New year, new craft, new you

Having spent over 20 years developing a creative career in graphic design and one that is dominated by the surface and two dimensions, I often crave making things that venture truly into 3D. My attempts so far have had varying degrees of success; a ceramics course led me to do all the glazes and patterns whilst others more successfully threw the pots, and when working in spaces I tend to gravitate towards building objects from decorative flat plains. But I feel the need to be more sculptural and have continued to look for ways to do it.

One such opportunity came through a past studio project. The glass artist Louis Thompson and I became friends when Thomas.Matthews was commissioned to create a set of awards for Arts & Business in 2012. From that point, Louis and I continued conversations about possible collaborations. I talked to Louis about my research on plastic pollution and my personal collection of broken plastic pieces, picked up from beaches around the world. Handles, lids, bottles and tops, yoghurt pots and fishing net knots. Louis discussed his work in glass, amazing pieces of art of incredible colour, created with technical skill and precision.

Inevitably, as designer and artist collaborate, the conversation went back and forth around what we were creating and why. As a designer, I need to have reason – a brief or narrative behind the work, but Louis was more relaxed about this, focusing on the form and the how we could make. This was probably where I leant an important lesson – to let go and just start making.

I have blown glass before, though nothing like these pieces. I’ve made the requisite bauble and paperweight and was comfortable in a ‘hot shop’ – a very different environment from my tame studio desk. This the heart of a glass workshop with the furnaces that heat to 1300 celcius, benches and kilns. (When I asked if any special clothing should be worn, the answer was shorts and tshirt – the hot shop lives up to its name and you seriously sweat!). A workshop like this exudes creativity, you can’t stand there and do nothing, you have to make. And the nature of the raw material – hot molten glass – means that once you start the process you have to see it through in one go, no teabreak halfway even if your work take hours to create.

The pieces took shape over a series of weeks created specifically for the ‘Synergy II’ show at London Glassblowing Studio, set up by Peter Layton on Bermondsey street. After a couple of creative brainstorm sessions, we decided on developing a number of ideas based on the statistics and my collection, and the techniques Louis described. We wanted to create messages in bottles. Because we could not mix plastic into the molten glass we looked for other things to represent the flotsam and jetsam in the ocean. Louis collected waste coloured glass from all the artworks created in the hot shop in the weeks before. We made twisted knots of glass rope, carefully matching the colours of the discarded pieces I had picked up.

The process of making the series of bottles for ‘The seven stages of degradation’ was very hands on in the hot shop. Each bottle was created from the inside out with a general idea of what the outcome could look like. We prepared the elements, sticking waste shards onto a blob of molten clear glass, then repeating the process of re-heating, dipping and rolling in coloured chips and strands (to represent the breakdown of plastic into smaller and smaller pieces). Colour, one of the most seductive things about glass for me, was chosen very carefully for each stage; very little red or yellow in the end, as these would have been consumed by ocean creatures, mistaken for plankton. A certain amount of chemical knowledge is required as different colours made by the added elements react to each other, for instance creating a metallic effect or a yellow halo. You can’t see this when you are making a piece as molten glass is just all red-hot, that’s why you need an expert collaborator.

The last dip into the clear liquid glass was then expertly rolled and formed into a bottle shape, even with the rounded bottom, before being switched onto another rod and then given a neck for the tops to fit onto. And once we had our perfect bottle shape we took a wooden paddle to them and deformed them, aggressively recreating the twisted shapes of plastic bottles found on beaches around the world after they have been bashed on rocks or chewed by sea creatures.

Each one of the seven in this series represent the photo-degeneration stages of plastic in the oceans. The bottles themselves get darker and darker with pollution and each have a bottle cap from my collection that all originated from Kamilo beach in Hawaii.

The second series we created is called ‘Scrimshaw Bottle Tusks’ which reference the art of scrimshaw first developed by the American whalers more than 200 years ago when they created intricate carvings on sperm whale teeth during the long, monotonous days at sea.

Sailors who worked on whaling ships had a ready supply of ivory and bone. Many whaling voyages could last three, four or even five years, and several weeks or even months would pass between whale sightings. Without something to occupy their time the seamen may well have gone stir crazy in the cramped quarters and poor living conditions aboard these ships. (Where the word “Scrimshaw” actually came from is unknown but it probably derived from the Dutch or English nautical slang expression meaning “to waste time.” )

Each bottle tusk was blown by Louis in dark blue glass with a coating of white and ivory glass powders. They too have bottle bottoms like a litre bottle and where sailors used needles, knives, and other carving tools to etch their designs adding lampblack, tobacco juice, or ink to make them more distinctive, ours were line-drawn with an engraver into the glass surface and the lines were then filled with black enamel and put back into the kiln to melt in and set.

Every pieces of old scrimshaw holds its own history, story and intrinsic value. Stories of epic whaling battles, mythical sea creatures, commemorative sea voyages and the sailor’s ships were popular motifs. Our collaborative scrimshaw inspired objects are etched with imaginary visual records of future seas. Polluted by man-made waste, oceans rich with toxic plastics and littered with our unwanted detritus, we are contributing to the destruction of our natural planet.  Stories from future sailors from 2050 that illustrate the state of the seas if we carry on business as usual there will be more plastic in our oceans than finfish in weight.

Making objects in glass taught me a lot about process and sequence. It was all really hands on – where we literally shaped the pieces as the molten glass cooled. Making objects like this was incredibly tactile and instinctive. There may be parallels in running a business but even a design studio can be very process driven. If you don’t keep yourself doing, making, creating you can get very frustrated. When I returned to my desk with the paperwork, email trails, contracts and excel spreadsheets I vowed to make sure I kept the creativity freeflowing and collaborated as much as possible. It seems its all about finding the right balance.

Sophie Thomas.
This article first appeared on Creative Review.

Photographs © Ester Segarra.


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