National Glass Centre
United Kingdom

Before presenting her artwork, New-Zealand born artist Wendy Fairclough shared with the audience a very intimate moment that helped define her artistic career, ‘I was making again and felt extremely emotional. I realised how much it mattered to me. If you feel like it and it matters to you so much, you have to commit to it.’ Fairclough’s message resonated with the artists and practitioners who filled the room at the Contemporary Glass Society Conference. For the first time a yearly event took place at the newly refurbished National Glass Centre in Sunderland. The centre houses the best-equipped studios for creative glassmaking in the world. This enabled the conference organisers to combine lectures and practical presentations from prominent artists and specialists in the glass-making field with an exhibition from renowned glass artist Jeffrey Sarmiento.

The title of the 2013 conference was ‘Glass Skills – Exploring the Fusion of Arts and Technique’. As such the questions the conference sought to address included: What are the benefits of dialogue between arts and technique? Are they complementary? Are they perfect partners or would a divorce be beneficial to both? These questions created a framework for investigations and presentations. The glass community actively seeks to push back boundaries, and in doing so continually explores glass heritage, materiality, processes and technologies. In fact a general point of agreement seemed to be that the only real boundary is the imagination of the artist. This radically creative approach has meant that glass artists are constantly seeking, and finding, new approaches and solutions. The conference culture centred on sharing and exchange, and demonstrations of various techniques were provided. All the demonstrations were fully subscribed and the skills presented were of the highest world-class standard. It really was a delight to see hot-glass techniques, flame working, printing on glass, and water jet cutting by internationally recognised practitioners such as Jeffrey Sarmiento, Colin Rennie and James Maskary.

Renowned Finnish artist and designer Markku Salo made a keynote speech during the first day. He described different approaches to making, including material considerations. His artistic curiosity pushes him to to combine glass with other materials such as wood, stone and steel. This experimentation in turn creates an opening for new visions and possibilities. A technique that holds particular fascination for him, and which has opened many new pathways for his work, is pâte de verre. He initially made smaller objects using this method, but then scaled his work up, for example, Sense of Ice (1998) is a huge pâte de verre necklace. This represents an illustration of how process stimulates the artwork and thereby leads to a new body of work. Salo’s approach to art often entails letting materials and techniques indicate the path for his final pieces.

Geoff Man, the world famous Scottish artist, designer and lecturer, gave the next presentation. He conveyed an approach to art that contrasted with Salo’s. In his talk, ‘The Intangible, The Objectile and Co-Craft’ Mann told us his projects start at a conceptual level, and he questions both techniques and materials. As such he proposes a critique of the object itself. The thoughts of the French philosopher Delueuze (1993: 19) seem to resonate with this approach:

The new status of the object no longer refers its condition to a spatial mold – in other words, to a relation of form-matter – but to a temporary modulation that implies as much the beginnings of a continuous variation of matter as a continuous development of form.

Mann asks what we, as humans, pay attention to. How does it happen that we are trained or pre-disposed to see some things and omit others? The way in which artworks created by Mann utilise new media really does make us stop and think. In works such us Flight take-off Mann uses a variety of techniques such as stop frame cinematography, CAD tools, Rapid Prototyping and glass kiln casting in order to create a piece that encapsulates a moment frozen in time. Glass is chosen here purely because he sees it as the most apt material to capture the phenomena he seeks to convey.

The Glass Pechakucha event was led by renowned artist Jessamy Kelly, who has a history of innovation, particularly in terms of merging glass with ceramics. Twenty contemporary glass artists presented their work in quick-fire succession. The high standard of skills on show, and the passion put into it, was extraordinary.

The work of the last speaker, Luke Jerram, represents a marriage between art, technique and collaborative practice. He firstly does not allow his imagination to be limited in any way. Then he asks himself how he could deliver a project. He often brings in experts from various fields to enhance his work, and uses them to help produce experiences that make us question our reality, often using absurdity and humour. Brian Jones and Norman Veitch of Wearside Glass assisted Luke in his series of glass representations of various viruses. They kindly demonstrated the flamework technique they used on this project. The objects they helped produce subsequently became the most realistic up-to date physical models of the viruses available today, and as such are now used in scientific books and publications on virology. Luke was an apt choice to close the conference since his understanding of collaboration, and how to free one’s self from apparent constraints, was extremely inspiring and re-assuring.

At its close this wonderful conference left its visitors with the feeling that a committed artist open to experimentation and innovation will produce inspiring and valuable work.