“After all, everything is made from something, and those who make things -artists, designers, cooks, engineers, furniture makers, jewellers, surgeons and so on - all have a different understanding of the practical, emotional and and sensual aspect of their materials.”
(Stuff Matters, Mark Miodownik, 2013)
Materials are at the heart of our world -we do live in a material world- and I make my world with glass. Making; the act of manufacture, building, constructing, assembly, production, creation, putting together, fabricating, invention, composition… Making involves active participation with materials. The materials I use are predominantly glass but I have also worked with concrete, wood, metal and lighting. The increased importance of digital and technical processes incorporated in my work and the complex nature of large-scale architectural projects, makes working closely with other professionals not just a necessity but also a key part of my working practice. Working with others, whose knowledge and making skills of others materials, makes collaborative working a joy.
The space in which work is created is a key part of how work is made. The equipment in the purpose-made studio in the Scottish Borders studio allow domestic scale work to be made in-house and for samples and experimental work to be developed. The studio has two kilns which form the centre of the workshop based activities. Firing glass in the kiln using a variety of techniques. Fusing glass sheet together with crushed coloured frits and powders to ‘paint’ layers of colour or making plaster refractory moulds in which glass granules are fired to make pate-de-verre vessel forms, each is a technical process with detailed steps. Glass casting, in which glass forms are made using the lost wax technique is akin to bronze casting or steel foundry but with added complications as glass is a material, which needs to be treated gently.
The studio has also served as a teaching space for a number years for small classes but increased academic commitments at the University of Sunderland and Northumbria, these have ceased unless at special request.
The world-class facilities at the National Glass Centre at the University of Sunderland have allowed me to embark on work, which integrates specialist equipment into my studio practice.
'Craft has changed its meaning fundamentally at least three times in the last two centuries, and it means fundamentally different things from nation to nation even in the Western world. So there can be no one-liner that identifies larger single meanings, as it doesn't have one. If it is of use in the current context, it is to recognize the significance of genre-based practice in the arts. It should also be a useful category in a global cultural environment. It might even have meaning as a signifier of a socio-political outlook. But it should have nothing to do with aesthetics, and less to do with negative approaches to technology.'
(Paul Greenhalgh Director, Corcoran Museum, Washington DC, and editor of ‘The Persistence of Craft’)
Most commissioned works form part of larger project, where the glass art work forms a small part of a multi-layered project involving client, architect, contractor and supplier and team work is key. The discussions, negotiations and design permutations are very much part of that process. Making large-scale work, in the studio is often not possible as it can not accommodate the size and complexities of large pieces of work, and I often work in collaboration with others to make large pieces of work. For the “Bricks and Blocks’ commission for a private house in Edinburgh, I worked closely with the contractor, a Scottish structural glazing company and a German specialist glass company to make and install this impressive three metre dichroic window in the main stairwell of the house. The glass is laminated and is triple glazed. It took of team of eight men and a giant sucker pad on a pulley to hoist it into place. It was a beautifully choreographed operation and one that I could not have undertaken on my own but bringing together and relying on other people’s expertise to make a project happen.
For this project, we used dichroic glass. Dichroic glass is highly specialist glass made by spraying an ultra thin metal oxide coatings onto the surface which lets selective waves of coloured light through, and reflects its complimentary colour. Different colours are reflected depending on the available light, the viewing angle and the background. In the final panel when installed and photographed on the day, the eagle eye observers might have spotted the colours of the glass look blue, orange and green but turns into yellow, purple and pink towards the top. This is a trick of the light, as the glass itself has not changed the lighting conditions have. The view from the top of the landing with transmitted light and the glass looks decidedly more orange an blue. Yet when the panel is viewed from ground level outside, it affords a different view and is highly reflective and the metallic coating can be clearly seen in tints of pink, purple and blues. It is for this reason that this wonderful glass has also been called ‘the living glass’.
At the heart of working with the specific context of a given site, is the idea of making something, which is inspired, informed and unique to that location; place-making is the broader idea of making works which genuinely engage with not only the geographical and historical and context of a place but by actively engaging with the people who live or work there.
Most projects start by a period of research; looking at archival material, maps, architects plans and drawings and extensive talking and discussion with the people involved. Collating this information and putting some order and giving it relevance is the key part of this phase and is key to give form to the aesthetic qualities of the project. The collections of the East Lothian Archives, Library and Museum were to be brought together under one roof for the first time, thus bringing a better and improved service. This was reflected in the design for the final piece; Fragments collated five hundred years of record keeping from the archives of all three services and collated with extensive input from the staff.
For the Chrysalis piece at the NHS Orthopeadic Hospital in Gobowen in Oswestry, extensive consultation with staff and patients were key to the final proposal being made. Patients in this hospital are often there for a prolonged period of time, with many having loss of limbs, undergoing profound physical and mental changes. The importance of the support from the hospital but also from a circle of friends and family, gave rise to the circular form of the cocoon, with lighting which syncs to the rhythm of breathing’ The piece has become a focal point for patients, when out strolling the corridors at night. The project was part funded by the King’s Fund, who have done extensive research on the impact of good design and art projects to improve patients’ quality of life when in hospital.
The Liverpool Map project involved a long research period involving a broad opinion programme delivered in partnership with local press partners in newspapers and radio soliciting people’s opinion, quotes and voting in polls, all of which informed the final design. In fact, one of my favourite detail in the map is the handwritten quotation of the 800 line poem commissioned as part of the City of Liverpool Celebrations, of which our project formed part of.
The essence of the Walking Poets exhibition at Dove Cottage (2014) was about the key role walking played in the poetry of the 17th century Japanese poet Matsuo Basho and the 18th century English Romantic poet William Wordsworth. The places were both Basho and Wordsworth walked, were absolutely key to their writing. The essence of each place, where Basho and Wordsworth walked, and yet also its universality – represented through the sky - is what we were trying to capture in the collaborative piece Japanese artist Minako Shirakura and myself were trying to capture in our collaborative work for this exhibition. The Wanderers of the Earth: the Milky Sky Above referred to the night-sky, referenced in both poets’ words. We sent the quotes of both poems together with a handmade tiny glass maps and posted this to hundreds of people across the world, asking them ‘ a star in return for the world’. We asked for participants to write what the word star meant to them or to simply write the word out on the circular paper cards we sent to them. We collated the word ‘star’ written in many different languages and hung these into a constellation.
The transformation of glass making over the centuries; from its handmade origins to the industrialisation and scaling up of its processes, and its resurgence as production was brought back into the studios from the factories to the re-appreciation of the hand-made, glass making has remained unchanged. Yet technological advances did not just change the quality of the glass or allow its production to be up-scaled, it has allowed glass making to become an exacting and exciting science in its own right with many applications; from design to medicine to space technology.
Craft, the traditional making of things by hand has seen a wonderful transformation in the last two decades when digital technologies have become intrinsically embedded in making. Digital technologies are becoming more and more embedded in everyday practice; from 3D modeling and printing to laser and waterjet cutting.
The world class facilities at the National Glass Centre, University of Sunderland, have allowed me to develop a strand of work which would be impossible to do without the use of digital technology; using CAD drawing to cut glass with high pressure waterjet cutting, allows for precision cutting of shapes and details hitherto impossible to make.
For the Liverpool Map (2011), the integration of waterjet components integrated into fused layers, forming thick slabs of glass, had scaled up the possibilities of waterjet cut glass to a sculptural scale and complexity not seen before. Opaque and transparent glass sections were cut and fused together with the intricacy of marquetry.
For the Mercator Micro Map (2013), opaque landmass sections and transparent waterjet cut components were fused together and then taken into the hotshop to be pulled into murine, a traditional glass blowing technique. The integration of both new and old techniques and the ‘subversive use of technology’ (Shillito, 2013) leading to the emergence of new possibilities, has been called the new industrial revolution (Johnston, 2015).