A woman of glass: on winning the John Britten Award 2002

Exhibition: Woman of Glass 2003
Article: by Helen Schamroth

Think majestic cast glass, think luminous vessels - the name that springs to mind is Ann Robinson. Local and international audiences have lauded her translucent signature works, works that range from saturated glorious colour to pale ice-like hues.

The 2002 John Britten Award for design leadership was presented to Robinson at the Best Design Awards of the Designers Institute of New Zealand. On presenting the award Angela Roper of the DINZ Council said: "Her pioneering spirit, conceptual rigour, technical enquiry and generosity of knowledge have had, and continue to have, a significant impact on the national and international Studio Glass Movement."

Robinson received news of the accolade with typical modesty. She was as surprised as was the design community. Yet the story of the development of cast glass in New Zealand and, in particular Robinson's role, is a wonderful story of Kiwi 'can do' attitude. It is a tale of a pioneer trying to solve technical problems to realise her creative vision. On the way she initiated an industry, which produces a world-class material with a world-wide market, simultaneously developing an art form that captured the public's imagination.

Robinson completed a Diploma in Fine Arts at Auckland University in 1980 specialising in glass blowing and bronze casting. A domestic purposes beneficiary at the time, she borrowed money to establish with Garry Nash and John Croucher the glass blowing cooperative, Sunbeam Glass Works. She remained there for nine years.

Her dual interests led her to attempt to cast glass using 'lost wax casting' traditionally used for bronze. Robinson modified the process to fit the dictates of glass and continues to use the process she devised for producing either a series or a 'one of a kind' piece.

Repeated wax forms are created in a plaster mould and the resulting 'blanks' are embellished with the addition of motifs or relief carving. The wax is then invested in a second mould of refractory materials that can withstand the high kiln firing temperature. After the wax is steamed out, the resultant mould containing glass is heated in a kiln. The molten glass is cooled very slowly, the mould material is carefully broken off and the laborious work of re-surfacing, grinding and polishing proceeds. A final dip in an acid bath produces the soft luminous polished surface for which Robinson is renowned.

The journey to achieving consistent unbroken works was characterised by Robinson's descriptor of 'glorious failures' as she pushed the limits of the medium. The glass she imported from Germany frequently let her down. Yet she persevered and produced some beautiful works, receiving the Phillips Glass Award in 1984 and 1986 and the Winstone Biennale Award for craft in 1987. Equipment grants received from the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council in 1983, 1984 and 1991 assisted this development.

1n 1991, James Mack, Assistant Director National Museum of New Zealand, was commissioned by the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council, EXPO New Zealand and the National Museum to curate and design the exhibition, Treasures of the Underworld for the NZ Pavilion at World Expo in Seville, Spain. Thirteen ceramic artists and Robinson were commissioned to create major new work for the show. In the catalogue statement for the New Zealand exhibition that ensued in 1993 Robinson wrote: "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."

The breakages Robinson experienced would have daunted most people. A technical breakthrough came when Robinson experimented, successfully, with salvaged broken pieces of imported cut crystal. But success was inconsistent.

In 1993 she turned to colleague John Croucher, a skilled self taught glass chemist who enjoyed the challenge of glass problems. In a small studio in Herne Bay he and John Leggott were glass blowing under the label of Giovanni Glass. They also produced coloured glass rods, the beginnings of their business, Gaffer Glass, and willingly responded to Robinson's request for help.

It took more than a year of trials and losses before they achieved success, and they suffered considerable financial setback. The trio experimented first with 30% lead crystal, which proved to be too viscous and devitrified on cooling. Samples acquired from the Czech Republic, the main, somewhat isolated, European centre for cast glass development, led them to try 45% lead crystal. It proved to be not only reliable but was able to support the full colour spectrum.

Robinson has exhibited in New Zealand, Australia, USA, Luxembourg, Germany, Japan and Spain. Over the years she has been invited to teach in a number of courses in New Zealand and Australia, as well as the prestigious American Pilchuck Glass School. Speak to anyone who has been under her tutelage and they cannot speak highly enough of her generosity and knowledge. Inspired and mentored by Robinson, a new generation of cast glass exponents emerged in sufficient numbers for Gaffer Glass to develop into a viable business, producing high quality billets of coloured lead crystal glass as well as glass rods for glass blowing.

Parallel to Robinson's international success has been Gaffer Glass's growth. The company sells to a substantial international market, proving to be very competitive with German glass producers. The huge glass industry in Taiwan now comes to them, a Seattle company manufactures their glass under license and the recipe is being taken to Bulgaria. Thirteen people produce and distribute the glass at their Morningside plant that includes a new glass-gathering robot.

Robinson works from her studio on an idyllic bush-clad property at Karekare. Her partner, sculptor John Edgar has a separate studio there. Part time assistant Layla Walter has worked with Robinson for some years while developing her own glass casting career. Others - local and from overseas - spend time with Robinson to learn while assisting her.

Inspiration comes from Robinson's environment and she continues to experiment and make continuous improvements to existing forms. On a recent visit I saw her newest breathtakingly beautiful works - massive leaf forms, with hints of erosion on the surface, cracked like a gorge through a landmass. She relishes these evocations of life's imperfections.

This is the sculptor working to commission and for exhibitions. It is also the business woman and designer, articulating a vision, engaging in research and development, product development and market development. She has been leading artistically and technically, inspiring, teaching and mentoring a new generation. For this Ann Robinson was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the 2001 Queens Birthday honours. She is a worthy winner of the John Britten Award.