June 15, 2013
The Contemporary Glass Society fires up the debate on skill versus art
By: Rebecca Dearden
In contemporary glass, art and technique come together to enchant and challenge us. But is there tension between the two, or are they perfect partners? One thing is sure – the glass community is a vibrant place, where artists employing a huge variety of techniques use immense skill and creativity to shape their unique works.
But these are difficult times for the economy and for education, characterized by loss – the loss of industry, of opportunities to learn and, perhaps, the loss of potential for the future. By keeping skills and the artform alive, glassmakers play a key role in our cultural landscape. Through innovation, ingenuity and surprise, they take us forward into the future.
The challenges and opportunities for glass art are the theme of a national conference organized by the Contemporary Glass Society (CGS). Glass skills: exploring the fusion of art and technique is being held on October 12 and 13 at the National Glass Centre at the University of Sunderland and will bring together leading artists and glass specialists.
The debate couldn’t be more timely. In parallel with recession and the scarcity of opportunities for skills development and training, there is, says James Bustard, Director of the National Glass Centre, “a renaissance in the value of making, perhaps displacing the hold of conceptual art”.
New forms, ancient techniques
“There is an upsurge in interest in artists as makers as well thinkers,” he says. “Artists are asserting the importance of making with their own hands in a period when we are seeing extraordinary advances, facilitated by technology, towards a sort of mass-produced personalisation in which the maker is still absent. They are generating a new vocabulary and new forms using ancient techniques.”
In his book The Intangibilities of Form: Skill and Deskilling in Art After the Readymade, John Roberts claims that touch and manual dexterity “lost their place as markers of artistic taste and authority”. The artist was no longer seen as a “self-confirming ‘creator’, but as a synthesizer and manipulator of extant signs and objects”.
But, spend time in a thriving artisan glass studio, and you sense how touch and dexterity are very much at the heart of the art.
Stephen Gillies and Kate Jones are makers of finely crafted blown and engraved glass. They work from their studio in the village of Rosedale Abbey in North Yorkshire, drawing inspiration from the “elemental beauty of their rural surroundings”. Design Historian Lesley Jackson described their work, which can be found in public and private collections, including the V&A, as “defiantly decorative”. Their work was selected for the two major shows in the Contemporary Glass Society’s Glass Skills program – 12 months of exhibitions, events and workshops that explore art and technique, culminating in the October conference.
A glimpse into the studio
Their unique aesthetic began, though, with a traditional apprenticeship. Twenty years ago Stephen Gillies was an apprentice to American glassmaker Philip Baldwin. He worked in the UK, Denmark and at the studio of Baldwin Guggisberg in Switzerland, and his making, his fundamental skills and his understanding of the material were shaped by that apprenticeship.
Baldwin was, in turn, an apprentice of Wilke Adolfsson of Sweden, a glassmaker at Orrefors for many years before opening his own artisan studio. In an elegant example of the unbroken line of glassmaking skills, Stephen was recently invited to Sweden to work with Wilke.
“We were two makers, two different generations, working together for the first time,” says Stephen. “Though neither of us spoke the other’s language, we could communicate through making and through shared knowledge and skills.”
Wilke and Stephen found they made glass in the same way and used a smooth rhythm, an identical way of laying out the tools on the bench and the same gentle technique. It’s a fascinating similarity, given that Wilke’s way of working came to Stephen via Philip Baldwin.
“I could see that there was a direct technical lineage; a way of making preserved,” says Stephen. “The techniques of overlaying first used at Orrefors in the 1900s are still being practiced and preserved by a few artisan glassmakers.”
In fact, Gillies and Jones are proud of the fact that they make glass as pre-industrial revolution glassmakers did in Rosedale in the 1500s. They define themselves as artisans – making small numbers to the very best of their ability.
From ABC to poetry
“That’s what’s important and is the foundation of all our work,” says Kate. “We make every piece as well as we can, which relies on hard-won, slowly learned, practiced skills.
“I like to use learning to write as the analogy for learning skills in hot glass. First, you trace over the letters and practice these; then you join up the letters and make words. After much practice, you develop your own unique handwriting. What comes next with these accomplished skills is creativity and the ability to write poetry or tell a story.”
The stories they create with their beautifully blown vessels are not only founded, like all the best stories, in a long tradition; they are a fresh and contemporary retelling of fundamental themes.
“For years, we’ve have talked about the importance and value of skill, and I know that we’re often in danger of being bores on the subject,” laughs Kate. “Happily though, others agree with us, including the Arts Council, which funded us to bring in glassmakers from the Venetian tradition to demonstrate skills not seen in the UK since the 1970s.
“The skills Tobias Mohl and Janusz Pozniak shared with British glassmakers and students has had a far-reaching influence on many makers’ work.”
Looking to the future
Gillies Jones are also committed to offering apprenticeships, not only to pass on their skills, but as a model for running a hot glass studio.
They are quietly confident about the future for artisan skills.
“We believe that, in the future, people who see our work may be more likely to appreciate the time taken, skills used and the efforts made to bring each piece into existence,” says Stephen. “There are now many more ways to digitally communicate the process and describe the dedication to the material.”
The debate will continue at the CGS conference as the speakers, all of them internationally renowned glass artists, bring their own perspectives to the question of art and technique.
Finnish artist and designer Markku Salo is, for example, always looking for new ways to express the artistic quality of glass as a material, but sees technique as only a tool rather than something that outranks the content. Dr Jack Dawson, an expert on Scandinavian glass, is interested in the creative dynamic in the working relationship between artists and the glass industry.
Luke Jerram brings together and collaborates with specialist teams of engineers, craftsmen and technicians to help him realize his works – from composers to glassblowers, medieval musicologists to hot air balloonists. In this way, he says, he is “only limited by my imagination in what can be produced. Anything is possible”.
Diane Peacock studied fine art at Sheffield and the Slade, and is now working on a PhD looking at creativity in the context of UK education policy. She’s especially interested in the negative impact of successive policies on
students and teachers and in possibilities for averting further damage.
Other speakers include Keke Cribb, Wendy Fairclough and Geoff Mann and, in the exciting Glass Pecha Kucha, 20 glass artists will present and talk about their work in quick-fire succession. There will also be seminars on architectural glass and presenting work to galleries, plus demonstrations of printing on glass, flameworking, hot glass and water jet cutting.
For more details about the upcoming Contemporary Glass Society conference and Glass Skills, visit www.cgs.org.uk.
For more information, please contact email@example.com or call 07972 167945.
Rebecca Dearden is an award-winning writer and photographer based in the UK. She works with the Contemporary Glass Society and with individual artists, helping raise the profile of contemporary glass.