year project—a fish tank featuring multiple sea creatures—is still her favorite thing she has made.

“The first year, I did an octopus, and I wanted to keep with a similar theme but to elevate it,” C’Zarriah explains. “The fish tank project was one of the most challenging art pieces I’ve ever made. It was a lot of trial and error. The first fish came out looking real wonky, but I got it together.”

To make the various elements of her tank C’Zarriah used three different types of glass—soft, borosilicate, and fused—a challenging undertaking according to Janet. “All of these types of glass work differently and you can’t actually combine them,” she explains. “C’Zarriah made her elements out of the different types of glass using very different techniques and then combined them into one composed piece.”

For the centerpiece of the fish tank, C’Zarriah created a large jellyfish. Though she attempted to create the jellyfish head in flameworking, the size proved challenging for the delicate process and she turned to Glass Fusing & Slumping for help.

“So many people came together to help me with my project, it was really fun and felt like a real community.” C’Zarriah continues, “[Glass Flameworking Department Co-Head] Ralph McCaskey gave me the tank, somebody gave me rocks for the bottom, everyone was helping with the fishing wire—it all came together. ​​It was stressful yet educational and fun.”

“C’Zarriah is always willing to challenge herself with developing a piece that she hasn’t seen other people do,” Janet adds. “The aquarium was really a wonderful project!”

In addition to their personal projects, Fuego Leaders also support faculty in the classroom during summer camps and work with our Fuego Coordinator to explore entrepreneurial pathways in the industrial and fine arts. When C’Zarriah became a Fuego Leader, she was eager to further develop her glass flameworking skills. However, she didn’t anticipate finishing her two-year program with a newfound love of teaching.

“I didn’t know I had this passion for teaching until Fuego. When I was showing the kids something I loved doing and got to see their enjoyment and how they grew to love it too—that was really exciting.”

After graduating from the program, C’Zarriah stayed involved at The Crucible, helping instructors prep for classes and leading flameworking demonstrations during a Field Trip Day in February 2020.

For C’Zarriah, that moment was special. A field trip to The Crucible helped her discover a lifelong passion for glass. Now, leading demonstrations, she had come full circle. “What if my teacher had never taken me on that field trip? What are the odds I would have discovered flameworking?” she wonders.

A path on pause

Unfortunately, those demos would be her last for a while. In March 2020, The Crucible closed due to the outbreak of COVID-19. But C’Zarriah stayed connected to The Crucible and was able to return in September as a part-time Studio Assistant. On the studio crew, she helped with enhanced cleaning procedures and studio improvements and was also able to continue practicing and perfecting her craft in the flameworking studio.

This summer, at just 18 years old, C’Zarriah started working as a Teaching Assistant (TA) in both Glass Flameworking and Glass Fusing & Slumping. According to C’Zarriah, being a younger instructor helps her better relate to her youth campers’ needs. “Having only done flameworking for three years, it’s still fresh in my mind.” She adds, “I remember what it feels like not to know anything so I get it when kids don’t turn their hands the right way or sit too close to the torch.”

“C’Zarriah’s a very natural teacher and she has the patience and the compassion that you need to be a good teacher,” shares Janet. “I’m really impressed by her willingness to work with students who are struggling, particularly students with learning differences. She’ll spend one on one time helping them get the techniques down.”

TA-ing during our 2021 Youth Summer Camps was a milestone for C’Zarriah. Now she is looking forward to becoming a full-fledged glass instructor, hopefully within the next year. “My main goal is that I want to teach, so I’ve been networking and doing classes. I want to continue instructing kids on how to do flameworking.”

As an instructor, C’Zarriah hopes to inspire other young students like her. “My identity is important in my glassworking because it’s a white male-dominated art. Being me in glass flameworking is really important. Even if I don’t see myself, I can be that for other kids.”

One of C’Zarriah’s most significant takeaways from her time as a student is that patience and perseverance are the keys to success—a sentiment she tries to relay to youth students as much as possible. “Your first projects are going to look a little crazy, and that’s okay,” she says. “Just keep trying, and with practice, you will get better. Just try stuff out—do strange color combinations, try different materials, explore other glass classes—just see what works.”

C’Zarriah begins to clean up her bench, putting tools away and turning off the gas line. We ask if she thinks coming to The Crucible has changed her life. She responds with an emphatic “most definitely!”

“I wouldn’t be doing flameworking and wouldn’t have known it was a deep passion of mine. My first love is flameworking. The Crucible definitely changed how I view art and what I can do with art. It opened up my mind to the idea that you could do anything you like. If you want to make a 50-foot structure, you can. It takes work and teamwork and materials and effort—but you can do it!”

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