Do it in the wax

Exhibition: Transparency In Glass 2001, Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Artist address: by Ann Robinson to conference

The conference description that I have been sent comments on the tradition of secrecy that surrounds glass casters. That may have been true in the past. In my own case however, when I set out in the 80's to see if I could cast glass in the way that metals could be cast using the 'Lost Wax' process, no one that I knew had any understanding or knowledge of casting glass to be secretive about. As far as I knew, I was inventing it myself.

Later, I did become I aware of a few artists in other countries that were working in the same or similar areas. Colin Reid, Tessa Clegg, Karla Trinkley, Howard Ben Tre, and then Stanislav Libensky and Jaroslava Brychtova. Of these Colin Reid was the one I met first. This was at a master workshop at the Canberra School of Fine Arts in Australia, and later when he spent a year in NZ as an Artist in Residence in Auckland. I was amazed that Colin and I, both working in isolation in our respective countries, had arrived at almost identical processes. I found Colin very open and sharing and it makes me wonder if what is perceived as secrecy is in fact an exhausted response to those phone calls, letters, or emails, "I love your work! How do you do it?"... Where do you start? Answering these questions takes up hours of precious time - and anyway I'm still working it out myself.

At desperate times over the last 20 years I've bemoaned the lack of a relationship between the contemporary glass art movement and the scientific communities such as the Corning Research Institute. Once when I was at the Corning Museum I did manage to get an interview with a Mr. Hank Hagy, one of the scientists whom I later realised, had formulated the annealing tables that I was using. That quarter hour that I was given with him grew to an hour, because he became interested in what I was doing. And that hour proved to be incredibly important to me.

My best help and advice has come from potters and metallurgists. Heat, refractories, molten metals, expansion and contraction, heat ups and cool downs. There's a common language. Another comment I'd like to make while I'm on this issue. There have been times when I have been reluctant to tell all. I like to choose who I bless with my pearls of wisdom... I respond more readily to students who have already worked out a certain amount for themselves and show some integrity. It can then be a two way sharing. I learn too. I'm reluctant when I think my information is going to someone who has no aesthetic integrity, or will exploit it commercially. Also to be honest, technical advantage does give one commercial advantage. It's often teachers on a secure salary, who carry the banner for transparency, and the issue can take on rather a different hue if you are the one who is actually trying to live off your art. It's a competitive world out there. It's only in recent years, that I have felt more relaxed about sharing, probably because my own position is more secure, and in the end there is a pleasure in helping keen students to short cut the disheartening pitfalls of this lengthy process.

All right, having said that...

Here is a brief review of my history...

In 1980, at the age of 36 I re-enrolled at the School of Fine Arts of Auckland University, ostensibly to complete a Diploma of Fine Arts, that I had embarked on 15 years earlier. To be honest, I had very little interest in any formal qualifications. I had one single-minded objective, and that was to blow glass. The glass blowing facility there was one of the first three glass-blowing facilities that were built in NZ. In actual fact the glass blowing facility was the private studio of Mel Simpson, senior Lecturer in Design, not really a school facility at all. In building his studio, Mel had occupied space that was perceived to be the 'Sculpture' Dept, and was under pressure to have students to justify it. My timing was perfect. A woman, easy to keep in control, he accepted me as a student. That was the start of a wonder full exciting 9 years, during which my primary occupation was blowing glass.

Fifteen years earlier, at this same Art School, 'lost wax' casting of metals had been my strong interest. Now, with course requirements demanding that I diversified my time, it was natural to try my casting skills with this new 'metal' ..i.e. glass. At the end of that year I emerged with a passion for blowing, determined that I was going to make my living this way, but with an equally absorbing 'hobby'- casting, which I carried out on my free days, in my wash-house at home.

Now let me sketch in some background detail.

Aotearoa New Zealand. If you turn a world globe so that NZ is in the center you will see that it lies in the middle of a hemisphere that is 80% water. New Zealand is at the bottom of the world. The last major land mass in the world to have been discovered - our reality is isolation. Three and a half million people, a small agricultural country, with a little industry. As far as glass was concerned we had a window glass factory or two, and a bottle plant, but definitely no historical glass tradition to relate to.

As a people still close to our pioneering roots, we are rather proud of our reputation for resourcefulness. We joke about being able to do anything with a bit of no.8 fencing wire. When we want to do something new, we work out how it's done and get on with it. That's a necessary island mentality. Severe import restrictions after World War 2 set the scene for the development of a rich ceramic movement. One of the strengths of this movement lay in the fact that it did not develop to cater to a tourist trade as can be the case with many crafts today, but was supported by the aesthetic people within the population who hungered for an alternative to the post-war mass-produced, for utensils with considered design, and qualities of the crafter. I maintain that the glass movement emerged out of the ceramics movement, with skills, practitioners, and a critical aesthetic being shared between the two disciplines.

I don't want to presume to take credit for the glass blowing workshop that I found myself working in after my last year at school. Sunbeam Glass Works started as a partnership between John Croucher, Garry Nash and myself. We were resourceful and terribly, terribly, enthusiastic. Initially we harassed a local bottle plant for refractories. With no knowledge at all, we built a furnace, a glory hole, a lehr, and we started to blow glass. To begin with we taught ourselves, and managed to sell our fledgling blobs to pay the bills. Through trial and error, we learned to build gear, formulate batch, and melt glass (an art in itself). Having no knowledge of 'Kugler' type colour bar, we had a separate pot furnace and melted a choice of two colours a day to accompany our clear batch. We grappled with annealing. When things went wrong, as they do in glassworks, we explored every possible aspect in our attempts to solve problems, with a tenacity that you could say was 'character forming'.

I don't want to give the impression that we were completely isolated. Wonderful international glass artists came and shared their knowledge. Dick Marquiss, Makoto Ito, Fred Daden, Klaus Moje, Marvin Lipofsky, later Dante Marioni and Lino Tagliopietre, David Reekie, Fritz Driesburg, and growing contact with the emerging Australian glass artists.

This was my apprenticeship. By the time the Sunbeam partnership dissolved after 9 years we had become quite good glass blowers, and had a deep-seated understanding of the material that we were working with. Looking back I can see what an advantage that background has been to me as a caster. A thorough training in problem-solving, an excellent skill to have if you're planning to reinvent glass-casting. Over those 9 years as a glass blower, my days off were preoccupied with my other passion; casting. To begin with I had no knowledge of anyone else working in this area. I did think that I was inventing it. My ignorance was total. My first unbroken piece took 2 years to emerge, but the failures were beautiful, and I was hooked.

I think that I have been lucky. For instance the 'lost wax' process of casting bronze that I was taught in my youth was the old Italian hand-built, plaster-based method. Had I learned the later 'Ceramic Shell' technique, I don't think I would ever have succeeded, anyway not in casting the large heavy vessels that I was intent on. I think I was lucky to have access to our furnace glass, a soda-lime glass with some lead content. Soda-lime glass is marginal when casting, the required temperatures always hovering in the devitrification range. I'd say that the 5% lead that we juiced up our blowing glass with, probably made a huge difference to my success rate. Even so if you look at the image of my first Ice bowl of 1984, you can see the problems. I had a long way to go, 17 years in fact, before I could say that I was achieving works in which the glass looked the way I had initially visualized. Step by technical step over the intervening years I have worked my way through a host of technical problems. To mention a few:

Moulds - Both formulating a recipe, and becoming skilled at building them up layer by layer. They needed to be strong enough to hold glass weights up to 50 kilos and yet be soft enough to allow a vessel to contract as it cooled, and break away on completion. That was a big ask. Addressing contraction led me to mixing a paper pulp into the mould. That was a successful solution, I've always liked the paper in the mould mix, but it was only last year that Keith Seibert was able to inform me as a result of his research, that the paper was serving another function and plays an important role in piping steam from the interior of a mass of mould as it heats up, thus easing stress and minimalising cracking. In actual fact the fine-tuning still goes on today. 'Implodes', 'sucks', air entrapments, bubbles and 'flashings' are all major areas of discussion in my workshop.

Glass - As I have said already, the glass that I used initially was the soda-lime glass that we melted for blowing. Very early on it became evident that a lead crystal would be the answer. Where to access it in a country with no glass industry. I started importing crystal cullett from Germany. It was an enormously expensive exercise. The glass was cheap rubbish, and the freight was outrageous. My problem seemed solved when my partner from Sunbeam Glass Works days, John Croucher, in his new incarnation as Gaffer Glass, manufacturing colour bar for glass blowing, offered to make a coloured lead crystal casting glass for me. John loves a challenge. It took a year, with me testing the product to get it right. Now Gaffer Casting Glass is finding a ready market with casters in NZ, Australia, and the United States.

Colour - Oh to achieve anything other than cobalt or copper blues. What about those unstable colours, pink, yellow, gold ruby, and eat your heart out for a red! You may notice that much of my early work is blue. I used to powder up colour bar and mix it into the German 24% crystal cullet that I was importing at huge cost. It was hit and miss. Some colours, for example gold pinks, burnt out over such a long process. It was all pretty unpredictable. Gaffer began to develop a range of casting glass. Selenium yellows, Gold pink, rare earth colors such as Erbium pink, Neodymium purple, Uranium red and subtle mixtures have slowly emerged over the last 6 years. To add to this delight, because they took care that it was tested color-compatible, I can now enrich my work with my own mixes.

Annealing - This has been such a critical area of research. When I went to the US for the first time I thought I'd find an expert in annealing to help me. But no. They were virtually guessing. It was almost a case of think of a number and double it, and hope that that would be OK. I was using the annealing method established at Corning for blown glass. I tested that system to see if it would work on glass invested in a thick plaster mould. The work hung together but it is impossible to see stress in coloured opaque glass with a polarising light. My breakthrough came with an Ausglass workshop three years ago given by Dan Watson, a man with a permanent Cheshire cat smile. Dan is a scientist working in a glassworks that cast telescope lenses up to 8 meters wide. He was smiling because knew he had the answer to our prayers. The annealing process he taught, using thermocouples imbedded in the mould walls, allows us to monitor exactly what is happening in the glass. At completion there is a formula to calculate the residual stress in the cooled work. Using his system I checked the Corning system I'd always used and felt pretty happy with the comparison. Not so happy with one of my kilns though. It required major alterations to correct irregularities in temperature that I discovered by applying Dan's method.

Finishing - Over the years I've become increasingly focused on achieving a skin like surface. Finishing these complex shapes is labour intensive, there's no way around it. My work is too heavy to be held on a lap, or up to a linisher or other such machines. I was fortunate to have the NZ jade carving practice to refer to, so my solutions draw much from the hard-stone industry rather than the traditions of cutting and polishing that I may have learned if I had lived in Europe. Nothing seems able to replace the final days of hand working that each piece requires, and the final acid polish is hard to replace for beauty and permanence.

. . .

This whole talk has been about the 'how' of my work, rather than the 'why'. Technique is a funny thing. I've heard it said endlessly in America, "Technique is cheap". Well, I don't think so. Technique for me has been hard won and I have an enormous respect for it. To me glass is an amazingly expressive material, capable of subtle nuances of expression, of beauty and of mood. But it doesn't just happen. As my old dad used to say, "you can't expect to get something for nothing". To me, working a piece is an act of love, and that eventually comes shining back out. I also find that there is a rich interplay between process and idea that happens along the way. Process considerations can lead to a lateral exploration that can result in wonderful unexpected new directions.

When I stopped blowing glass, I had intended only a year's break. Our family was relocating to the west coast, north of Auckland City. We were building a house and two studios. My partner, John Edgar, is a sculptor who works in stone. I was finding myself increasingly drawn to casting because it was a more private and introspective process. I took a year during which I concentrated entirely on casting, to see where it would lead. Somehow I never got back to blowing. To me casting is a truly sculptural process. It can achieve thicknesses, surface detail and forms that are impossible at the end of a blowpipe. It is possible to make a more personal statement, to explore ones own personal imagery, to be private and introspective.

Initially, with a young family to support I was unashamedly looking to make the 'saleable item'. In NZ, where there is a great love and understanding of the vessel, and where half my friends were potters, it should not be surprising that that was my starting point. I saw the history of vessel making to go hand-in-hand with human history and was thrilled to be part of that line, especially when I thought that the arm of the crafts-person reaching out of the past was quite likely to have been a woman's arm.

I used to say that my ambition was to take one's breath away, to suspend the ordinary, to create a moment of stillness. I can see that my work is a response to the environment that I live in. The place where I live bears the name Karekare. You've seen it if you saw the film 'The Piano'. Karekare means eager, agitated, or disturbed. It's no exaggeration of my state of mind then and now. Qualities in my environment that I see emerge in my work are those of light and mood, pattern and rhythm, strong simple form, strong contrast, strong sharp colour. The persistent evidence of erosion by water and wind, the rubbing of one element against another.

More recently I find that the demands of function seem to stand in the way of the exploration of the material and the form. I am slowly moving into new types of work. It's fitting for this to be happening now. Up until this point, my technical skills would not have been sufficient to these new directions. You can't walk before you crawl. Casting is a slow process, it has to be one sure step at a time.

What I realise is that there is another dimension going hand-in-hand with the exploration of form and pattern and that is the layers of yourself that you discover along the way. To explore the patterns of life is an affirmation. And for me this is what it's all about.