Updated: Feb 16, 2021
After finishing studying at the RCA I have been working mainly on ceramic projects, but I have been thinking a lot about glass, why I like using it as a sculptural material, and why it is an important element of my practice.
Generally speaking glass is a material of contradictions. To handle it is as heavy as rock but also incredibly fragile. As a sculpting material it can express a lightness and fluidity like no other material, as it has a strong resemblance to water. But it can also allude to dense heaviness similar to granite (it is after all derived from silica found in rocks like granite). Using it to create sculpture, not only do you consider the outer form but also the inner contours, as when it is fully polished a distorted negative of the opposite side is visible through the body of the glass. In art it is a material often used to investigate light, to give tangibility to the ephemeral qualities and colour subtleties of light. In a wider context, glass is ultimately an extension of our vision, allowing us to see the microscopic world of microbes and the vast scale of the universe through optical devises such at telescopes. It has a central role in our perception of the world around us.
Glass and Glaze
During my time at the RCA I was simultaneously studying glass casting and glaze chemistry in ceramics. My fascination in these two areas of study was based on the transformations of raw materials, particularly metal oxides, which are used in both techniques in comparable ways. For this reason I found myself comparing the two materials and their respective challenges and possibilities.
Although I came to the Ceramics and Glass course with pretty much equal knowledge of both materials, glass was the one I felt more intuitive with, coming from my previous experience as a mould maker and sculptor.
I found that glass casting shares more similarities with the metal casting process than with ceramic slip casting, as the casting takes place in the kiln and the moulds are made to withstand molten material at high temperatures. This means the objects are roughly the same shape and size as the original. Slip casting in ceramics, however, involve pouring liquid clay into plaster moulds, so the casting element takes place before the object goes in the kiln and often warps and shrinks significantly during firing.
The firing schedule is slower and more complicated for a glass firing to allow the glass to melt properly into the mould and to cool down slowly enough so that it doesn't crack. I found myself being drawn to glass casting and also glaze development (as apposed to the slip casting process) because there is a similar interaction with the kiln and experimentation with raw materials.
Some small moulds before and after being fired.
Unlike ceramics, once glass comes out of the kiln there is still a lot of work to be done in the cold workshop. This involves systematically working through grits to sand the surface, and then polishing using a felt polisher with pumice and cerium to bring it to a clear polish. This can be frustrating as it is very easy to contaminate the later polishing stages. If a single piece of course grit gets caught in the polishing stage it will scratch the surface and you will have to take it back to previous stages. Besides its frustrations this stage is very meditative, in its unforgiving systematic nature. You can't really get a sense of how well it has cast until you bring it up to the final stages of polishing, at which point the bubbles, colours and turbulence of the inner space are revealed. With the addition of light the piece is transformed.
One of my pieces 'White Lead' shown here working through the polishing stages.
Although for many artists a clear bubble-less transparency is the ultimate goal, for me the inner turbulence is what fascinates me about the process. I am drawn to the inner atmosphere and landscape that can be created, and the way it seems to capture movement and internal transformation. In my work I use metal oxides in the glass to create colour, bubbles and turbulence. The effect this creates reminds me of different scales, of alien landscapes, star nebulas and ambiguous underwater formations.
Glass and Alchemy
Another important aspect of glass which is of particular interest to me is its historical link to the processes of Alchemy. The history of glass making has strong affiliations with Alchemy practices. Craftsmanship and alchemy occupied the same space in the early modern period, with alchemists using the process to transform metals from one thing to another. Glass blowers most probably shared workshop environments and practical knowledge with Alchemists, including advancements in techniques of purification of raw materials. Corning museum created an exhibition a few years ago about this subject, called 'Glass of the Alchemists: Lead Crystal–Gold Ruby, 1650-1750'. The exhibition documents the story of the people involved in discovering how to create crystal clear colourless glass with the addition of lead, and also ruby red glass using a method of processing gold.
The importance of craft workshops in the development of early chemistry and material science was a pivotal revelation for me during my study of these craft processes, particularly from the writings of Pamela Smith (see references). This was significant to me and my work as it places the workshop environment, the physical experimentation and manipulation of materials, in the same site as philosophical and psychological study. It brings a depth and integrity to craft making which is rarely attributed in todays hierarchical distinctions between art and science and Fine Art and Craft, which defines craft being something purely about aesthetics and function.
My study at the RCA gave me lots of ideas for new techniques and ideas to try. Although it is generally difficult to split a practice between glass and ceramic, as both materials requiring a lot of investment of time and energy to fully master, I feel a strong resonance with both processes as they both allow me to focus on transformations through firing. The activity of the inside of the kiln is what draws me to these materials and glass I feel is a medium which provides lots of exciting possibilities to explore this. As a sculptor who has worked with a lot of different materials I feel that working with glass more than any other requires an acute focus on sculptural form, and a particular attention to light and texture. It is an unforgiving but also incredibly alluring material to explore, as it teaches a great deal about the nature of materials. For me it also attunes you to the historical significance of using materials, of the symbolic importance of taking raw materials and crafting it into something new.