Exhibition: Luminaries, Jan 2009, Sabbia Gallery, Sydney, NSW, Australia
Congratulations to Anna and Maria, and Kylie and Honor, at Sabbia, for again presenting us with a fantastic exhibition to open the new year. This is the 4th Masters of Glass exhibition in this time slot, but many of you will remember the six before, that that Anna organised at Quadrivium gallery so this could be seen as a 10th anniversary.
This time, as you know, it is of seven New Zealanders working with cast glass, and three of them are here: Evelyn Dunstan, Ann Robinson and Layla Walter.
And for those of you who were here earlier to hear them speak about their work, they gave a wonderful insight into what they are thinking about.
I think almost all of these artists use a lost wax casting process, where the model is formed in wax, encased in a mould, and fired in a process where hot glass replaces the wax in that mould. Ann tells me it can take a couple of months for a big piece to anneal, or cool slowly, so it won’t crack, and then there is a painstaking finishing and polishing process.
It is a special pleasure for me to speak at this exhibition, because I am a New Zealander living in Australia and I like to keep an eye on both. I’ve always been interested in the many similarities, and differences, and connections, between the studio glass histories in these two countries.
For both countries, studio glass started with many of the same patterns: a developing crafts movement that in the 1970s started to include studio glass with what are now recognised as pioneering workshops and studios; influential migrants from UK, Europe, America; opportunities for people here to travel between these two countries, and further afield.
To start with in NZ, as in Australia, apart from flat glass work, the first studio activity was glass blowing. Cast glass came later, from the 1980s, and it was Ann Robinson whose interest set the pace, and in fact has opened up many possibilities for others.
At first there were no formal education courses for any kind of glass education or training, so those who became interested had to work it all out for themselves. They came from many different backgrounds, and often studied in different subject areas, but had to work out both the technology, and a critical aesthetic, on their own.
In the last few years, there have been a couple of NZ exhibitions that tell part of this story. Southern Exposure, which went to Ebeltoft in Denmark, in 2005, and The Cast, which focused especially on cast glass, in 2001.
Five of the people in Luminaries, were in both exhibitions: Christine Cathie, Emma Camden, Robyn Irwin, Layla Walter and Ann Robinson. Evelyn Dunstan and Galia Amsel are more recent figures in this glass scene: Evelyn shifting from ceramics during this time; and Galia migrating from the UK.
The reason I mention these exhibitions, is that in The Cast, in particular, there are two important essays. One is by Ann Robinson, titled ‘Our reality is our Isolation’, where she talks about what it was like getting started in a field where lead crystal had to be imported, and the only casting she knew was her much earlier experience with casting bronze at art school.
She re-enrolled in art school, and in 1981, with a couple of colleagues, set up the Sunbeam Glass Works, where they were trying not only to work with glass but to make it. One of those partners was John Croucher, who with John Leggott, as many will know, went on to found Gaffer Glass to provide coloured glass for glassblowers as an alternative to expensive imports from Germany. Ann’s interest in finding a lead crystal for her casting, encouraged Gaffer to work with her over some time to develop just what she wanted and eventually a casting glass that others were able to use as well. Both sides of this story are in this catalogue most people in Luminaries, I think, are using this glass.
I think her colleagues would agree that Ann is an absolute leader in cast glass in New Zealand, and is extremely wellknown here and elsewhere. She is more like a star with satellites than a mother hen, as she described herself earlier. Maybe she’s the chief Luminary. She has a studio in Auckland, and employs four part-time people to work with her. Much of her work is for commission these days, and the flax pods and Nikau vases in this exhibition are excellent examples of her work. She’s interested in investigating the connections we might have to the natural world, saying about the flax pods, for example, that they symbolise the promise of an abundant future (and I know the way they snuggle together is deliberate).
But her argument is always that while learning from mentors and teachers is necessary and important, others must find their own voices, and this is what is so very evident in this exhibition.
Many of these artists are similarly self taught, but often from another professional background which might not only give them something to say, but also influence their aesthetic and ideas. Some have worked and exhibited in Australia, and a number have been selected for the Ranamok glass award. As well, some are well-known further afield.
Evelyn Dunstan has a background in graphic design and ceramics, started working in glass in around 2003, and has a studio within a busy environment of family and pets, and also a natural environment that clearly influences her complex cast forms, here reflecting the foliage seen in native forests. You might recognise her work from her winning entry in the Ranamok award of 2007.
Layla Walter grew up on the beautiful tip of the Coromandel peninsula, and was able to study in the glass program at Unitech, in Auckland, where among others she was taught by Liz McClure whom we know from her years in Canberra. She works in a studio with seven others; is an assistant to Ann; and has also had opportunities to work in other places such as Pilchuck school in Seattle, as well as in Australia. It is a pleasure to see her work again, based this time on associations with friends and family through the plants grown in their gardens (and you should smell the inside of her tall vases to get some idea of what is involved in finishing them).
The few courses in glass in New Zealand were shortlived, so glass artists there remain resourceful and innovative, developing shared facilities and networks, both among their immediate colleagues, those they have met in other places and those who visit them there. I know these three artists are renewing many acquaintances here tonight.
Thrown again on their own resources, New Zealanders draw strongly on the experienced mentors amongst them, while trying to maintain a necessary critical framework in which to develop their own work.
In the work of other artists in the exhibition, you will notice a strong theme of a response to the natural environment; a number of them also talk about their interest in rhythm, movement, and balance.
Galia Amsel, who trained in the UK and is well-known overseas, was encouraged by Ann to come to NZ a few years ago, and says she draws on the natural environment for the rhythms and movement in which she is interested. Christine Cathie is also interested in movement and lightness, and refers to geographical and maybe geological, features of the land, for her ideas. Robyn Irwin looks especially here, at volcanic landscapes, and the contrasts of melting snow with exposed rock.
On a slightly different tack, Emma Camden has worked for some time on themes of migration to a new world, and in this works she combines crosses with swords and flags, as part of an investigation into why we need to go to war with one another.
This is a truly well-selected exhibition from the best of what is happening in cast glass in New Zealand, and shows just why it is that New Zealand is identified so strongly with this way of working.