Where hope grows

People The Arts

April 28, 2024

Jake Pfeifer of Hot Glass Alley

Artist and sarcoma survivor Jake Pfeifer teams with the Paula Takacs Foundation for Sarcoma Research on a permanent art installation depicting his cancer journey.

by Amanda Lea

In 1993, at just 5 years old, Jake Pfeifer was diagnosed with stage 3 rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare childhood cancer. Doctors discovered an inoperable tumor behind his left eye, penetrating his brain. His parents, Michael and Sonya, were devastated. “The doctors told my parents I had a 5% chance I would survive three years,” Jake says. His prognosis was so bleak that Jake’s doctors arranged a Make-A-Wish trip for him with his siblings, and, on two occasions, Jake’s parents made funeral preparations.

His treatment plan was intensive, involving a lifetime dose of radiation to his head and three chemotherapy regimens. Jake was in and out of the hospital for 18 months, sometimes staying for weeks at a time. 

Reflecting on this challenging chapter of his life, Jake finds it difficult to express the impact of cancer and its treatment. “For some, it is a battle and a war,” Jake says. “For others, it is a journey. For me, although I was very young, it was both.”

Due to the initial severity of his illness, Jake was 15 when he learned his cancer was in remission. Although he grapples with long-term treatment side effects, survivor’s guilt and anxiety about his cancer recurring, Jake remains determined to embrace life fully after being granted a second chance.

Finding a purpose

At age 14, a family trip to Bermuda ignited Jake’s love for glass blowing. He spent hours observing an open-air, oceanfront hot shop that revealed both the technical challenges and the artistic potential of glass. During high school, Jake delved into learning and perfecting the craft, and he hasn’t looked back. 

Jake earned an art degree and graduated with honors from Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. “We are enormously proud of him,” Sonya says. “Whether it is his health, difficulty with a new piece of artwork, or just navigating life, Jake has turned every stumbling block into a stepping stone.”

Despite his college professor’s suggestion to teach glass blowing at a university, Jake harbored a different dream: to establish his own gallery and studio by the age of 30. In 2018, that dream became a reality when Jake founded Hot Glass Alley, Charlotte’s only glass blowing studio.

Jake parallels glass blowing with his cancer journey, emphasizing the perseverance that both require. Just as he committed to seeing his treatment through to the end, he applies the same tenacity to his craft. “When blowing glass, a piece undergoes many changes through the process and, at times, can almost be lost,” Jake says. “But like the result of my cancer treatment, fortunately, most of the pieces result in something beautiful.”

Photographs by Camine Pappas, C and Company

Hope through art

Over time, Jake has attempted to push aside the memories of his cancer battle. However, he acknowledges the experience significantly shaped his life, and he wants to offer hope to others facing similar challenges.

One way Jake does this is by working with the Paula Takacs Foundation for Sarcoma Research to create a permanent art installation at Atrium Health Levine Cancer in Charlotte as part of the organization’s “Growing Hope Through Art” program. The Charlotte-based foundation funds novel clinical trials and other sarcoma research projects at Levine Cancer and Atrium Health Levine Children’s.

Camine Pappas, a communications consultant working with the foundation, says the organization created the “Growing Hope Through Art” program as a way to elevate its mission. “Our hope is that the nature of this permanent installation at Levine Cancer will bring healing and light to all who experience it,” Pappas says.

Jake is on track to complete the inaugural installation in May. The project titled “Seasons of Life” will be located in a highly traveled corridor at Levine Cancer, connecting buildings one and two on Atrium Health’s midtown campus. 

The “Seasons of Life” installation is the first time Jake has interpreted his own cancer journey through glass. The 18-foot-wide by 8-foot-tall permanent art feature centers around a blossoming tree crafted entirely from handblown glass. Viewers traverse the seasons through Jake’s eyes, experiencing the poignant journey through his battle with cancer as a child. The wind-swept branches bear intricate glass blossoms that morph with each season, from greens and ambers (summer and fall) to blues and pinks (winter and spring). Each hue marks time, as cancer and nature intertwine. 

For Jake, the summer and spring seasons serve as bookends. “These months are my favorite,” Jake says. “They represent joy, warmth, strength and promise.” He hopes people see and feel these emotions through his piece. 

“Cancer is a difficult journey. The environment we are in while going through it has a direct impact on our emotional, psychological and physical well-being,” Jake says. “My purpose is to provide a sculpture that brings happiness and energy, as well as creating a soothing, calming space.”  SP

Learn more about the Paula Takacs Foundation for Sarcoma Research and the new art program at growinghopethroughart.org. To learn more about Jake and Hot Glass Alley, visit hotglassalley.com. You can schedule a free tour, sign up for a “date night” glass blowing session, or visit the gallery to shop for one-of-a-kind handmade pieces. 

Featured image courtesy Hot Glass Alley


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