Glass Meets World with Catherine Dunstan
Study I – Where does creativity meet technical skill, and how does this affect an artist making a choice about whether they want to share their craft?
As Course Coordinator here, it’s interesting to monitor the various methods that our teachers use to impart particular techniques and observe where the understanding of a skill meets a student’s creativity. Stained glass for instance, is a traditional technique that requires beginners to get to grips with a number of tools, approach the daunting prospect of cutting glass and learn the steps to create a leaded panel. There is a lot to be learnt before creativity, though it might be itching to play a part, can get a look in – as the student has yet to know what it is they can achieve with light and lead lines. Whereas with fusing, arguably a much freer discipline, beginners are faced with having to consider a creative element almost immediately, and this tends to be the thing they find most daunting.
I wonder if the weight of a creative element within a skill or technique is what makes a craftsperson make a decision about whether or not they want to teach it. If you ask somebody who doesn’t want to teach why they choose not to, the answer is often that they are worried that potential students will plagiarise or target their potential customers. To an extent, I understand that if you have honed a particular skill and use it to do something very specific creatively you could be unwilling to share it – but at what point are you denying others the opportunity to discover that skill and use it in their own way? Why are some craftspeople so protective of their craft that they refuse to teach and allow it to die with them? And does it discredit the craft by doing this? I spoke to some of our teachers about why they share their skills, and a local glass artist who chooses not to.
Graham Dowding, CGG tutor and conservator of Gloucester Cathedral, believes that sharing his craft is very important,
“I suppose the issue for some younger craftsmen and women is a "protectionist" theory, i.e. the more students who are taught the rudiments, the more will be competitors for prospective work. However, there is a counter view, that good teaching raises the standards of all craftsmen and women, and there will be a realisation that there are no "quick fixes" or short-cuts to calling yourself a practitioner. I would hope that the students I teach would fall into this category!”
Graham teaches advanced painting and restoration courses here, which are heavily technique based and focused on reproduction rather than reimagining. I wondered if Simon, our resident fusing expert and teacher had different reasons for wanting to share his expertise, with it being a freer, more creative medium,
“There's nothing more rewarding than teaching someone eager to learn about a subject you are passionate about, and then watching a student develop an understanding of the material and the potential within that material. It excites me to see their reactions and often inspires me to revisit a particular skill.
“I'm always learning from students. Quite often they come from different creative backgrounds, for example textiles, so they bring with them a set of skills which they try and adapt to work in glass. They will see things differently from me, and we can both learn from that. You can teach the basics of the skills you work with to plant the seed of creativity in others, and let them grow along their own route, whilst still retaining your personal style.”
I think it’s important for tutors and potential tutors to be able to distinguish where technical skill meets creativity so that they can teach effectively. Simon shares simple designs with his beginner students, as they need something to copy from while they are unfamiliar with the limitations of the medium. He’s happy for them to do this, as they are able to interpret the designs as they choose. Although I can appreciate that for some artists, making such a distinction is no easy task.
Jane Reeves, a Somerset based glass artist who is famed for her wonderful frit powder paintings of seascapes, finds there is no distinction between the skill and creative input in her area of glass-working,
“The two are inseparable really. But more importantly I think there is a third fundamental element, bringing integrity to the work and that is the research, the years of 'looking' and developing ideas and techniques. There's a huge amount of glass work out there, some amazingly skilful but maybe lacking in beauty or the evidence of a love or passion that has evolved over time. Of course that's a very personal opinion. We all have different expectations. In a way that is why I have developed my own painting technique, to satisfy my own expectation of what is beautiful.”
With formal training in design and illustration, Jane completed a course in stained glass before taking a short introductory course to fusing 15 years ago, which gave her the opportunity to experiment with cutting, layering and using frits. She made her first seascape, and got hooked, as the process suited her approach to picture making,
“No one has told me how to use glass paint, it's been intuitive and experimental. I started to use frit to develop a sense of texture and depth. That then lead on to using powders in a more painterly way, going back to my roots really. I believe that for me, the most powerful way to learn has been through personal experimentation, and lots of trial and error. I realise that wouldn't suit everyone, but it’s worked for me. But it's also about how I have always painted. I naturally have wanted to use glass paint in the same way I would acrylics. I use the same old brushes that I use for acrylics, and pretty much the same technique although it takes longer. Getting used to painting on a hard, non-absorbent surface is the biggest challenge. In the end, it is my favourite part of painting in glass, it becomes the palette as well as the canvas and it actually gives me time to work and manoeuvre the paint. My understanding and interest in glass is all about how painterly it can be, and that has emerged over time because of my background in painting and illustration.”
“I have held many workshops in the past, introducing people to glass fusing. But I haven't ever taught painting in glass. Time at the moment is a huge issue too. But another, less explainable reason is to do with sharing the methods I feel are still evolving. I'm not sure about teaching a method that I feel is still quite unformed, still new to me. It is so linked to my painting past, it would feel strange to teach it to a class of people I didn't know. I am interested though, in encouraging other painters who are also glass artists, to consider transferring their painting skills to glass.”
The more glass artists I speak to, the more it becomes apparent that artists view their own processes very differently. Sue Webb, our lampworking tutor, believes like Jane that her particular discipline still has much scope to be explored, but this doesn’t deter her from sharing what she does know,
“If we don't share our skills it would be like having to re-invent the wheel each time a new person approached the subject. Lampwork is an ancient skill but when some of the ancient civilisations died their methods of making glass beads were lost only to be reinvented with future generations. Divulging the secrets of bead making on the Venetian Island of Murrano to outsiders was punishable by death 600 years ago. I think this would be a bit extreme now! Today, lampworkers are generally very generous in passing on information and skills with lots being shared online as well as in person. As I see it, there are basic techniques that are required to build up the skills of lampwork and then its practise and experimentation and a development of your own style.”
Sue remembers going to the seaside when she was young, and seeing glass artists producing beautiful gifts before her very eyes and notes that these are now few and far between. She has approached a very talented and now elderly lampworker to enquire about tuition, but he wouldn’t consider it.
Sue Webb is of particular interest, as she not only teaches lampwork bead-making here, but she is also studying on our Glass Discovery course, which has enabled her to combine her advanced and experimental lampworking skills with her new fusing skills. We now offer a course on which you can learn how to combine these techniques – our Creative Lampworking Weekend.
Sue also creates step-by-step tutorials for the lampwork animals she has designed,
“I would hope that anyone making one would instil some of their own ideas and make it in their own style. I frequently will use other people’s tutorials I see and will have a go at copying the original but then will alter it. In fact I have great difficulty in making it look like it’s meant to! I would be a bit miffed if they tried to sell in the same shop as me or presented them in the same packaging, but I have not lost any sleep over this issue so far!”
I guess this is the crux of the matter – to what extent are you willing for others to recreate something you’ve developed, whether the end game is for them to use the skills to create something of their own or not? I paint peg dolls, and taught workshops at a festival last year. I admit that I was scared at first, as I showed the children (and adults) which brush was best for delicate details, how best to hold the peg for a steadier hand etc, but the whole experience turned out to be quite liberating. Suddenly there was a peg lighthouse, peg animals and peg people – all completely different to mine. I discovered for the first time something I was worried I didn’t have, my style. I know I’m not the first person that’s ever painted a peg doll, but through teaching others the skill of doing it, I was able to appreciate that the way I do it is special.
I believe that an individual’s confidence in their own creative process is very important, and that as artists we need to respect the decisions of others when they choose whether or not they’d like to teach. At Creative Glass Guild, we love that we can offer glass courses to those who are excited to learn, and we are constantly updating what we offer to facilitate those who get ‘the bug’ and keep coming back! If you have any questions about our courses or wish to share an opinion, you can email me here.