Women find empowerment through welding

Molly Young
Flint Journal

Flint — There’s a certain empowerment that comes from slicing through steel more easily than scissors cut through a sheet of paper.

For Flushing resident Gail Blaszkowski, that’s part of the appeal of the Flint Institute of Arts’ adult welding classes, where students “learn to manipulate steel through bending, hammering, cutting and welding to create a unique sculptural form,” the course description says.

A middle school special education teacher by day, Blaszkowski becomes a woman who welds by night.

“You just feel like you have the power to cut through steel, and when you do, the sparks fly. And when you’re grinding and sanding, the sparks fly, and when you cut the sparks fly,” she said.

When class starts, her earplugs go in and everything else gets tuned out.

“You come in, and you just get in your own world for three hours. It’s very — it’s like yoga without the exercise,” Blaszkowski said, laughing.

When she’s welding, she has the power to cut, bend and mold steel into exactly what she wants.

“I think it’s about control. I teach middle school special education during the day, so you don’t always feel like you have control over what kinds think and what they do. Here, I can cut through metal,” she said.

For her first project, Blaszkowski made an indoor/outdoor clock by bending metal into a circle and cutting out and attaching metal numbers. Then, she made a giraffe garden sculpture out of scraps.

Most recently, she made metal wall-hanging planters that will hold succulents and other plants.

“You don’t have to be artsy. Every idea I’ve had, I bring in and Paul (Hauth, FIA welding instructor) says, ‘Yup, Ok. We can do that.’ There is no limit. He encourages anything you want to try,” Blaszkowski said. “If you want to do something little, you can do something little. If you want to do something big, you can do something big.”

Blaszkowski found comfort in being able to create whatever she wanted in those three hours.

But it wasn’t always relaxing.

In fact, her first class was nerve-racking. She had no previous welding experience, and she didn’t know what to expect. She assumed the class would be filled with men or people who had previous welding experience.

When she arrived, she found that the class of about five or six had just two or three men, Blaszkowski said.

Paul Hauth, the instructor, said about 70 percent women in a class is typical.

“I’ve gotten old shop guys that come in and want to do something a little more artistic than what they’ve been doing for years, but I think as far as those that have never done it before, it’s mostly women,” Hauth said.

Hauth, who earned his MFA in metalsmithing from Cranbrook Academy and also teaches at Mott Community College, said the class is not designed for people looking for a job.

Instead, the sculptural welding classes are for those looking to create new things out of metal. Cutting and shaping metal, MIG welding and finishing techniques are covered in the intro course.

Students are supplied with enough metal to complete at least one project.

Many people who take the class have never welded before, Hauth said.

“I love it. They’re just more open to the more artistic kind of thing, and with the old shop people — men and women — they were taught a very specific skill, to do things a certain way, and I’ll tell them it’s OK if you break out of that, and sometimes they want to fight me on that,” Hauth said.

A new session of the intro to welding course is set to begin mid-January. Classes are from 6-9 p.m. Wednesdays. Tuition is $230. Teens are welcome.

Dozens of other courses for adults and other age groups of all skill levels are also offered at the FIA, including drawing, painting, ceramics, fiber, mixed media and photography.