An act of love

Exhibition: Pacific Rim: Ann Robinson's Glass, 2003. Museum of New Zealand/ Te.Papa Tongarewa, Wellington, New Zealand.
Article: by Peter Simpson

"Glass allows us to build up a harmony between shapes and penetrating light, and to thus define the essence of light-space and to touch the secret of this space. Nevertheless, although glass is a prime medium for us, the character and the qualities of this material are something more than only a means of artistic expression. Therefore, we cannot do anything but be all the time nearby glass." - Stanislav Libensky and Jaroslava Brychtova, 1995

From October 2002 to September 2003 a small (about twenty pieces), tightly-edited exhibition Pacific Rim: Ann Robinson's Glass is showing at Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand's sixth level gallery, The Terrace. Too selective to be regarded as a fully representative survey - it doesn't compare in this respect with Casting Light: A Survey of Glass Castings 1981-1997 (Dowse Art Museum, Auckland Art Gallery, 1998), which included 75 pieces - it nevertheless provides an opportunity to reflect on the development and achievement of one of New Zealand's most widely exhibited and internationally respected artists. As well as in New Zealand Robinson has exhibited in Spain, Germany, Luxembourg, Japan and frequently in Australia and the United States of America; her work is included in such noteworthy collections as the Corning Museum of Glass, New York, the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

In 2001 Lopdell House Gallery in Waitakere City, Auckland, mounted an exhibition called The Cast: New Zealand Contemporary Cast Glass - curated by Robinson with Elizabeth McClure, Mary Holehan and John Croucher - that included the work of 23 artists working in this demanding medium. As recently as 1990 such an exhibition would not have been possible; or, rather, it would have had a 'cast of one'. Robinson was the only glass caster active in New Zealand then. A decade earlier Robinson had begun blowing glass and was beginning the experiments with the lost wax technique that eventually led to her first successful cast vessels in the mid-1980s; the earliest pieces shown in Pacific Rim date from 1985. In other words, in less than 20 years Robinson has brought her own art to a point of achieved excellence and maturity, and has contributed substantially, through teaching, mentoring and the example of her work, to bringing into existence a lively movement involving an ever-growing number of practitioners, including Emma Camden, David Murray, Jo Nuttall, Meagan Tidmarsh, Layla Walter, and many others.

Ann Robinson's initial experiments in casting glass were made at Elam School of Fine Arts in 1980 when she returned for a year to complete a Diploma of Fine Arts begun in the 1960s. At Elam, given almost sole access to a recently completed glass studio, she divided her time between glass blowing and glass casting, and began adapting the bronze casting techniques she had learned previously to suit the dictates of glass. These experiments continued through the 1980s while she was part of a glass-blowing partnership with John Croucher and Garry Nash known as Sunbeam Glass Works:

"This was my apprenticeship. When the partnership ended after nine years we had become quite good blowers with a deep understanding of the properties of glass, and we were proficient problem solvers. When I look back I can see what advantage that background has been to me as a caster. With no tradition and no teachers, as far as I knew I was inventing the techniques myself. My first successful piece took two years, but the failures were beautiful, and intriguing." - A.R.

Initially Robinson used for her casting experiments the surplus glass left at the bottom of the furnace at the end of a day's glass-blowing. The glass used for these early experiments was a soda-lime blowing glass. It soon proved to be inadequate for casting purposes. Subsequently Robinson began importing glass from Europe in the form of costly lead crystal cullet, but it was not until a local source of coloured glass with a lead component became available that reliable progress could be made. As Robinson herself is quick to acknowledge, her achievements of the past decade or so have partly been made possible by the availability of appropriate raw materials from the factory of Gaffer Coloured Glass.

A partnership between John Croucher (formerly of Sunbeam Studio) and John Leggott, Gaffer Coloured Glass set out to emulate the kind of glass suitable for casting that was made in a single factory in Bohemia and had made possible the famous Czech glass-casting movement particularly associated with the husband and wife team of Stanislav Libensky and Jaroslava Brychtova. The Czechs, however, were in no position to share either their raw materials or their technical know-how.

After a year or so in which Gaffer produced samples and Robinson trialed them, a satisfactory 45% lead crystal glass was produced which avoided the problems of devitrification which had earlier plagued her and provided glass with the sparkle, transparency, and depth of colour which Robinson was looking for. Eventually Gaffer was able to offer 37 different colours of glass that is now exported world-wide. According to Croucher:

"None of this would have happened without Robinson's unstinting energy and support, and her generosity in sharing the information so that others achieve success in casting."

Lost wax casting (also known as cire perdue) is a centuries old technique first used to cast bronze. In Robinson's description:

"The lost wax glass casting process 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 reinvested 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."

The lost wax technique was revived almost simultaneously by glass artists in Czechoslovakia, United Kingdom, and USA - as well as by Robinson in New Zealand - working initially in complete isolation from each other. The development of computer controlled kilns has been important in the refinement of the technique in recent years.

A helpful feature of the Te Papa exhibition is the use of photographs within the vitrines to document and illustrate the various stages of the casting process. Even more detailed is a Flash Slide Show on Te Papa's website. In a sequence of 19 slides the whole process is illustrated in relation to the making of an Agathis Vase (2002) - preparation of the plaster mould; filling of the mould with molten wax; removal of the plaster mould; adding surface decoration to the wax blank; application of the second heat-resistant mould; steaming out of the wax; pouring the molten glass into the hollowed out mould; removal of the second mould; and the finishing work with tools and acid baths on the glass object.

The Te Papa exhibition is arranged chronologically and begins with some examples of Robinson's blown glass pieces made at Sunbeam Glass in 1988. These Blown Gourds consist of white glass with coloured pickups in black, yellow and red in a fern-shaped decoration on their surfaces. There is a clear connection between the decoration on these blown pieces and the bas-relief carving which produces the designs on her later cast pieces.

Next in the show come some early examples of cast vessels such as Ice Bowl (1986, Dowse Art Museum), a pale cobalt blue vessel made from soda-lime glass. The ice bowl with its deeply incised curving chevron shapes is a form that Robinson has continued to make ever since, though later examples are more refined than this early example where the effects of devitrification can be clearly seen.

"The Ice Bowl actually plays a very special role in my work - rather like a weather vane. Because it is now a very predictable piece, I use it to test changes I am always trying in the process such as mould materials, firing schedules, glasses, colourants and annealing. It's a piece that has changed immensely with these technical changes, and each time seems to be a new piece with its own idiosyncrasies and character." - A.R.

Two other vessels made prior to the availability of glass with lead content are the cobalt blue Large Square Section Vessel (1989, Dowse Art Museum), made from crushed, recycled soda-lime glass, and Water Bowl (1989), made from blue/green soda-lime glass. This bowl with its parallel striations on the inside of the bowl like ripples on water or sand (a recurrent Robinson motif) is beautifully modulated in colour from the blue of the rim to the green of the base, an effect that she has used with increasing frequency in recent years.

The exhibition is centred on the superb vessels Robinson contributed to the Treasures of the Underworld Exhibition at the Seville Expo in 1992. Curator James Mack commissioned 14 artists for this exhibition (all ceramicists except for Robinson) who were invited to work on a scale larger than they had ever attempted before. In Robinson's case this meant making works up to four times larger (in terms of the amount of glass involved) than her previous works, including vessels weighing 50 kgs. As Robinson commented in the Seville catalogue:

"The Expo commission, the size of the Pavilion, the siting of the work all seemed to require work of a 'ceremonial' rather than a 'domestic' scale, works of ritual power. I leapt with confident audacity into making works of such a scale and technical complexity that even now I would hesitate to try them again."

These were among her first works that had lead in the glass mixture. Two Square Nikau vases were made in 2 parts, in combination reaching over 800mm in height. These pieces with their ziggurat shaped sections at the bottom and the sweeping leaf-blade shapes in the upper sections are among Robinson's most striking designs. Also for Seville Robinson made two Antipodean Bowls, one standing on four legs (with an allusion to Pacific kava bowls) in opaque colourless glass, the other in pale copper blue on a single plinth, both with finely fashioned albatross heads, evoking oceanic distances, attached to their rims. Also made for Seville was the magisterial Pacific Bowl (1991), at 310mm x 645mm, the largest piece that Robinson has ever made. As the centrepiece of her Seville contribution it signifies the wide blue expanses of the Pacific Basin, and draws both on the natural environment of the Pacific and on the Polynesian cultures which it has sustained:

"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." - A.R.

Further adaptations of the bowl form followed in the later 1990s; included in Pacific Rim are Plain Pod (1995), Te Rito Pod (1996), Side Carved Flax Pod (1997) and Large Wide Bowl (1997). The first three of these are oval shaped with pointed ends, one in a delicious clear orange, another in a lustrous lime or leaf green shade, the third in deep orange-red. More often than not Robinson's later bowls and vases have designs incised into the wax blanks prior to the application of the refractory material which constitutes the second mould. For instance, 'Te Rito' refers to the overlapping V-shaped form at the base of the flax plant, harakeke - a favourite motif. Robinson has described carving the wax blanks as being like 'carving cheese'. Plaster moulds can be used over and over again, but modifying the wax blanks enables Robinson to produce many subtle changes of shape and surface decoration, creating a pattern of repetition and variation that runs throughout her career. Large Wide Bowl, with its rippled surface is cast in a gorgeous red colour which comes from the element uranium. Gaffer glass has produced glass from many such rare elements, all of which have their unique colouration (others are erbium pink and neodimium purple).

There are many other bowl forms in Robinson's repertoire of forms which are not represented in Pacific Rim, including Generation bowls, Scallop bowls, Shrine bowls and Crucible bowls:

"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 offeror, and the transmitter." - A.R.

Apart from bowls Robinson's favourite vessel form is the tall vase, on which she has executed a myriad variations of colour, shape and surface decoration. In the Te Papa show, one large cabinet contains five of these resplendent forms, Cactus Vessels in neodymian mauve (1994) and blue (2001), Orchid Vessel from 1997 (kelp coloured), Spiral Vessel (1997) (red), and Puka Vase from 2001 (green and red). Most of the surface decorations come from closely observed botanical details in her garden or from the bush which surrounds her Karekare home.

In 1999 Robinson held a show called Adrift in Seattle, a city that is known as the glass centre of North America. The title has a variety of connotations. On the one hand it suggests a mood of personal change, reflected in a decisive though not permanent shift from vessel forms to a range of sculptural shapes without plinths closely derived from natural phenomena - flax pods, spiral crustacea, mangrove pods etc. On the other hand Adrift suggests the origin of some of the shapes in items picked up on the beach having drifted there on the tide. Robinson remarked:

"Adrift has been an evolutionary process. After twenty years of intense struggle to perfect my casting process, I found it necessary to set myself adrift, to immerse myself in the elements that I was strongly drawn to, not always understanding the reasons... to set myself adrift and find out where I wash up, what I have become."

Perhaps this shift was an inevitable reaction to the effort and inevitable self-scrutiny involved in bringing together her large survey exhibition Casting Light in 1998. Two such sculptural pieces are included in the Te Papa show. These Flax Pods are almost a metre in length, and range in colour from yellow to gold in the hollowed out pod forms with red for the stem. While instantly recognisable, the pods are also rich in connotation. In particular, the alteration of scale from objects a few centimetres long to something dozens of times larger enhances the totemic and metaphoric properties of the pieces. The flax-pods become suggestive of (perhaps) sexual parts or ocean going canoes washed up on distant shores.

The most recent pieces in the exhibition are two vases utilising a new shape, a curved and flattened adaptation of the square form that she has used since the 1980s. The square base has been 'squeezed', as it were, into something like a flattened diamond shape with the disposition of the curving sides altered accordingly. Curving Vase (2002) has no surface decoration but has plain sides like the unmodified wax blank. Agathis Vase (2002) uses an identical form but has a carved motif of a branch of kauri leaves, raised in relief on one side of the vase, recessed on the other - a clever adaptation of bas-relief carving. Another feature of this piece is the exquisite colouring. In recent years Robinson has perfected the technique of 'fading one colour into another, red into green, pink or greens into clear, yellow into green'. In Agathis Vase, instead of the transition being even and regular from one colour at the top to another at the bottom, the distribution of colour is unpredictable and irregular resulting in exquisite highlights and other serendipitous and unplanned effects.

In a recent essay Robinson wrote:

"Glass is an expressive material, capable of beauty and subtle nuances of mood. To me, working on a piece is an act of love: the more effort that you put in the more that comes shining back out... I realise that there is another dimension that goes hand-in-hand with the exploration of material, form and pattern: it is the layers of myself that I discover along the way. For me to explore the patterns of life is an affirmation of life."

In such sublime works as the Agathis vases the vexed distinction between 'craft' and 'art' is comprehensively transcended. Such works are, to appropriate some favourite lines from Ian Wedde:

Not here & not there but truly
Beyond what?
beyond that question.