By Amy King
My name is Amy King and I am a student of the glass program at the Alberta College of Arts + Design (ACAD) in Calgary. One assignment for a recent class was to interview a local artist that I am interested in. The following is an interview I conducted in March 2011 with Calgary glass artist, Jamie Gray.
How did you get started working with glass? What is it about the material that conveys your ideas over other media?
I always knew I was an artist of some sort, so when I was about 20 I started looking for a medium to explore part-time. Evenings and weekends I tried painting, silversmithing, and sculpture before I took a stained glass class. I knew immediately I’d found the medium I wanted to work in.
Title: Salvator Mundi Photo Credit: Jamie Gray Details: leaded stained glass Year: 2008
I tend to use glass as a support for conceptual work rather than making pieces that celebrate the beauty of the glass itself. Since it can be manipulated, twisted, poured, etc, it has potential to take on so many forms and become useful that way. I do occasionally celebrate glass for glass’ sake because it’s so lovely both to look at and to work with; and, in that case, what I love most about it is how it plays with light, which is different every single time you look at/through it.
Why did you make the decision to attain a degree in fine arts? Since graduating, what kind of benefits do you think this education has had?
I wanted to attend ACAD when I was 18 and had a scholarship to do so but my mom convinced me go get some training that she felt would actually be able to support me (generally a well-founded concern). Then life got in the way (marriage, mortgage, kids) and it was another 20 years before I could get back to ACAD, which I finally did in 2005. Why I always wanted a degree was partly stubbornness (to demonstrated that I could do it and survive) and because I really did want to study art academically. I’m a bit of an academic at heart anyway, so I really loved all the art history classes and theory classes.
Title: Fragile Chivalry Photo Credit: Jamie Gray Details: Blown cut glass, chain maille Year: 2008
There haven’t yet been any real-world benefits to having a BFA itself except as a possible bridge to an MFA or MA (which I’d like to pursue sometime because I’d love to teach more), but I think just having been in the academic setting and being pushed so hard for four years completely changed how I do things in my studio. I’m much more focused.
You talk about the idea of cosmopolitanism as being one of the central themes in your work. Can you elaborate on how growing up in the Prairies during a certain time frame has influenced your interest in these ideas?
There’s a certain area in Alberta that’s well known as the Bible Belt and I grew up smack in the middle of it. A Bible school in every little town, many more churches than bars by far, a highly moralistic way of life generally. In the `60s and `70s, when there were freedom movements and “hippy” activities in many parts of the world, that was well controlled and thwarted on the Prairies, especially by the church, which considered such actions as too anti-establishment. The dichotomy is that where churches pay a lot of lip service to inclusiveness, they can be the most discriminatory (anti-cosmopolitan). As a practicing Christian, I felt that it was time to explore that moralistic blindness and begin to make small corrections as I can. It’s been very interesting, especially since artists are generally very hippy-like and while at ACAD I had fun using them as a test group for things such as the Radical Church Potluck Project in which I brought church-y potluck food to the school for the students to share and talk around. In my church, though the official word was that all were welcome, hippies of any sort showing up at a church potluck would have been very frowned upon. No hat, no suit, no gloves, no love.
Title: The Radical Church Potluck Project Photo Credit: Jamie Gray Details: Fused glass, fusible decal, metal leaf Year: 2008
How long have you been working with this particular theme? Is it still a major part of your current work?
I worked with that theme for a couple of years and it will always be part of my work to do what I can to make the church, as a group, open up their eyes and see what we’ve done and how our history has affected how we’ve behaved and are behaving today. It’s been easy for the church to gloss over things such as the Crusades, Inquisitions and Residential Schools. I actually don’t think I can call myself a responsible Christian if I don’t continue to question that thoroughly and promote any change I can. I’ve moved along a little bit from that theme, but can easily go back as concept for work strikes me because I’m not working far off of it at the moment. Among other things, I’ve been making Snowglobes of Doom that work out some of my childhood-on-the-farm angst.
Title: Snowglobes of Doom: Farmyard Memories Photo Credit: Jamie Gray Details: Blown glass, multi-media Year: 2008
I know that you were experimenting with building community through food during your final year at ACAD. What made you start this and what kind of results did you see?
I started that idea as I got thinking about my “axis mundi”, which turned out to be Absolute Truth. If I were to explore Absolute Truth, what would that look like in my own life? It quickly became apparent to me that, as a concerned Christian, there are a lot of untruths to be addressed right within my own church. The first was (as I’ve outline above) the Radical Church Potluck Project, which worked to bring the church potluck right into the midst of the persons (“hippies” / artists) whom the church would have looked askance upon. The results of the daily potlucks were amazing; much better than I could have hoped. My main goal was to bring true Christian love (on the quiet, as it’s meant to be) to a fringe group and leave it at that, but the reality was that the more we ate together, the more we talked, and through that we grew in relationship with each other. We had conversations around sandwiches and squares that we probably wouldn’t have otherwise had. It was fun and we grew as a community. It’s what I love about glassies anyway, that when we get together we tend to open up and be real; but this was a great instance of it and gave credence to the idea that social growth and community happens around food. Food is a fantastic medium, by the way. It’s not used enough.
Title: Cross Reference Photo Credit: Jamie Gray Details: Photograph Year: 2009
Do you think that community can be attainable at a large scale or is it limited to smaller groups of people?
Oh yes, I do think so. But I think our current age of social networking in which we no longer have to look our friends and neighbours in the eyes while we’re talking to them or exercise our tone of voice is thwarting this. If we ever have a disaster of some sort where our resources are reduced and we have to pull together to survive, we’ll rediscover it. And in that painful thing (not the disaster but the rediscovery of interaction with people) we’ll see that it’s quite a beautiful and essential thing. Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, etc, have been taking that from us. And we’ve been more than willing to go along with that because, let’s face it, it’s very difficult growing in community. The opportunity for gain is proportionate to the painfulness of it. But having said that, I also think it’s essential to start small with our own little communities around us, whether that’s neighbours, fellow students, fellow workers, whomever, and then go bigger if that’s warranted.
What do you believe the ideal community is based upon?
I believe that the ideal community is based upon tolerance and inclusion. That means that no matter how painful it is to know someone, you go ahead and know him or her anyway. We don’t have to like each other, necessarily (how could we like everyone?), but we should nevertheless be pulling along together at whatever rates we can individually handle, with no one dropping out or being left behind. That’s, I believe, the ideal community.
Title: Breadbasket Series: Lost Photo Credit: Jamie Gray Details: Fused glass, multi-media Year: 2010
You seem to be quite involved in the Canadian glass community. Can you talk about the importance of building relationships with other glass artists?
Oh wow – super important. Not only is the networking absolutely invaluable, but we’re also working together as a community to instruct ourselves, encourage each other, assist wherever we can. Since many of us work away in our teeny home-based studios, without that connection and help we’d never otherwise see or talk to anyone who also works in glass. Sometimes you just have to have folks to whom you can go on a regular basis in order to ask questions, talk shop, express concerns and fears, teach, encourage or be encouraged, mentor. Actually, mentoring is very important to me too, and that’s a big focus for us in the Calgary Warm Glass Guild. It’s all part of freely passing along what we know so that we continue to grow.
Another reason I’m keen on being involved in Canadian glass on an administrative level is that I feel very strongly the need to promote Canadian glass to the rest of the world, and I do so at every opportunity. We’re a bit quiet about our work, so I always like to get the word out that we’re making glass art and it’s great stuff. So one good way to know about Canadian glass in order to talk about it is to be involved in Canadian glass organizations. Once you’re outside of school, it’s not so easy to stay connected with your glass community unless you’re linked to an organization with that focus.
Title: Prairie Puddle Photo Credit: Jamie Gray Details: Fused and slumped glass Year: 2010
Now having said that, I also feel it’s quite important to get involved OUTSIDE of the glass community so that you don’t become too insular. For that reason I’m also involved in a knitting group. It’s good to occasionally work in a medium that is not glass in order to appreciate glass as a medium again. I’m currently knitting a car cozy. I know, it’s crazy.
I know that you are involved with the Calgary Warm Glass Guild. I would be interested in obtaining more information about the guild; what is its mandate? How do you become a member?
The Guild’s mandate is one based strongly on community. We exist to connect with each other, instruct each other and support each other. We meet monthly to eat together and talk shop. We put together a show once a year and are highly inclusive about who shows – if we ever feel the need to exclude someone’s work we’ll be more likely to help him or her improve the work than exclude the work outright. We get together regularly to do demos for each other or teach. Sometimes we bring in a paid instructor for a technique a bunch of us are interested in. We’re completely non-profit, volunteer-run, and no-fees. Membership is free and we have 200+ members not only in Calgary, but also all over the world. We have a Facebook page, regularly updated. We’re always encouraging glass artists and appreciators to join us and get connected with the rest of the glass community. Our main way of communicating between meetings is that I send out e-mails (pretty much daily) regarding upcoming events, product and supply info, teaching opportunities, learning opportunities, calls-for-entry, etc. Mentoring is big. Membership is easy: I take the e-mail address of anyone who is interested and from there that person decides what or how much of the information sent out is pertinent to him/her, reading what they want, discarding the rest. I hope that you’ll join! Let me know.
Do you work solely with glass or do you work in another field to support your practice?
I do consider myself to be a career artist and I work mostly in glass. I’m very fortunate in that my husband supports me by handling household financial responsibilities, leaving me free to support my studio practice with what I make teaching or selling work. Because that doesn’t end up being a lot in a year, I’m quite creative about how I spend those earnings. I use free, found or thrift-shop materials where I can and I’ve made myself get good at writing grant applications. The bottom line is that since I’m so fortunate as to not have to pay for mortgage or groceries, then I have a responsibility (which I happily accept) to give as much of myself as I can, as freely as I can, to my community. I’m an artist and make art, and so for that am indeed ensconced in my teeny studio for periods of time; but I’m also part of something bigger and more important than myself as a single entity. And there’s such a great feeling of satisfaction and joy in having and being a part of that larger community.
Title: Containment Photo Credit: Jamie Gray Details: Fused and slumped glass Year: 2008
Do you have any advice for an emerging glass artist?
Yes, I do.
- Don’t get discouraged at that hard stop that happens at the end of your schooling.
- Do give yourself a 1-2 month break if you can to decompress and get your head around the idea that you now work for you. Be proud that you’ve worked so hard to be in this entrepreneurial position.
- Once you’ve had a break, then carry on as you were in school, drawing on your discipline to keep you going.
- Write articles. Magazines are crying out for these and it’s a great way not only to get your name out there but also to make yourself think hard about stuff.
- Get good at grant writing because it’s pretty much a sure thing that you’ll have a project someday that will require some larger funds and grants are a great help with this.
- Do join GAAC and any and all other glass-based organizations so that you can be supported and feel you’re still connected to the community.
- Your provincial craft council (for us in Alberta, the Alberta Craft Council) is going to be a good support too, since they are huge supporters of craft locally and around the world. They work very hard for us craftspeople.
- Do volunteer some time somewhere. I recommend offering to teach glass processes on a community level or getting involved with an arts organization of some sort.
- Be a volunteer TA whenever you can to another glass artist whose work interests you. Offer to do this for free and try to make your way to them on your own coin. Who, even of the “greats”, could refuse that offer? Then work really, really hard for them (first one in the studio in the morning, last one out at night). And you’ll learn so much; you’ll be truly amazed. It’s not only great for your resume, but you’ll also get a reputation for diligence and your face and name will start getting known.
- Make work that pleases you and is true to who you are.
- Be smart with the money that you make. Pay off your student loans but also make sure you keep some of it to keep yourself in supplies.
- Read something every day that pushes you or teaches you something.
- Don’t be too humble and don’t be too proud – mostly don’t be too humble.
- Go to shows often – any shows – be seen and talk to people a lot. Make sure you talk about what you’re up to as well as finding out what other people are up to.
- Go to a conference each year if you can – apply for grants for this if you can’t afford it.
- Try not to get discouraged or at least not for so long that it affects your work. If you feel discouraged (which everyone does at one point or another), talk to someone in one of your networking groups. Don’t bear this burden alone. It’s one we’ve all carried and learned how to share or overcome.
Amy King is an emerging artist currently based in Calgary, Alberta. She will be graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the Alberta College of Art + Design in 2012. Ms. King works primarily with glass, specializing in kiln-forming techniques.