October 1, 2009
Many thanks to David James and Emma Quinn and the Ontario Craft Council for permission to reprint this article which first appeared in the Spring/Summer 2009 issue of Studio Magazine.
Kevin Lockau, winner of this year’s Saidye Bronfman Award, creates art that is rough, uncompromising and very, very Canadian.
Kevin Lockau lives in a rugged wilderness that is iconically Canadian. His home sits atop the Canadian Shield. As a glass artist, he would love to have been alive a billion years ago, to stir the molten volcanic flows and fold them under with extreme pressure and then let glacial cold work gouge, push and reveal the rough beauty that envelopes his home at Hybla, north of Bancroft, Ontario.
The bedrock and its forest have always been grist for Lockau, who in late March received the Saidye Bronfman Award for Excellence in Fine Crafts, Canada’s foremost distinction for excellence in visual arts. The award is presented annually by the Governor General at Rideau Hall in Ottawa. “I’m honoured and humbled,” says Lockau, who quips that some of the $25,000 prize will go towards fixing a leaky roof.
The Saidye Bronfman award recognizes Kevin’s singular talent, both as an artist and an educator. He taught cold working and hot casting for some 20 years at Sheridan College and has lectured on art and glass throughout Europe and North America. When Sir Sanford Fleming College introduced a glass blowing program at its Haliburton School of the Arts, Lockau was on its founding advisory committee and taught there for three years. He has exhibited internationally and his cast works, some of which use techniques unlike those of any other artist, are on display in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and the Musée des Arts Decoratifs in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Lockau won the Best of Show Award at the 1985 Canadian Glass Conference. Numerous national and international awards and scholarships have followed that first award.
Prominent glass art collectors, Anna and Joe Mendel of Montréal, admire Lockau’s work for its “substance, language, meaning, and its social and historical commentary about what we are doing to our earth.”
Kevin, born in 1956 in Halifax, fondly recalls looking forward to “more trees and more hills” during his family’s summer pilgrimages from the naval base to his grandparents’ riding stable in Kitchener. As a Cub and then a Queen scout, summer camp gave him further immersion in nature.
When he was fifteen, his family moved to Kitchener and Lockau had his horse year round. With the hope of becoming a veterinarian, he later enrolled in the Agricultural College at University of Guelph. Admittedly “not a good student,” he graduated with a general B.Sc. in animal science. He immediately found a job at a nearby industrial hog operation. While he liked working and living on the hog farm, after four years he left to pursue painting, which had come to consume his evenings.
In 1982, Lockau entered the Ontario College of Art with a goal: become an illustrator. Instructor Stuart Werle quickly turned him on to 3D design and sculpture but he became intrigued with glass when he saw second year student Alfred Engerer ladling glass into a sand mould at a college open house. The next year, Lockau was one of nine students vying for one of eight spots in the glass program. The part-time program head, Karl Schantz, reviewed everyone’s sketchbooks. Lockau made the cut and entered his future.
“It was a cauldron of talented people given free rein. We weren’t shown how to blow glass. Schantz came over from his own studio about one day per week. We were doing experimental arts, gaining experience with glass, welding and foundry work.”
Lockau’s first formal commission came while he was a student. It is a clear, colourless piece that he blew into a plaster mould to create the form of a barn. He painted on black text that describes the clash between city and rural ethics. Kevin chuckles as he recalls that it was for the head office of McDonald’s Restaurants of Canada.
Transparent, flame-polished, colourful variations of blown vessels represent an aesthetic that never appealed to Lockau. “It’s just not me. I’m the kind of guy who likes to dig in the earth, get shit on my hands. That appeals to my sensibility.” His first sculpture was window glass fused over a shard of quartzite rock from the Canadian Shield. Unwittingly, it became a combination that now preoccupies him.
After graduation, Lockau taught part-time at Sheridan College and started a four-year residency at the Harbourfront Glass Studio, an important incubator for many Canadian glass blowers. “Being a part-time instructor gave me the financial freedom to experiment, to take risks not possible when running a business. The best thing to do is teach or pump gas!” He taught, used the facilities and took advantage of free time to broaden his experience.
Lockau sought out opportunities to grow through collaboration. In 1987, he attended the Pilchuck Glass School, north of Seattle, Washington, where artists from around the world come together to share their knowledge and experiment with masters. Lockau spent four summers with groundbreaking innovators such as the doyens of Czech casting, the husband-and-wife team Stanislav Libensky and Jaroslava Brychtova, and the Swedish sand caster, Bertil Vallien. Lockau says the experience greatly expanded his appreciation for “what the casting process could do.”
A similar transformation came during a month-long stone-carving symposium with the Inuit of Iqaluit on Baffin Island in 2000. Previously, he focused mostly on relief carving and kept it separate from his glasswork. “I now started thinking in 3D for the sculptural stone pieces, and that’s when the two materials came together.”
A Christmas casting course critique at Sheridan created another artistic breakthrough. He volunteered his own pieces for discussion. Encouraged by his openness, the students enthusiastically told him to “go big or go home!” back to his studio and make it happen. That was when “what looked like road kill came to life” as timber wolves and coyotes. The life-size sculptures consist of solid cast or sand blown hollow pieces. The voids may contain pieces of pink insulation to resemble flesh. Tufts of dark hair stand out eerily from black areas. “The series challenges people to consider their relationship with the animals,” Lockau explains.
“The effect is hauntingly provocative”, says Megan Lafrenière, co-owner of the Ottawa glass gallery, Lafrenière & Pai Gallery. “The animals have become signature works.”
Lockau has developed a casting process that mimics the creation of the Canadian Shield. Drawing on forays into the bush and further afield, he brings back rocks, gravel, coloured sands and organic material. They go into works that “express the idea of the earth as a living other, which is in part our own skin of existence,” Lockau says, adding, “they are not landscape portraits.”
Kevin has given them titles such as Breath – Inhale, Conception, Resurrection, Annunciation and Do Unto Others. He acknowledges these appear to have Christian origins, yet for him the sculptures strongly suggest “spiritual animism.”
Concerned about the environmental impact of creating glass art, Lockau uses the dirty glass dregs at the bottom of crucibles. Instead of throwing it out, “molten glass is ladled onto piles of coloured sands and rocks that are scooped up with shovels and unceremoniously dumped onto each other in a rocking olivine sand mould. Mixing sticks flare like torches. The air is filled with steam, smoke and the stench of hot sands.”
Lockau’s use-or-abuse of glass is atypical. “I use qualities of glass that most people do not play with: the molten flow, the cracks from internal tensions, bubbles and the effects of burning out foreign materials.” The result “is no clubhouse sandwich with everything parallel!” When it cools, Kevin flips the piece onto the studio floor. “Loose sand falls away to reveal beautiful folding and fluidity!” Then the cutting, polishing and assembly of his final sculptures begin.
Elena Lee of Montreal, owner of the eponymous glass gallery, which is the oldest in Canada, says, “Kevin Lockau’s work is the most Canadian of Canadians. His represents the land like no other. It’s rough and uncompromising as is the country itself.”
Author David James is a sculptor and cast glass artist. Lafreniere & Pai Gallery nominated Lockau for this year’s Saidye Bronfman Award.
For more information visit: