Ann Robinson: Casting mistress

Published in: Neus Glass
Exhibition: Celebrating the Recession 2009 at Milford Gallery, Dunedin,
New Zealand
Article: by D Wood

Research into cast glass, by both amateur and professional, is bound to involve the Corning Museum of Glass. Masterpieces of Glass by Robert Charleston defines the spectrum of world glass history by selecting pieces solely from the Corning collection. I learn, for instance, that the head of a Pharaoh, possibly Amenophis (Amenhotep) II, was replicated in cast glass between 1435 and 1415 BC, a time when the processes for glassmaking were introduced to Egypt. I’m also told that the ancient artisans who achieved such a piece were transposing techniques from metalworking.

At the November 2009 opening of Celebrating the Recession in Dunedin, New Zealand, Ann Robinson, too, spoke of beginning in metalwork. Her early art school major, in the 1960s, was sculpture; she specialised in bronze casting using the Italian lost wax process, making moulds with plaster of Paris and silica. Glass didn’t enter her life until she returned to the same school in the late 1970s (marriage and children intervened), by which time glass blowing was part of the curriculum. The medium was sufficiently exciting that she anticipated a blowing career but, frustrated by the down time when the furnace was off, Robinson asked an instructor what she could do. “Try casting,” he called casually over his shoulder. Thirty years later she is an internationally respected doyenne of the genre.

Robinson’s journey to this reputation has been one of dedication and a trait for which her nationality is known. New Zealanders, because of their geographic distance from the rest of the world and, sometimes, each other, have had to solve problems by improvisation and trial-and-error. With no-one to consult and no recipes to follow, Robinson was as naïve as her Egyptian predecessors, but blessed with Kiwi ingenuity; while she blew glass in the 1980s with Gary Nash and John Croucher in their joint venture, Southern Glass Works, she experimented with casting in her laundry room. Two pieces gradually evolved but countless breakages required repeatedly revisiting glass thickness and cooling times. In addition, the mould materials that worked for bronze proved unsatisfactory for glass and an alternative had to be invented. Robinson was aware of Stanislav Libensk˘ and Jaroslava Brychtová but their inaccessibility behind the Iron Curtain perpetuated her self-reliance.

Initially Robinson’s castings were made with the “rubbish glass” that came out of the Southern Glass furnace. The pieces from this period are described by Robinson as having “a hand-made feeling and quality of time” that she still values. In the early 1990s Robinson established her own studio and began to develop, in conjunction with Gaffer™ Glass, a lead crystal glass that is ideal for her process and that of international artists. These one kilogram billets are placed in a crucible at the base of each mould as it goes into the kiln, dispensing a rainbow of liquid glass. Red (uranium), yellow (selenium), green (chromate) and blue (cobalt) flow into the concavities and convexities of botanical patterns, textures and lines.

Years of experience foster informed choices with respect to colour. Robinson admits she has tended to be conservative. However, with inspiration from the New Zealand landscape, forest and coastal waters, it is appropriate that hues mimic the natural environment. Scallop Bowl, for instance, replicates the Pacific Ocean’s nuances as well as those of the paua (abalone) shell, long prized by the Maori for its iridescence. Nikau honours the nikau palm, the country’s only native palm, whose rigid branches reach skyward. Robinson captures the form of the nikau while its amber tones recall the sunlight that filters through its stiff leaves.

A startling revelation in Robinson’s work is how different a singular form can look in its various incarnations. Agathis (kauri) and Nikau began with the same mould yet each is unique: subtleties of colour combine with individual reflection and refraction. Robinson is confident of what to expect, but despite expert predeterminations, there is always a certain amount of luck in the outcome. The serendipitous combinations of light, hue and intensity are as thrilling to their maker as they are to the viewer.

Robinson made her own trip to Corning, New York, in ?. At that stage she felt she was “fumbling in the dark” and applied for a Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council travel grant to discover what she could from the mother lode. The perseverance that had brought her this distance, literally and creatively, refused to be thwarted by administrative barriers and she was granted an hour with a senior Corning scientist, Hank Hagy. After close comparison of his annealing schedules with Robinson’s, Hagy declared her efforts creditable. Affirmation from the renowned fractologist (breakage specialist) propelled the elated Kiwi homeward to continue her explorations.

Artistic methods are as individual as the artists themselves. Robinson has a stable of moulds that comprise the basis of her blank forms. She doesn’t like the feel of clay – although she uses it occasionally – and has resorted to MDF (medium density fibreboard) that is shaped to her specifications by a woodturner; she also uses cardboard. These models are covered with plaster, and, after curing, the one or two piece moulds are soaked in water to prevent adhesion and filled with an inflammable sculpting wax. The wax form, when embossed, recessed, marked and carved, is covered with a refractory mould material that can be readily removed, in its baked condition, from the annealed glass object.

Next, the reusable wax is melted out of the refractory mould by means of steam. The mould goes into the kiln with its crucible (terracotta flowerpot!) of glass billets; Robinson makes careful additions as the melting progresses. Once a weight equivalent to the “lost” wax has liquefied and seeped down into the refractory mould, the crucible is removed and kiln closed to be heated to 440° C.(824° F.) for annealing. Because it takes four or five weeks of gradual cooling to avoid cracking, three kilns operate simultaneously. The final stages are chipping off the refractory material, an acid bath, grinding and polishing. An informative slide show of the process is available on the website:

Each step of Robinson’s practice has been refined over many decades to eliminate bubbling, sucking and implosion. She felt that Celebrating the Recession represented “a summation of all of my knowledge over a year and a half”. She added that it is a mature exhibit of “fantastic” casting of which she is “very proud”.

In June 2010 Robinson will return to Corning. She will be doing so, this time, with many national honours, including the Designers Institute of New Zealand 'John Britten Award' for her contribution to design (2002), and the designation, Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit (2001). She had a major retrospective at the Museum of New Zealand, Te.Papa Tongarewa, in Wellington in 2002-03. International respect was acknowledged in 2006 when the American Glass Society conferred Robinson with a Lifetime Achievement Award.

Although Ann Robinson is not ready to retire, there are no immediate plans for future exhibitions. Her visit to Corning will bring new knowledge and inspiration, for transformation in her creative crucible to more New Zealand mistresspieces of glass.

D Wood is a PhD candidate in Design Studies at the University of Otago
(New Zealand) and a freelance writer specialising in fine craft