A divaricating habit: Ann Robinson branches out 

Published in: Craft Arts International No. 75, 2009
Divaricate 2008 at FHE Gallery, Auckland. New Zealand
Article: by Peter Simpson

Motivated by the need for more space, after two decades working from her studio in the Waitakere Ranges overlooking New Zealand’s Tasman coast, celebrated glass artist Ann Robinson decided to elevate her glassmaking to an industrial scale.  Loaded with national and international awards (including in 2006 a Life Time Achievement Award from the Glass Arts Society of America), and with work in major collections worldwide (such as the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, the Corning Museum of Glass in New York State, the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne and the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington), New Zealand glass artist Ann Robinson, now in her sixties, might have been expected to “rest on her laurels”. Far from it. Recent exhibitions. held on both sides of the Tasman, “A Trans-Tasman Sampler” at Axia Modern Art, Melbourne, in August/September, 2008, and “Divaricate” at FHE Galleries, Auckland, in November/December, 2008, revealed both strong continuities with previous practice, in the first instance, and bold innovations – a genuine branching out – in the other.

As the title “A Trans-Tasman Sampler” suggests, the Melbourne exhibition placed the emphasis on continuity rather than innovation. The works shown – cast crystal vessels all made in 2008 – were samples of many of the vessel forms with which she has become identified over the past 20 or more years. The Melbourne show consisted of 10 pieces (in the following list the dates in brackets indicates when a particular vessel entered her repertoire): an Ice Bowl in copper blue (1986); a Nikau Vase in red/ green (1992); a Scallop Bowl in red (1993); two versions of the Pod Vase, one in yellow the other in fuchsia pink (1994); a Side Carved Flax Pod in green (1996); a Te Rito Pod in citrine (also 1996); a Spiral Vase in aquamarine (1997); an Agathis Vase in chardonnay/ochre (2002); and a Flax Vase in lime green (2006).

The repetition of forms partly reflects the process by which objects are made in the lost-wax (cire perdue) process that Robinson pioneered for studio glassmaking in New Zealand.1 The process (in brief summary) begins with the making of a plaster mould into which molten wax is poured. Later the wax “blanks” so formed are modified (or not as the case may be) with surface designs and encased in a heat-resistant covering from which the wax is melted out in a kiln and replaced with molten glass. The glass is gradually reduced to room temperature (by the critical process known as “annealing” which may require days or weeks depending on the size of the object) after which the outer casing is removed and the object readied for finishing by grinding, sand-blasting, acid-bathing and polishing. It is the re-usable plaster moulds that enables the basic form of a piece to be repeated, though in Robinson’s work no two pieces are exact replicas of each other because of the many later stages in the process which involve personal intervention, either by her or an assistant, such as the carving of the wax blanks with surface designs in intaglio or relief, and the subtle modifications introduced through the finishing processes. When new pieces are compared with earlier versions of the same form a myriad subtle variations is revealed according to whether the colour is pure or mixed, the height and thickness of the stem, whether the incised marks extend to the stem, how deeply the cuts are incised, the profile and contour of the lip, the degree of polishing undertaken, and so on. The realisation that every piece is freshly and intimately reassessed removes any notion of the works being merely part of a production line.

As an example from the Melbourne show of an older form revisited, Nikau Vase Form (2008) has blade shapes based on the leaf of the nikau palm, either raised in relief from the surface or recessed into the glass. Earlier examples of this form were invariably emerald green in colour, evoking by their translucence the appearance of sunlight through the nikau fronds in their bush setting; whereas in this latest example, the glass (except for the leaf blades) is combed, and red has been faded into green, rendering the shapes more abstract and at the same time evocative of bushfires.

If “A Trans-Tasman Sampler” has something of the feel of “Greatest hits newly remastered” about it, “Divaricate” creates a very different impression. It shows Robinson branching out in new directions in terms both of the forms and their decoration. The primary reference of the exhibition title is to a brand new vessel form, Divaricate Bowl, in pale chardonnay – one of the newer colours in the everextending range (now more than 40 colours) available from her supplier, Gaffer Glass. This piece is novel both in shape – an elliptical form which she calls Landscape Vessel (of which there is another example without surface decoration in the show) – and in its all-over decoration in which the diagonally combed surface is figured with a relief pattern of leaves and branches that extends to the base of the wide and also elliptical stem. The surface decoration is based on the uniquely divaricating form of the native New Zealand shrub Muehlenbeckia, which has tiny heart-shaped leaves attached at the point where stems branch off at right angles; a botanical peculiarity said to have evolved to protect the plant from the ravages of foraging moa, the extinct giant Notornis. On this marvelously effective vessel the leaf shapes are polished to mirror-like brightness, animating the surface with flashes of light while contrasting vividly with the striated body of the glass.  However, “Divaricate” has more wide-reaching connotations than the name of an exciting new form. As Robinson says in a catalogue note:

‘The Muehlenbeckia has a divaricating habit. The term cannot be resisted…I have a divaricating habit. Comes a choice, go left or right? (Nature knows the way, and I follow.) The chosen path leads to new junctions where further decisions are made. In no time I find myself in a new place from where it would be impossible to find my way back.’ 2

A significant way in which this statement holds true is that, after 20 years working in a studio situated in the forested Waitakere Ranges high above Karekare Beach on the Tasman coast west of Auckland, Robinson has moved to a new, much larger, studio in the light industrial suburb of Glendene, near where the mangrove-fringed Whau River enters the Waitemata Harbour. It requires some adjustment to think of Robinson’s exquisite glass pieces emerging from a mundane industrial environment; one has got so used to associating their majestic forms, however accurately or not, with the dramatic landscapes of Karekare (readers unfamiliar with the place may recall the awesome backdrops at the start of Jane Campion’s movie The Piano, that was filmed there) and with the bush vegetation that has inspired many of the patterns on her vessels: nikau, kauri (the Agathis Vase), puka, harakeke (flax) and bush orchids.

The move to a new studio was largely driven by the need for more space – space to fit the big kilns needed to cast her ever-larger pieces and all the other equipment associated with their manufacture, such as a sandblaster, for instance (a job that used to be undertaken out of the studio), and also to accommodate her growing team of assistants who now number five, several of whom (such as Layla Walter and Michael Crawford) are glass artists in their own right).

Large size is a feature of the seven pieces in “Divaricate”, all weighing more than 40 kg. This is glassmaking on an industrial scale and it simply burst the bounds of the studio in the bush at Karekare. Landscape Vessel, for example, is a massive deep red structure unadorned by surface decoration, in striking contrast to the similarly sized and shaped Divaricate Bowl.3

Three of the works in the show utilise another authoritative new form called Hemisphere Vessel. This form came about by bisecting the wax blank of a Large Wide Bowl – a form first made in 1997 – and fusing the two halves together to create a form which in side-on profile makes a perfect hemisphere sitting on a short stem, while a perspective from end-on or above reveals a narrow elliptical or canoe-like shape more than half a metre long. These three examples demonstrate the variety of surface effects Robinson achieves. Hemisphere Vessel #1 in a luscious hyacinth blue (in which blue and purple hues have been subtly blended), has a rippled surface both inside and out in which the striations echo the hemispherical shape of the vessel. This exquisite ripple effect results from the carefully controlled way wax is poured into its mould. In this instance the thick lip is gently curved and carries on its matte surface a wood grain-like pattern that preserves the intricate movements of the molten glass.

Hemisphere Vessel #2 in pale steel blue also has ripples both inside and out but a flat lip polished to mirror-like brilliance, a refinement utilized on several of the new pieces. Hemisphere Vessel #3 in the colour known as chardonnay (a deeper shade than on Divaricate Bowl) also has a highly reflective lip but in this case only the interior of the bowl is rippled while the outside is smooth. All these variations react distinctively to the ambient light.

Not all of the forms in “Divaricate” are new. Antipodean Bowl reprises a shape Robinson first made as part of her ground-breaking contribution to the exhibition sent to the Seville World Expo in 1992. The bowl has an inverse conical shape with a circular rim and stands on four stout legs, referencing a Pacific Islands kava bowl. Like other revisited forms, it has been modified and refined. This version, cast in a superb deep bronze colour, has stouter legs and a different way of attaching them to the body of the bowl, somewhat reminiscent of flying buttresses on a cathedral. As with Landscape Vessel, the pristine surface is unadorned with decoration though the wide flat lip is polished to a mirror-like transparency.

Only one work in “Divaricate” eschews the vessel form in favour of free form sculpture: Twisted Flax Pods, a colossal magnification of a familiar botanical feature, is a muchelaborated version of a piece that Robinson has been making for a decade or so. Earlier versions, like those shown in Seattle in 1999,4 were shorter and straighter with stems of contrasting colour as compared to the latest version measuring almost 150 cm in length, in which the twisting, undulating form is doubled and attached to a steel stem crafted by a neighbouring Glendene artist John Hall; the colour subtly modulates between olive green and yellow. It is an astonishing piece, a measure of the vast distances Robinson has travelled since her first experiments in casting glass nearly 30 years ago.

As she recently told a reporter from the New Zealand Herald: ‘I don’t know what I would do if I stopped doing it. There is still a lot I want to doWe are filling in time between now and dying. So you’ve got to find something as interesting as you can – something you love doing.5 Ann Robinson has been in her new studio less than a year. Already the results are beautiful and impressive, as these two exhibitions amply demonstrate.Who knows whatmore is yet to come from an artist so resourceful, so gifted and with a divaricating habit?

Notes: 1. For a fuller description of the lost-wax process see Ann Robinson: Cast Glass http://www.annrobinson.co.nz 2. Ann Robinson: “Divaricate”, FHE Galleries, Auckland, 2008 3. There is no plaster mould of this form; each example is freshly modeled. 4. Ann Robinson: “Adrift”, Elliott-Brown Gallery, Seattle, 1999. 5. Adam Gifford, “A fascination and a terror”, New Zealand Herald, November 15, 2008, p. B7.        

Peter Simpson has written extensively on New Zealand art and literature. His most recent books are Colin McCahon: The Titirangi Years 1953- 1959 (Auckland University Press, 2007) and Peter Peryer Photographer (Auckland University Press, 2008).