From ancient times people have worked with glass, fusing science and art to produce objects of beauty and desire. Ancient legend tells of how Phoenician merchants pulled ashore and rested their cooking pots on blocks of nitrate by the fire. Under the stars they watched as the heat from cooking fires melted nitrate and sand to make pools of opaque liquid that cooled to a solid clear beauty. Centuries of craftsmen have refined the recipes but this alchemical process continues to fascinate.
There is something very liberating about entering into the world of another artist’s discipline. Months ago I arranged a ‘workswap’ with Steve Robinson, glass artist- he would make me a splash back for my kitchen and I would give him a painting. I wanted to take photographs of the process for my website . I am always curious about how other people work. So, on a dark, wet and windy day in late autumn I went to Steve’s workshop and studio near Ninewells, Solva.
Right from the first Steve included me in the production. He had already cleaned three huge pieces of glass, fragile and clear. They would form the base for our piece. Now the first thing to do was to cut a stencil from a great piece of card. The design was a labyrinth pattern made from small circles all of which had to be numbered and cut out and then put aside for later.
When the stencil was cut Steve donned a very flattering white coat and mask, laid the stencil over the clear glass, and ‘dusted’ the stencil with a white enamel powder ( using a tea strainer, very technical piece of equipment!) When the card stencil was lifted away small circles of white now stood out slightly proud of the glass. The stencil was put aside and now came the difficult bit. Each white circle had to be masked by the small card circles, standing on pins, so that the beautiful blue colours could be added. By the time we had finished this part of the process the piece looked like a curious modern art installation.
Steve then dusted the glass once more with enamel powders. The matt colours would turn rich and lustrous when mixed with heat. Each powder is made from various things and the list reads like a poisoner’s pantry; lead, cadmium, arsenic, gold and silver and a myriad of materials.
When all the glass was covered and the small islands of pins removed the glass was placed in the bed of the kiln and covered, oh so carefully, with a third piece.
It was dark outside when the glass was put to bed, tucked up in the kiln to cook. Now all we had to do was wait. At night, while owls flew all around, the temperature in the kiln would rise to somewhere between 600 and 800 oC. This is the part of the process that fascinates me most, the blending of glass and enamel and heat, fusing and melting, small pockets of trapped air forming into bubbles caught inside.
For almost 24 hours the glass lay in the kiln. As Steve lifted the lid the next day we saw a great jewel laying there, all blues and white, lustrous, from rich lapis to the turquoise like a peacock’s eye. So beautiful.