"When you're working with hot glass and trying to get it to flow together," said Dills, 19, "it's almost like it's alive."
Dills, who will be a junior at Linfield College, is the laboratory assistant for an unusual glass art class started as an independent study program by Shaun Jarvis, 24, a 2002 graduate.
The program expanded in the 2002-03 school year into credit classes taught by Jarvis and McMinnville sculptor Jerry Jensen, 40, using a lab filled with equipment worth thousands of dollars that they gathered through grants and donations from regional businesses.
Few accredited colleges offer classes in the medium, despite the growing popularity of glass art. Portland Community College offers classes in cooperation with local glass design businesses.
"Certainly, very few small liberal arts colleges offer anything in glass, hence the high level of interest in the program," said Ron Mills, Linfield's art department director.
About 18 students shared the laboratory last semester, and more will take a summer class, which includes a $300 laboratory fee for the gas, glass and other supplies.
Some students explore the flame techniques Jarvis teaches. They heat glass bars in flaming oxygen and propane to produce multicolored beads, goblets, small animal figures and sculptural flowers.
Others work with the kiln-formed techniques Jensen teaches. They melt flat glass into shapes and colors used as bowls, platters, wall decor or art.
Jarvis developed a passion for glass about four years ago, after seeing bead work at Portland's Saturday Market. He learned the basics of the art by working with an artist in her garage.
"I went to community college and was kind of staying afloat, but I couldn't find a direction," he said. "Then I discovered glass."
The creative outlet helped him focus on other subjects, he said, and he entered Linfield to earn a degree in education. He plans to work on a master of fine arts degree this summer in Maine. Instead of glass, however, his field will be photography, which he first studied at Portland Community College.
"I think my real passion is teaching," Jarvis said. "Glass is great. It's a beautiful material. But when I can put glass in someone else's hands and they get that look of 'aha,' that's awesome."
Jensen, who once worked in bronze, discovered glass in 1982 and has worked with it since. He has traveled across the country for seminars with artists whose work he admires.
"It's an addictive medium," Jensen said. "I think it's the qualities of light."
Connie Gill, 19, a psychology major who has always been interested in art, initially signed up for Jarvis' class to gain credits for the bachelor's degree she expects to complete in 2004.
"I never expected to get into it as far as I have," she said, aiming a flame at a clear glass rod that she would shape into a red flower called an anthurium, which grows in her native Hawaii.
"I love the way glass looks -- its shininess," she said. "The more I work with glass, the more I respect it."
It isn't exactly sculpture, she said. Sometimes it feels like painting when she brushes a heated tube filled with red chemicals on the large bud of glass she will snip into petals with a special tool.
However, the heat needed to work with glass makes it different from most sculpting materials, Dills said, because an artist can't touch it.
"You have to use tools at every step to keep the glass away from you," he said.
Glass can be unforgiving, as students sometimes learn when they are nearly finished with their projects.
Noa Castro, a junior, placed a small sculpture in the kiln after spending hours on the initial shape. When he took it out of the warm oven and returned to his chair in front of a glass flame, the piece suddenly fell apart.
"Oh," Gill said sympathetically. "All that time and energy, and it's gone."
Bubbles can make glass unstable, and uneven cooling can make a piece crack when the artist starts reheating it. That's one reason, Gill said, that she works slowly in heating her pieces.
With interest in the glass class remaining strong, Mills said, the art faculty has started talking about a building addition, which would free space in the lab originally intended for drawing and painting students.