Engaging with the magic of materials - The Glazier Magazine Article
— January 2020
Richard Blausten at The Worshipful Company of Glaziers invited me to write an article for their magazine The Glazier. I was a winner of their Stevens competition in 1991, and the article looks at my progress as a designer and maker. The article was published in December 2019.
The Glazier - article by Mel Howse
Engaging with the magic of materials
There have been no particular glass artists, genres or architectural trends that I have sought to emulate in my career, however the painter Paul Nash sits in my family tree, and as a teenager I was interested in his writing and by his portrayal of the unseen. It was an epiphany for me to realise that it was possible for art to culminate in a life-long career. I think that there will be no fixed point at which I will consider my creative ambitions complete.
When I entered my studies at the Department for Architectural Stained Glass in Swansea Institute in 1989, it was to learn about the creative processes and applications for glass. During my time there I won three awards for my work, including The Stevens Competition, and I hit the ground running with a commission for a window at the Institute’s library.
It was a good grounding in the subject but such studies can only capture the creativity in a medium at a point in time; the time it’s taught. I quickly learned that as a contemporary designer, pursuing new techniques and ideas, that some things cannot be taught but must simply be experienced and advanced over the course of time.
I once operated a stained glass studio in the traditional manner but this could not fulfil the wider aims of creating artwork for architecture and public spaces, particularly at the larger scale. I very naturally gravitated to other production environments as my ideas and commissions grew in size and variety. Today for me the need to grow creatively also encompasses alternative materials such as steel.
The contemporary skills I have developed over the years have fed back into my approach to stained glass in a healthy broadening of horizons. As an example, my recent commission for Durham Cathedral has brought together these contemporary perspectives when working with hand-blown glass.
I think my portfolio is quite diverse but if there has been consistency over the last decade or so, it has been to focus on the way materials are used and the totality of the design vision striving to generate original forms.
The visual functionality of an installation is important to me because therein lies the reason to continually nurture, experiment and play with the materials. Continuing to produce my work myself allows me to engage with the magic I felt as a student exploring the materials for the first time. I remain open-minded about technique, and in nurturing invention I don’t feel bound by convention in my work.
I hope that my approach to my work means that the worth of my portfolio is in its progressive nature, rather than sequential repetition.
Glass in its architectural, decorative form is able to become historically significant, which distinguishes it from many other classes of art. The artistic and technological response to this type of art in architecture is always evolving, in order to keep pace with environment in which it resides.
The Worshipful Company of Butchers own three pieces of my work, of which two are contemporary works of art:
• The first piece celebrated the Quatercentenary of the Company in 2005. The piece is acid-etched stained glass and was unveiled by the Lady Mayoress on 1st September 2005.
• The second is a memorial for Past Master Michael Katz. The piece is carved; polished, gilded, jet cut, enamelled, toughened glass and was originally set into an illuminated opal glass cabinet.
J. Sainsbury’s Central Milton Keynes
The art glass façade at J.Sainsbury’s in Milton Keynes was very much an intuitive piece. The expansion of my designs into glass was a product of the interpretation and development of the design, and not imitation; it was not reproduction of a static design.
The eleven canvases, spread over 500m2 of glazed façade, use silver stain by the bucket full, enamels and bonded, etched, hand-blown glass. I recall being at Derix studios in 2007 working on the Milton Keynes project, and the work was met with horror by a visiting artist, as they got to grips with the scale of the glass panels. The art was worked in a single take with only two firings. Like most things that appear relatively simple, there was a great degree of planning behind its execution – yet it remained a free spirit.
The work was installed in 2008 and over the last decade friends have often sent me photos of themselves buying a pint of milk in the supermarket, with a great cry ‘we were there’.
The art glass forms the cathedral-scale backdrop to commerce. The façade is a beacon of light at night, creating the landmark the client and architect meant it to be.
Portland Road Hove – Friese Greene House
This public art project was completed in 2015 and has since won awards (national and local) for its development, its architecture, and its art. The developer was Affinity Sutton and their architect was Conran and Partners. The scheme involved the redevelopment of a once-loved but now redundant Art Deco cinema.
The visual functionality is important to me because therein lies the reason to continually nurture, experiment and play with the materials.
The new building, Friese Greene House, is named after William Friese Greene (1855 – 1921) who lived in the town. He was a portrait photographer, an inventor and a pioneer cinematographer in the world of the early motion picture.
I was commissioned to design and make architectural glass on its principal southern façade. The design of the art formed a connection between a much-loved Deco cinema and the new building.
Opacity is the key to this piece of work. The designs use forms that are geometric and employ the interaction of linear and curvilinear shapes. It is an Art Deco vision in our time, using today’s materials and industrial techniques whilst honouring the sensibilities of the Deco style.
The installation is strengthened further by the use of monochromatic surfaces within the glasswork. The interaction of light within the surface creates a very contemporary feel to the art. All techniques make use of available light whether natural or artificial. This means that the piece visually functions from every angle, inside and out, and at all times of the day or night.
In this respect art meets industry in this 21st century, as it did nearly 100 years ago, using glass working techniques for toughened glass that have been developed to suit the required performance.
The glass installation won The Building Craft Award from the Sussex Heritage Trust in 2016.
The St James Centre, Birdham
The St James Centre resides in a gentle country location and this was a commission for art that nurtures a ‘quiet voice’ in a rural setting. The etched glass is intended to mould itself with the surrounding landscape, both architectural and natural. The art also softens the presence of the fully glazed elevation.
The glass design for this east elevation is a sentient work representing travelling light. It complements the spirit of the new architecture, as well as mirroring the complex textures of the ancient stonework in the adjacent existing church buildings.
The design uses a flurry of elliptical forms flowing in unison, creating a contemporary and organic canvas; one that can be viewed in diverse lighting conditions (internal and external, artificial and natural) and in detail from ground and first floors.
Technically the glass working processes are quite brutal but visually the results are calm and almost weightless. This installation is a study composed of many grades of etching and polishing.
Durham Cathedral – The Illumination Window
I was asked to prepare designs for a new window at Durham Cathedral in 2016, in memory of a young woman, Sara Pilkington. The proposed stained glass was to be a celebration of life.
I could not help but draw some parallels with the Chagall windows at Tudely Kent. However, when I explored the significance of the piece I was being invited to create, the magnitude of the opportunity seemed mind-blowing.
Durham Cathedral attracts 700,000 visitors a year and the chosen window located on the northern side of St Cuthbert’s Shrine is a gem, completing a journey around the Chapel of the nine altars.
The brief was full, beautiful and compelling, carefully compiled by notable contributors, The Revd Canon Rosalind Brown and the late stained-glass historian Neil Moat among them. The reasoning behind the project was deep and meaningful. I quickly realised it would likely be the opportunity of a lifetime in terms of the open brief, alongside one of this country’s most loved architectural UNESCO World Heritage sites.
To get to know Sara’s parents during the making of this piece was vital to understanding Sara, an attractive and lively young woman, and student at Durham University. The installed window would represent close links between the Cathedral and the University, as well as convey spiritual meaning.
Early on in the process of design I decided that I would bring the art forward through all stages of creation with my own hand; without disconnect or disruption because my ideas were so acute and clear. It would take me two years to make the window but the result would reflect what was in my heart and mind. The creative muse would be ever present. It felt right to be immersed in the composition from full-size colour artwork/cartoon to full-size art in glass.
My aim for this commission was to implement my ideas to elevate what I could achieve when working in hand-blown glass: working with acid and enamels, colour and air in the form of a spraygun - no brushes were used in colour applications; a design structure in white not black overturning the traditional approach to stained glass and symbolising life over death; a limited grid lead work in the main lights; and no shading paints, just depth of colour. Transitions of colour, pattern and rhythm fill the window.
Every plate is made in a single take and I very much followed my instincts to retain the vitality of the artwork. There are 64 rectangular plates in the four main lights.
It was installed in the Spring of 2019 and is now open to the public to interpret; for those of faith and those of none.