Exhibition: Ann Robinson: A Survey, Elliott Brown Gallery, Seattle, Washington. 1981-1997
Here, the sea strains to climb up on the land
Studio Glass has been a part of New Zealand history for only two decades. The same is true of Studio Glass in Australia, and when we start to look further abroad, to the United States, the history of Studio Glass extends only another ten to fifteen years - to a period beginning in the 1960s. If Studio Glass is regarded as an isolated practice, separate from the broader culture in which it is situated, the problem arises of trying to locate a personal narrative within an art tradition that doesn't yet exist. However, if instead, we look at glass as part of a broader cultural and historical framework it is possible to formulate a sense of continuum within history. The reason for suggesting the importance of establishing a tradition or framework in which to work is this: namely, that a sense of belonging is inevitably linked to a sense of identity. And a sense of identity is essential to any artist seeking a personal narrative which is to give meaning to both themselves and the community with which they communicate. The need to belong, of knowing one's roots, is necessary to human identity. Without this sense of belonging it is easy to feel displaced. This is true in the culture of the indigenous people of New Zealand, for example, where Maori belief and reverence of Whakapapa2 runs deep in tradition. It is also true for glass artist Ann Robinson.
Because the history of glass in this country is so brief, of the same historical length as Ann Robinson's own career in the glass field, we need to look at the variety of histories and traditions with which Robinson identifies. In doing this we will be better able to understand her place within the international glass tradition. Robinson, herself, recognises the importance of taking a holistic approach to her career in glass:
"..To address aesthetics stripped of philosophical belief, or to look at technique separate from personal intention, circumstance and disposition would not fully convey the true stature of the work currently developing from my workshop. In writing about my work I need to take a holistic approach..."3
By taking a holistic approach to Robinson's work we are able to look beyond the inherent beauty of glass as a material, situating the glass object instead within a meaningful cultural tradition. This allows us to consider the many influences on her work. Broadly stated these can be summed up under the following categories: The international history and tradition of glass; the importance of place - that is geography, as it relates to Robinson's work; the importance of the vessel - its cultural and historical associations with Robinson's glass narrative; the importance of method and technique as a means to understanding what Robinson makes; and of course, the personal history of Robinson in relation to her career as a glass artist.
These, and other inter-related issues provide a loose infrastructure for understanding and locating Robinson's work within a cultural framework. We can then see glass in relation to other art and craft forms as well as in relation to a more diverse historical, social and cultural background.
Vessels fashioned from glass first belong to the Bronze Age and were made by heating and fusing a mixture of sand, soda and lime. The basic ingredients involved in the making of glass have not altered a great deal since this time. Although the history of Studio Glass is relatively young, Robinson's links to the glass vessel, by contrast, are firmly located in these early historical references. This is significant for the fact that it gives meaning to Robinson's predominant usage of the vessel - that is, the vessel is a form whose tradition is as long as the history of glass.
Compared to other craft practice, Studio Glass is a relative late comer. Studio Glass, in this context, refers to glass made in a smaller studio environment as opposed to glass which is made in the larger workshop or factory environment which dominated glass production worldwide until the 1960s. Because glass is a material foreign to this country's indigenous Maori culture, Studio Glass in New Zealand developed in response to international trends.
The importance of the international history of glass, largely a European and later American and Australian history, has been most acutely observed by glass maker and founder of the Ebeltoft Glass Museum in Denmark, Finn Lynggaard, when speaking at the 1993 AUSGLASS forum held in the Canberra School of Arts. Lynggaard observed that modern glass artists form:
"..part of an international phenomenon where national heritage is much less significant than international relations; where one culture rubs off onto another across national borders..."4
This is particularly true in a country the size of New Zealand where the glass community, until recently, has been small and isolated. In the past glass practitioners working in New Zealand have been largely self taught, often coming to glass via other art practices - bronze casting in Robinson's case. Furthermore, because the material of glass was not produced in this country, practitioners have had to rely on European suppliers.
There are reasons why glass is such a recent phenomenon in this country. Glass, like other areas in art and craft, has been part of an imported, rather than indigenous, cultural practice. However, unlike ceramics, for example, glass has not attracted large numbers of practitioners nor developed with any great speed. Requiring a firm commitment, both financial and skill-based, from the outset, glass, unlike almost all other art and craft practices (painting, photography, ceramics, jewellery, textiles) has not gathered a broad base of hobbyists and students from which a bolder and more experimental artistic community can emerge. And as a result, glass practice has tended to be marginalised. One example of this marginalisation is the fact that glass does not attract any major art award: there is no glass equivalent to the international forum of the highly successful Fletcher Challenge Ceramic Award or the Visa Gold Art Award for the visual arts.
Isolation exists within the glass community itself. This is often true of craft communities because practitioners are not concentrated around an institutionalised learning centre, such as a Fine Arts School or Polytechnic, where openings for both learning and teaching arise, or around exhibition centres and public institutions which regularly exhibit the work of the craft practitioners, therefore providing a forum for critique of work. Isolation can act as a barrier to technical innovation, diversification and conceptual growth which are essential for the wellbeing of any craft practice. On the other hand, isolation can also offer a means of protection from these same influences, thus aiding an individual artist to locate a more personal means of expression. At its best, isolation can lead to new means of freedom, though the results of this freedom might well be devoid of a critical audience and therefore risk an existence in a historical as well as critical void.
Arguably, New Zealand Studio Glass history is defined by the personal histories of individual glass makers. At times these individual histories link up. The establishment of the Sunbeam Glass Works is one example and saw Ann Robinson, Garry Nash and John Croucher working together during a nine year period from 1980-1989. However, this does not amount to a recognisable movement in Studio Glass, but rather a period of non-isolation in individual glass practice. The fact still remains that the population base involved in Studio Glass is relatively small and isolated, and that as a result most work which exists within this media succeeds as a result of ongoing individual research and experimentation.
Because the development of glass practice has relied so heavily on individual practitioners undertaking extensive and often bold experiments with the media of glass itself, the issue of cost and funding becomes particularly significant when discussing the history of Studio Glass in New Zealand. Experimentation, and by extension, progress within the media can be a costly business and as such can be off-putting for any but the most dedicated of artists. Failures can be a crippling impediment to a community which relies heavily on the ability to sell work in order to continue to create. Glass artists have not had the comfort of working in studios supported by educational institutions, nor have they gained significantly from funding bodies or corporate sponsors. As a result growth within the glass discipline has been inhibited and therefore risks trailing behind other areas of craft and art practices.
There is no denying that there is an interested market for glass in this country. The fact that most of the pieces exhibited in this exhibition come from private rather than corporate or public collections suggests the true nature of support for glass practitioners. However, this market is a limited one. The most committed and innovative of the glass artists have had to look further afield than New Zealand for a market. Internationally, the growth in collecting activity has witnessed a trend for sculptural - art - glass objects rather than architectural or household pieces.
While it is true that the private collector and the art driven market have been influential to a certain degree on the type of glass object being made, it would not be reasonable to lay blame on the interest of either the art collector or the glass maker for the growth of the glass object at the expense of other glass forms. Both maker and collector rely heavily on each other because of the lack of support in areas other than the market place for glass makers. One result of this is that New Zealand glass makers have had to broaden their horizons and become part of an international dialogue and community of glass. That Ann Robinson has taken her skills overseas and taught glass makers at both the Canberra School of Art in Australia and the Pilchuck Glass School on the West Coast of the United States, affirms the level of commitment and technical skill attained through self teaching.
Skills, working methods and technique as well as conceptual, or artistic intention, are fundamental to an understanding of Robinson's work. Robinson's work exists, however, within the cultural environment outlined above. As early as 1959, pioneer Studio Glass artist Harvey K. Littleton speaking at the American Craftsmen's Council Conference stated:
"..Glass should be a medium for the individual artist..."5
Such a statement would raise few eyebrows in the 1990s. Littleton is acknowledged as a major figure in the new International Studio Glass movement and it is significant, in terms of its history, that his own workship was not established until 1962. Once again this underlines the fact that Studio Glass is a relative newcomer in terms of craft practice. Ann Robinson's own seventeen year association with glass therefore takes up a significant portion of this historical lifespan.
Glass is a particularly unforgiving medium and requires a high level of technical expertise in order to render visible the artistic intention of the maker. While technical skill alone does not provide the only access to the medium of glass, glass does possess particular qualities which are most fully understood through the actual process of making. And as a glass maker, Ann Robinson is recognised internationally as one who has mastered the technique of casting known as Lost Wax Casting.
The clearest description of the Lost Wax method comes from Robinson herself and it is useful to have a basic knowledge of this technique when looking at Robinson's work:
"..The Lost Wax technique is a modified version of bronze casting. A wax blank is formed by pouring molten wax into a plaster base mould. This wax blank is then modified and re-invested in a second mould, made of refractory materials - that is material which can withstand a long period in the kiln at high temperatures. After the wax is burnt out, the cavity is filled with molten glass. The glass-filled mould is then slowly cooled to room temperature. Larger pieces require up to three weeks cooling and one week finishing. Casting up to fifty kilos of glass is extremely challenging, pushing the technique to its limits..."6
In an artist statement dating back to 1995 Robinson identified two major areas of the Lost Wax method which needed to be resolved. The first of these she headed, Moulds: Materials and Making. Highlighted under this heading was the need to find a material which was strong, had refractory capabilities and was sensitive to fine detail. The material sought by Robinson had to withstand high temperatures while holding great weights for long periods of time without cracking. Once cast, the mould needed to be soft enough to enable removal from the glass without causing damage to the glass itself. In other words, the mould making process needed to be refined in order to give strength, lightness and economy.
The second area which was addressed by Robinson related to the glass itself. The soda-lime glasses used originally by Robinson were giving unsatisfactory results because of their tendency to devitrify at casting temperatures. Because there was no crystal industry in this country, Robinson was forced to look overseas to Germany and Britain for her supplies of glass, a 24% lead crystal cullet. With the establishment of Gaffer Glass, the Auckland-based glass making studio, Robinson was able to work alongside glass makers John Croucher and John Leggott in order to produce first a 30% then 45% lead crystal which provided the most satisfactory results to the problems she had encountered.
Until these problems were resolved Robinson experienced "..a whole year when everything I made broke..."7
By working closely with the glass makers, Robinson was able to modify and explore the material in order to suit her changing creative requirements. The problems outlined above have largely been resolved although experimentation and modification continue, and are important to Robinson's working method.
Technical skill and method is linked to conceptual development. In the words of Ann Robinson:
"..I have never seen the 'idea' as the primary moving force behind my work - it has always interacted with and been enriched by the material process..."8
Risk taking, which is a major part in the technical development of working with glass, has enabled Robinson, at this stage in her career to develop more fully a personal - or individual language:
"..At this fifteen year plateau, a move from how, to what I make, has been combined with mature technical confidence. I feel, finally, a freedom to explore ideas that have been, for years, too risky. I see myself as the designer/maker of a very limited production series and 'one of a kind' prototypes. I have arrived at a mode of working that satisfies production and economic realities, while facilitating 'one of a kind' developments..."9
Constant throughout Robinson's career as a glass practitioner has been her development of the form of the vessel. In many respects the vessel becomes the metaphor through which Robinson is able to reference a number of key elements important to her personal visual language. These elements relate to historical, cultural and environmental influences conveyed through functional and aesthetic properties contained within the tradition of the vessel itself.
Ann Robinson articulated her attraction to the vessel form in an interview with Australian writer Noris Ioannou in March 1994:
"..I'm dedicated to vessel making... the bowl has to be a metaphor, it is a great mystery and can symbolize the world, the womb, the sky; it can be a transmitter or receiver... It is a form made throughout history, for thousands of years, by craftspeople. They have wrestled with the same thoughts that I have. I feel connected to human history through the working of the bowl..."10
Rather than being a restrictive idiom, the vessel opens up a multitude of expressive and metaphorical meanings, all of which retain a relevance to the glass tradition - and by extension the craft tradition itself. Because the vessel carries so rich a tradition, Robinson is able to work innovatively within a meaningful framework.
Robinson's working method is such that it is possible to trace the evolution and modification of one vessel form as it is carried over to the next. Several forms will be worked on and developed side by side, though the most recent vessel form will usually provide a reference point for the work which follows. Thus the earliest cast pieces produced by Robinson, works whose form originate from small inflated balloons dipped in wax, find a later reference point in the Amphora pieces developed from 1982-1990. Relatively small in scale, and thin walled, these pieces provide Robinson with a means to test technical modifications in anticipation of larger, more demanding works.
Because technical skill and conceptual profundity have developed simultaneously, each being a means to express the other, the earliest of Robinson's vessels display an integrity that is rarely found in work at an experimental stage in development. Robinson's interest in casting dates back to her years at the Auckland School of Art, where, in the 1960s she familiarised herself with the process of bronze casting. Robinson was able to adapt the methods learnt as they applied to metal casting in a manner more sensitive to the properties found in glass. This, in combination with an understanding of the material and manufacture learnt while blowing glass prior to her move to Karekare in 1989, ensured that Robinson's experiments in the field of glass casting were firmly grounded in a skill base.
The Water Bowl was the first of the larger glass vessels produced by Robinson and in contrast to the following series, the Ice Bowls - so called because these bowls look as if carved from ice, the Water Bowl appears relatively unadorned and simple. Robinson's Water Bowl won the 1986 New Zealand Phillip's Glass Award, a competition judged by Maureen Cahill, founder of the Glass Studies department at the Sydney College of the Arts, Australia.
The later Ice Bowls, Peace Bowls and Generation Bowls, begin to show signs of greater confidence in both sculptural form and in the glass casting process itself. First scratched and then carved, the varying depths of thickness in the vessel wall display the remarkable qualities of glass as both receptor and transmitter of light:
"..Glass changes with the light of the day, it is not static but a living thing. I find that glass used in this manner becomes an emotional material..."11
It is also during this period that the strong, and recurring identification with the land, its erosive processes (which were mirrored in the glass making process), and rhythmic patterns associated with plant forms begins to assert its dominance. This is manifested first in the patterns and designs carved onto the individual vessels, developing later to take over the form of the vessel itself. The Nikau12 series and the later Cactus Vase provide clear examples of the interconnection of the plant form with the vessel form.
Robinson speaks of the influence of the natural environment when she says:
"..When I walk through the bush, I observe the detail very closely - the criss cross of the nikau, the way the flax rises up from its base. Something in us responds to the flow of rhythmic patterns. The eye picks out the harmonies, almost like music. I like the idea of my pieces being rhythmical..."13
Beginning around 1988, and developing alongside the more advanced series of bowl forms, was the foundation of the vertical vessel, or tube form. Casting thin sheet wax, Robinson spent part of the time between 1988 and 1990 developing what became known as the Square Section Vases. These works, plain surfaced at first, then scratched and carved, mark the beginning of the later vertical vessel forms such as the Nikau vase, the round Nikau and the Cactus, the Puka14 and Orchid.
This period is marked, also, by a high failure rate, due in part to the type of glass being used. Though Robinson is on record as saying: "..even the failures are lovely..."15, the large number of breakages and failures resulted in a high level of frustration coupled with potential financial disaster which did not begin to right itself until the beginning of the 1990s.
In 1991 Robinson began working on her most ambitious work to date. Invited by curator James Mack, to participate in the New Zealand Expo exhibition Treasures of the Underworld to be held in Seville, Spain in 1992, Robinson developed a series of large scale works each of which used up to fifty kilograms of glass. Alongside her massive, legged bowls, the Antipodean Bowls (up until this point Robinson had utilised a single foot as the stand for her vessels), Robinson also began to explore ways of lengthening the stand for her taller vessels. It is from this period, therefore, that we see the Nikau Vessel mounted on a tall, trunk-like, stand.
In the works made for this exhibition we see, for the first time, the development of a fully figurative, sculptural motif in relation to the bowl form itself. Taking the form of an albatross head - a bird Robinson identifies as a 'guardian' of the Pacific - and mounted on the lip of each huge bowl, these works came to represent most clearly the Pacific identity. Given that Treasures of the Underworld was to be mounted on the other side of the world, this reference to the Pacific was an important part of the exhibition brief itself.
Robinson has always been conscious of situating her work within the traditions of the Pacific, so, although boldly stated in terms of this particular exhibition, the reference to the Pacific seems to be part of a continuing theme and interest present in all of Robinson's work. In a statement made in 1995, Robinson links the many and varied strands of influences on her work:
"..My own personal poetry has always centred around a love of the natural world - the abstracted patterns of life and growth evolve their own symbolism. Patterns I absorb from natural flora I find in the carvings of Pacific People, the patterns of Polynesia link in a universal language to the cultures of the world. To look inwards for their meaning is in fact to look outwards and find a kinship with a multitude of preliterate creators past and present. The generosity of the bowl with its multiple layers of meaning still offers a rich canvas..."16
This statement, perhaps more than any other, confirms the multiplicity of Robinson's personal language. Moreover it refers once more, to the historical and cultural associations implicit in the vessel. In her entry to the catalogue accompanying the Treasures of the Underworld exhibition, Robinson once more pays homage to the significance of the vessel:
"..The bowl for me is a timeless form with multiple levels of meaning. The bowl evokes all it has historically been - from the earliest mortar, through ritual and religious bowls, to the bowls that talk to satellites. The receiver, the holder, the protector, the offerer, and the transmitter..."17
Both statements assert a linkage to the roots of the glass and vessel traditions found in references to pre-history. This suggests to Robinson a spiritual and emotional significance found in the vessel. This spiritual meaning is utilised in the series of vessels following the Antipodean Bowls, that is, the Shrine Bowls. Developed during the same period of time as the Nikau vessels, the Shrine Bowls share the raised, lengthened foot of the larger Nikau works. This tall stand imparts a ceremonial aspect to the work and can be viewed as a development from earlier bowls which referenced the ceremonial serving bowls of Samoa, Fiji, Tonga and the Solomons.
The Scallop bowls and Crucible forms which also began to develop at this time, bring into focus the growing range of colour developed and utilised by Robinson during this period. Having found that a 45% lead crystal glass resulted in more reliable castings than the 30% lead crystal, Robinson extended her colour palette to more fully capture what might be regarded as the essence of New Zealand light:
"..This (the New Zealand light) is reflected in my work. Sharp, clear, stark, even hard, colours. Strong sun yellows, yellow green forest, dark copper blue evening skies, light blue summer skies, deep blue/green seas..."18
Colour continued to play a crucial role in the series of bowls leading on from and extending the Crucible series. These vessels, the Bowl of Tears and the Bowl for Morgan Le Fay (a wicked fairy - or wise witch - of Arthurian legend, the half-sister of King Arthur), differ from previous works in so much that coloured insets of glass have been ground into the walls of the bowls as a form of decoration. Up until this time, Robinson had often plugged faults in her works using this method, but this is the first time 'plugging' takes on purely decorative meaning.
In 1994 Robinson once again began developing a new shape for her vessels. The Oval Bowls, which later develop into the narrower Pod, stem from this period. Fascinated with the oval form because it allows freedom from the bowl 'lip', these vessels were originally transformations of the Crucible, altered in form through being cut in half, reduced in size and rejoined. Referring, visually, to a water born seed, and developed over a period of two years, the most recent of these Pod vessels are carved with either a flax or spiral motif, thus once more placing this work within the continuum of Robinson's reference to the natural world and the patterns of nature.
Most recently Robinson has revisited the taller vessel shape, a relation to the round section Nikau, though modified into new forms which reference the Cactus, Spiral and Orchid.
Though Robinson has, throughout her career, continued to explore the vessel form, submitting her work to new expressions in form, scale and colour, she has never denied the intrinsic beauty of the glass medium itself. Often referred to as a seductive material, a naturally beautiful medium, glass practitioners typically work with the material in order to draw out qualities of light, depth of colour and transparency just as an artist working with wood may make special reference to wood grain, or a potter may work with the expressive, spontaneous modelling properties of clay.
Seduction of materials is often spoken of in relation to the decorative arts and crafts and in this sense can imply that recognition of material beauty interferes in some way with conceptual integrity and innovation. Ann Robinson addresses and dismisses this implication when she retorts:
"..Why shouldn't I be seduced by it? I want to make stunning things in glass... it's terribly un-art, but if they want to lump me in the craft category that's okay..."19
Undoubtedly, conceptual rigour, technical skill and knowledge of medium combine in Robinson's work, maturing as her personal language for glass has developed.
William Warmus, in his essay The Completion of Studio Glass has suggested that:
"..Innovation makes sense in art as a way of moving beyond a meaningless or unproductive tradition... But, once innovation has accomplished its goals, it must become tradition if it is to be preserved in the culture..."20
Robinson shows no signs of losing impetus as her career as a glass practitioner progresses. Her most recent Spiral vases display a new gestural, spontaneous quality which confirms the level of confidence and maturity of vision Robinson has attained at this stage in her understanding and manipulation of the glass medium. Like the "...woman of strong purpose..." referred to at the beginning of this essay, Ann Robinson continues to make significant advancements in the area of glass and is likely to remain at the forefront of the International Studio Glass Movement for some time. Just as Robinson has paid homage to traditions and cultures which have helped form her personal vision, the challenge now is for everything else to try to follow.
1 Judy Grahn, The Work of a Common Woman,
Onlywomen Press, London, 1985, p88.