Our reality is isolation
Exhibition: The Cast, 2001
Aotearoa - New Zealand. Three and a half million people, a small agricultural country with little industry. As a people still close to our pioneering roots, we are proud of our resourcefulness. A necessary island attitude.
Import restrictions after World War II set the scene for the development of a rich ceramic movement. A strength of this was that it did not cater to a tourist trade, but was supported by a sector within the population who wanted utensils with a considered aesthetic and a hand-crafted quality as an alternative to mass-production.
As far as glass was concerned we had a window-glass factory or two and a bottle plant, but no glass art tradition. The glass movement emerged from the ceramics movement, with skills and a critical aesthetic being shared between practitioners from the two disciplines.
In 1980, at the age of 36, I re-enrolled at Elam School of Fine Arts at Auckland University to complete a Diploma of Fine Arts. Fifteen years previously at Elam, 'lost wax' bronze casting had been a strong interest. This time my objective was to learn to blow glass. Course requirements demanded diversification of my time so it was natural to also try casting this new 'metal' - glass. I graduated with glass blowing skills and a fascination with the potential of casting glass.
In 1981 Sunbeam Glass Works started as a partnership between John Croucher, Garry Nash and myself. We were resourceful and enthusiastic. With little knowledge we built a furnace, a glory hole, a lehr; we formulated batch, melted it and began to blow glass. To begin with we taught ourselves, and managed to sell our fledgling blobs to pay the bills. Having no knowledge of the 'Kugler' type colour bars, we melted two colours each day to accompany our clear batch. We grappled with annealing. When things went wrong, as they do in glassworks, we explored everything to overcome the obstacles.
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 an 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.
Later I discovered artists in other countries working in similar areas. Colin Reid and Tessa Clegg (UK), Karla Trinkley and Howard Ben Tre (USA), and as Czech cast glass emerged from behind the 'iron curtain', I became aware of the momentous work of Stanislav Libensky and Jaraslava Brychtova.
Initially my best help and advice came from potters and metallurgists for whom refractories, molten metals, expansion and contraction, heating and cooling cycles are a common language. In New Zealand, with its pottery tradition, it should not be surprising that the vessel was my starting point. The history of vessel making goes hand-in-hand with human history and I am proud to be part of that lineage, especially when I consider that the arm of the crafts-person reaching out from the past is probably that of a woman.
Step by step over the last seventeen years I have worked my way through a host of technical problems. To mention a few:
Moulds - The 'lost wax' bronze casting process that I had learned at art school was the Italian hand-built, plaster mould method. Had I learned the modern ceramic shell technique, I doubt that I would have succeeded in casting large vessels. I needed to formulate a refractory recipe, and become skilled at building moulds, layer by layer. They needed to be strong enough to hold the heavy hot glass, yet sufficiently soft to allow a vessel to contract and break free on completion. The fine-tuning goes on. Implodes, sucks, air entrapments, bubbles and flashing are still major areas for discussion in my workshop.
Glass - My early experiments with soda-lime glass showed that a lead-crystal glass would be more suitable. I imported 24% lead crystal cullet from Germany. It was of dubious quality and the freight costs were outrageous. My problem was solved when John Croucher - by then in partnership with John Leggott as Gaffer Glass making colour bar for glass blowers - offered to make a coloured lead crystal casting glass for me. It took a year of testing to perfect.
Colour - Much of my early work was copper or cobalt blue, easily achieved by grinding colour bar to a powder and mixing it into colourless cullet. Other colours were more challenging - colours that alter or burn out in the firing. Gaffer developed a range of casting glasses: selenium (yellow), gold (pink), rare earth colours such as erbium (pink) and neodymium (purple). To add to this remarkable palette it is possible to enrich the work by mixing colours myself.
Annealing - This was an important area of research. At first I used the annealing method established at Corning for blown glass. The work survived but it is impossible to detect stress in coloured opaque glass. My breakthrough came three years ago at an Ausglass workshop given by American scientist Dan Watson, who was then working in an industry that cast telescope lenses up to eight metres wide, and he had the answers we needed. The annealing process he taught, using thermocouples embedded in the mould walls, allowed exact monitoring of heating and cooling in the glass.
Finishing - Over the years I have become increasingly focused on achieving a skin-like surface. Finishing these complex shapes is labour intensive. My work is too heavy to be held on a lap, or up to a linisher. I was fortunate to have the New Zealand jade carving practice to refer to, so my methods draw more from the hard-stone industry than the European traditions of cutting and polishing. Nothing can replace the days of hand working that each piece requires, and the final acid polish is hard to better for beauty and permanence.
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 respect technique and enjoy the rich interplay between process and idea. Process considerations can introduce lateral explorations with potential for unexpected new directions.
When I stopped blowing glass twelve years ago, I had intended only a year's break. But I never quite got back to blowing. I found myself increasingly drawn to casting, which for me is a more satisfying process. It can achieve thickness, surface detail and forms that are impossible at the end of a blowpipe. I needed to be private and introspective; to explore my personal imagery.
My work is a response to the environment of Karekare where I live - light and mood, pattern and rhythm are all around me - strong simple forms, strong contrasts, strong sharp colours. There is persistent evidence of erosion by water and wind, the rubbing of one element against another. In Maori, Karekare means eager, agitated, or disturbed, reflecting my state of mind.
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.