AUSGLASS Conference Lecture, Perth, January 2003
25 years ago I was a newly established General Practitioner, immersed in the rigorous academic world of Medicine. Throughout school and University I had tried various media from ceramics and leather to painting and print-making, but unaware that I may even be looking, hadn't found my medium. I took an evening class in Stained Glass and the first time I picked up a glass-cutter I was hooked. It was a real "Road to Damascus" experience. I was very fortunate that my teacher was trained in the old English school of Craft based technique, so my introduction to the method was precise and rigorous. Fortunately it was also apparent that I had some aptitude for working with glass. I followed the usual pattern of making some windows for my house and some for friends and it might have ended there but for a sequence of events which changed the course of my life.
I chanced upon a public lecture by German Architectural Stained Glass Master, Ludwig Schaffrath, which introduced me to concepts of Architectural Glass design that I had never imagined. I was inspired and determined to see some of this work. I had little difficulty convincing my wife and soon after we jumped off the Merry go round and headed for Europe where we bought a motorcycle and traveled for the next year. We sought every Church, Cathedral, Town Hall, glass factory and museum we could find from Egypt to Lapland. I began to develop an understanding of the use of art glass in Architecture, a sense of the history of glass and glass as object both decorative and artistic.
Starting from Scratch
On return to Sydney and heavily influenced by the New Directions in International Glass exhibition, I decided to have a go at making glass professionally. This was great timing as the studio glass movement was just taking off. Art School was an option but after 12 years of school and 6 at University I had had enough of that path. I wanted to get out there and do it. In retrospect life might have been easier had I taken the straight and narrow but as an ex PM once famously said: "Life wasn't meant to be easy."
I tried Glass Blowing but as much as I loved it I felt it wasn't really the right direction for me. So I started a little stained glass studio and concentrated on developing my manual skills in that area, learning glass painting with David Saunders and doing a couple of years of Colour and Design at the local Arts Centre. I also did a glass fusing course at Sydney College of the Arts. This was where I learned about and joined AUSGLASS and the relief of my isolation began.
In typical fashion of the blind leading the blind, I decided to supplement my income from my stained glass work with teaching beginners. Warren Langley, well and truly ready to move on, gave me his classes and I found it surprisingly useful for my own development. Students would ask me questions to which I had given no previous thought, yet had to come up with an answer. So I was often forced to work out problems on the spot and I think I probably learned more than they did.
Mind you I can claim some success; I am responsible for the entire contingent of AUSGLASS in the NT and Jon and I have since worked together on a number of occasions. Then I attended my first AUSGLASS Conference and participated in a Master Class in Architectural Stained Glass Design with Jochem Poensgen. That was a fantastic experience and broke down some of the barriers I had met. Collaboration is one of the best features of the Conference environment, although I still find it hard to understand why the openness and camaraderie tapers off so quickly when conferences end.
One of the most difficult aspects of approaching glass as I did, was that for a long time I was seen as a dilettante. Strangely enough, I found 'allies' in the lead-lighting world; people who had done a glazier's apprenticeship and branched into lead-lighting. I would talk to them about AUSGLASS and the exciting things I was discovering and they would look at me with disdain and mouth such worldly epithets as: "What d'ya wanna hang around with that bunch of wankers for?" There were subsequently one or two occasions when I revisited that question, but more of that later. I was fiercely defensive of AUSGLASS and did my best to recruit them to the cause.
So the early years were spent largely in isolation developing my craft skills. I had done the rounds of the studios trying to get an apprenticeship with no success. I wonder if this was an advantage in giving me the freedom to develop my own style.
1986 was the year my learning curve took off. Jochem Poensgen invited me to participate in another Master-class, this time in Germany. We spent three weeks working in the old Stained Glass Studio of Hein Derix in Kevealar and travelling around looking at Architectural Stained Glass with the leading German designers. It was like having an audience with God; standing in a huge Cathedral full of the Contemporary Stained Glass Windows of Meisterman, Schreiter, Klos and so on, with the men themselves explaining why they did this or that. They discussed such matters as the anxiety associated with seeing for the first time, an architectural work installed in situ and the adrenaline rush as one assesses if it works with the space and that is still one of the biggest emotional aspects of what I do. I was also able to observe the Euro-Scandinavian model of Crafts Practice. Rather than our individual studio based model, people there study and simultaneously work for up to seven years in a glass factory, learning to handle their materials before they are considered experienced enough to be taken seriously as designers. Basic skills are very high across the board.
So I came back from this wonderful collaborative experience in Germany with all sorts of grand ideas but not much opportunity to express them and it was really hard to keep doing tulips and roses to pay the bills. However I was lucky and over time got my share of projects, mostly through the fractal nature of my circuitous networking. It became apparent that those who studied glass at one of the institutions had an easier line of access to commissioning and particularly exhibition opportunities. The best entrée for the lateral players like me was through the Galleries of the State Crafts Councils and the connections established by Craft Australia.
I was starting to make kiln fired glass and trying to exhibit both autonomous Stained Glass Panels and objects. Maureen Cahill gave me one of my first exhibition opportunities, as she has done for so many emerging glass practitioners. I enthusiastically entered the minefield of the commercial gallery sector and like most of us, learned the hard way, suffering more burnt fingers than I did in my studio. I participated in a couple of very successful shows set up by Craft Australia. There were also a couple of opportunities at fine art galleries, but Australians just don't buy Autonomous panels and I started to put more effort into the fused glass. Production work followed and gradually I found myself juggling several strands simultaneously and the business of making a living from glass started to gel.
The Business of Glass
Running a Medical Practice is a small business and I brought the same basic principles to the glass studio. I learned most of these in Year 9 Commerce at High School. How to keep a ledger, how to keep track of expenses and most importantly, how to cost my work. Now this is an area that seems to be very poorly dealt with in the colleges. Most people in business go broke, whatever their endeavor and MAKING A LIVING IN THE VISUAL ARTS AND CRAFTS IN AUSTRALIA is tough. It is also the title of an excellent book which I was lucky enough to come across, full of sensible advice on tracking all the costs involved in running a studio. This became my bible and has kept me solvent for 20 years. The fundamentals are so basic and require only rudimentary if disciplined book keeping skills, that they are well within the reach of all. I have long believed in the now acceptable idea that to be a REAL artist, it is not necessary to starve in a garret and only achieve recognition after one is dead. It is OK to make a living from one's art. Most artists have some element of production based or repetitive work which pays the bills. I think this is a better path than doing some other job outside the medium, if possible, because it keeps your skills up. Especially when working with a material as expensive as glass, one needs to earn the privilege of having some time to make the pieces that really matter to you.
There is another area where there are noticeable differences between College graduates and outsiders. The Colleges provide wonderful facilities for their students, with all the toys one could ever need and more. However the trend over the past couple of decades has been on theory and creativity over skills based practice. I have heard tutors tell their students that they don't want to suppress their creativity by pushing them too hard to learn their Craft. This tends to produce graduates who have a pathological reliance on high tech. equipment, with an insufficient basic skills base. When they go out into the real world, they are at a loss without all the toys. Such people have come through my studio seeking work and after four years study they couldn't cut a piece of glass to save themselves. It is a sad reflection on some of the institutions that around 90% of graduates are unable to make a living in their chosen field. I think some of this is due to their being ill equipped to make work at low cost with minimal specialist equipment at the beginning and their having little or no understanding of the business aspects of what they do. To be fair, I have also seen people with more money than sense establish studios with every known modern device and no clue of how to keep a blob of glass on a pipe or fuse a bowl.
Recently I was in Venice and was impressed by some of the minimalist blowing facilities I saw in the most famous of the glass factories. A wooden floor, one furnace and a bench. No glory hole, no fancy devices, just skill. Guys who have been blowing glass since they could hold a pipe. Starting from scratch as I did, I learned to make do with the minimum. For the first ten years the most sophisticated piece of equipment I owned was a half inch grinder. Now I've got lots of toys, but if they stop working, I don't have to. It is amazing what can be done with a glass-cutter, a pair of pliers and a paintbrush…like Chartres for instance.
The late eighties were good to me. I won one of the Bicentennial Commissions going in my town, an assortment of good size Architectural opportunities and began to carve out a little niche. Then stained glass went into one of its historical downturns, due partly to the rise in popularity of imitation stained glass and slumped, clear glass. They provided an easier architectural product than mosaic windows especially for architects and builders. Restaurants and shops doing fit-outs were not particularly interested in buying a stained glass window that might last fifty to a hundred years and with a commensurate price margin, when they could buy a slumped sign and not feel bad about trashing it in three years time when they did the next re-fit. It was an incentive to put more effort into the fusing and I started to make and sell many more fused glass objects. I maintained my interest in Architectural glass and continued to work in that field. Gradually, fused glass elements began creeping into my windows and by 1996, when I went back to Germany for a second Architectural Glass Master-class, this time with Lutz Haufschild, it was becoming my main interest. This workshop, held in another of the Derix family studios was on a similar format but for me a totally different experience ten years on from the first one. Interestingly, I got to meet a lot of the Eastern European designers recently liberated from behind the wall. They too had learned to work with minimal equipment and a poor and limited range of materials and the sudden freedom of the West had really put the zap on their brains and they were doing some pretty wild work.
Over recent years I have begun to merge my fused and architectural passions. I have had the opportunity to make architectural fused glass installations incorporating the same degree of complexity and richness as my exhibition pieces. This has been the chance to attempt architectural art that speaks of Australia in all its textural density. Once or twice I may have managed a poem. Maybe in another twenty years I will have made a few more.
So looking back, what do I see? Firstly, someone who had a choice. Stay on track for the house, the Volvo, the private school, pool and mortgage…what Zorba the Greek called: "the full catastrophe" OR have a go OR try for both. Most people on this planet are scratching for the next meal, so to have the opportunity to follow a dream and to let that opportunity go by seemed to me to be a crime. What I learned earning my Medical Degree is a privileged body of knowledge, a valuable artistic resource but above all, taught me the discipline of a craft. This has been my major guiding force. I feel less uncomfortable calling myself an artist than I do a crafts-man. Perhaps in another twenty years I will be able to look myself in the mirror and see a craftsman. It is distressing that Craft and all it connotes has become so debased. I hope this too will swing back up.
Working predominantly in isolation, AUSGLASS Conferences and workshops introduced collaboration into my life. I have since worked with various colleagues I met in this environment and the opportunities provided by the Crafts Councils, Craft Australia and their contacts were also critical. Glass has taken me all over the world and I have exhibited, studied, lectured and made work for clients in many countries. I have chosen a low profile niche but I think I get my share, sometimes against the odds. Without these organisations I may never have been made aware of that world.
Now a cautionary tale. AUSGLASS literally changed my life. In my naivete, I attempted to repay that debt by dipping my toes in the political waters of the Arts. Why I was under the delusion that the Arts might be different to any other field of human endeavour I can't imagine. I had a go at being President of AUSGLASS, a while back now. I got in the way of a few private agendas, but the holes in my back have healed up nicely and it was a valuable learning experience. Recent forays into the political swamp have revealed basically the same games and even some of the same players.
I was a beneficiary of the Whitlam years which were very kind to education and the arts. Now I see dwarves and troglodytes walking in the footsteps of giants, looking for any opportunity to put their snouts in the trough. I see blow-ins rewriting history. I see with dismay the devaluing of creativity. The empire building, devious manipulation of Government funding and the trend towards the abandonment of constituencies by Arts and Crafts bodies is very destructive. We must be vigilant, take an interest in our organisations and ensure they provide opportunities for all, especially emerging practitioners. It has become apparent that we cannot afford the apathy typical of members of most organisations, because before you know it your organisation may have been hijacked by a special interest group and it is all too late. Not everybody has to be on the Board but at least take an interest and get involved. Maybe it could change your life too.