All Fired Up!
Are you mired down in the Sargasso Sea, struggling to make headway and searching for the winds of creativity? If you are, it’s no wonder, because it has been a tough couple of years. With a prolonged pandemic keeping us isolated most of the time, a sputtering economy reducing gallery and craft show sales, and a rising inflation rate limiting disposable income for art collectors and creators alike, it feels like we are treading water at best. So for me it’s time to reach for my go-to life preserver, the one that always saves me from the doldrums and guarantees to get my creative juices and kilns all fired up. Yes, life preservers come in many shapes and sizes. The one I describe in this article is the one that fits me. But who knows? If you think you’re in need of rescue, it might fit you too!
It starts with a personal story. We moved from Calgary to Salt Spring Island off the coast of Vancouver Island in 2008 which means I didn’t have a functioning studio for almost a year. Surprisingly, when my new pristine state-of-the-art studio was ready for its grand opening I had what I now refer to as my “crisis of confidence.” In short, I found myself asking two questions. The first was: can I still do it? After all I hadn’t worked in kilnformed glass for a year. The second, more important question was: do I still WANT to do it? I had been working in one style for about ten years and, well, that creative well seemed to be running dry.
What I decided to do was take several months as a “self imposed residency” during which I would step outside my comfort zone and work on something totally new. The happy result was an original body of work that not only reenergized my creativity, but also rekindled my passion to work with glass. My residency was so successful that now I do one annually, usually early in the new year.
Self-imposed residencies consist of several components:
• Identify an idea/style that I want to explore
• Answer the question: Why do this artistic exploration?
• Develop a managed plan, i.e., a roadmap, for the project
• Do any necessary testing using the scientific method
• Mitigate the risk by adopting practices that reduce the chance of failure
Why Do this Artistic Exploration?
It should be fairly easy for you to answer this question about motivation as you start down a new path because it is about the values that define you. Your new body of work may arise out of social issues that you hold dear, be based on life experiences, represent aspects of a previous career, provide an emotional outlet, be prompted by a desire to create something beautiful, or be the outcome of other values that are important to you.
Knowing and describing what motivates you is helpful in many ways. It informs your creative process, forms an important part of your artist statement, and is useful for explaining your artwork to others. For example, imagine yourself standing beside your piece at the opening of an exhibition and a potential collector looks at your work and then turns to you and asks “What’s this all about?”. You can answer this question many ways but what a collector is really looking for is your story about this piece, about WHY you made it. It not only helps them relate to your motivation and form a connection with you, which may result in a sale/purchase, but also allows them to share your story with others when showing them the new addition to their art collection.
A Managed Plan
The “managed plan” described here is essentially a roadmap for the project and is derived entirely from best business practices. As applied to art projects, a managed plan consists of five steps: define a goal; develop a diverse range of ideas; refine and test the ideas to determine a favourite; create the finished piece based on your refined idea; and, get feedback on the execution of the piece.
Define your goal by answering “why do this exploration?” as explained above. Revisit your goal as you continue working through the other steps in the plan.
Develop ideas illustrating your goals by making a series of quick concept sketches or journal notes. The main objective in this step is to generate many, diverse ideas that reflect your goals. Focus on creating numerous spontaneous sketches rather than a few precise, beautifully rendered representations. Also search the internet for images that document styles, history, and provenance of artwork relevant to your goals and concept.
Refine your concept sketches by choosing the best, redrawing and improving them, and gradually reducing the number of sketches to one or a manageable few. Build models from cardboard or styrofoam to test 3D perspectives of sculptural pieces.
Create small sample test tiles to ensure that materials such as glass powders will perform as expected; that design concepts will look as planned; that glass properties such as striking, chemical reactions, surface tension, and heatwork will work as anticipated; and that firing schedules are effective. Also use these sample tiles to test the coldworking processes and tools required for the gallery quality finish you want. Keep these test tiles small to avoid wasting materials and to ensure that the tests themselves are not “precious.” Solve any problems at this stage before committing to the materials and effort required to create the artwork itself. If you need to brush up on your firing schedules I recommend Firing Schedules for Kilnformed Glass: Just Another Day at the Office (https://www.leatherbarrowglass.com/firing-schedules-for-kilnformed-glass).
With the groundwork of defining, refining, and testing your concept completed, you can move on to creating your art piece with confidence.
After completing and delivering the piece to the gallery or collector, it is time to get feedback. Ask gallery staff how customers are reacting to the piece, if they have favourite colour combinations, and for any other comments. If during the creative process you had problems with the glass materials it would be worthwhile discussing them with the glass manufacturer. If you had problems with kiln performance or coldworking tools it would also be worthwhile discussing them with experts.
Avoid the temptation to skip steps in your managed plan. Although it may seem like a protracted process, it works in business and it definitely works in art!
The Scientific Method
The scientific method is a simple and logical approach to conducting an experiment. In our case the experiments are the sample test tiles in our managed plan, as described above. It starts with defining a question such as “will this piece with design pieces lying on a thick sheet glass base thermally shock during initial heating if heated at a ramp rate of 300ºF/hour (166ºC/hour)?”.
If your question is based on a knowledge of the properties of glass and personal experience, then you may be able to predict, or hypothesize, that the test will be a success. If the test is successful then your hypothesis is valid and you can move forward
If your test is not successful, then analyze what went wrong using visual observations of the failure (where did it break? how explosive was the break?) and your knowledge of relevant glass properties (such as glass is a poor conductor of heat, glass expands during initial heating). In this example either the ramp rate was too fast, or perhaps the design elements on top of the sheet glass prevented heat from getting into the base glass below the design element.
Plan a new experiment to retest the original question, varying only one parameter. By varying only one parameter you will know what single factor controls the outcome. If the new test is successful, then your question has been answered and you can move on. If your new test is not successful, then continue testing, changing one parameter at a time, until you have successfully answered your question and you know how to proceed.
Keep the test tiles small and use scrap material wherever possible. If annealing is not a significant risk, or not a factor in the experiment, then don’t waste time and energy annealing the piece. These are test tiles that can be discarded and should not be considered precious.
Testing using the scientific method will not only answer important questions and help ensure success in creating your piece, but will also help you develop experience in understanding the properties of glass and how these relate to making visual observations as glass is heated and cooled in the kiln. Do not consider broken test pieces as failures. They are important steps to take and lead to successful projects. They are part of your experience base.
Put simply, risk mitigation is adopting practices that reduce the chance of catastrophic failure. The most important way to limit failure is to develop firing schedules that are based on an understanding of the properties of glass, and of the critical visual observations associated with kiln forming processes. Do not rely on the vagaries of kiln gods and goddesses. They will only let you down.
Most of my art is created by building from components, another good way to mitigate risk. Using components I can choose the best design elements and eliminate those that detract from the composition. An added benefit of building from components is that I can push my creativity by playing the “what if” game, as in “what will the component look like if I do this?”. When failure occurs it is better to have lost a small amount of glass in a component compared to large amounts of sheet glass in a large composition.
Building from components requires multiple firings to complete a piece. If a piece fails or breaks then it is possible to isolate the problem in the process, analyze what went wrong, and plan for a successful outcome next time round.
A third way to mitigate risk is to start with smaller pieces before graduating to a larger scale when planning a series of work. Technical complexity increases with scale, so validate your design concepts, firing schedules, and coldworking processes on small pieces first, before scaling up.
Reducing risk is good, but so is failure. If you aren’t failing, then you aren’t trying hard enough. Another word for risk is experience. Learn from your mistakes and either avoid repeating them or figure out if they can take you off in new and creative directions. Ironically, my 20-year involvement in working with textured glass powders started from a mistake.
A Sampling of Work
The following images illustrate new directions I have taken as the result of my self imposed residencies. The answer to my “why?” question — why is most of my art about exploring textures? — is that during my previous career as a geologist I used textures to understand the origins of the rocks I was mapping. This interest in textures evolved to include everyday textural occurrences such as cracked paint surfaces or patterns in broken pavement. Textures are important because they tell stories and from these stories we learn and understand a history. So my challenge has been to document natural textures in my art glass and use color to enhance them.
Figures 1 and 2 illustrate my early explorations using kilnformed glass powders to create a crackled texture. One of the great attributes of working with powders is being able to blend colors into unique color palettes. Although I have always been attracted to the shape of a bowl, I try to reduce the “functional” aspect by nesting bowls together or adding wafers as tack-fused design elements.
Figures 3 and 4 show new directions I took in working with textured powders after my first self-imposed residency. My original crackled texture evolved into radiating patterns of controlled lines and rounded “pebbles” that appear to float in the background glass.
Figures 5 and 6 represent the results of another residency during which I experimented with creating deep forms, for me one of the greatest challenges in kilnformed glass design. The textures were created with powders, with the shadowing around the patterns resulting from carefully controlled chemical reactions.
Mt Harris (Figure 7), a stylized mountain named for iconic Canadian artist Lawren Harris, represents the culmination of a managed plan for creating art glass. My first step was to make a collection of folded pieces of paper as quick representations of mountains. From that collection I chose two shapes that fit together well and seemed to capture the essence of a mountain. I continued to refine the shapes of the two folded paper pieces until I was satisfied with the look and eventually recreated them as a full-scale model made from sheets of plastic. This model was critical in helping me evaluate the piece from all perspectives.
The glass I used for this project was mainly Bullseye Opaline, a glass that strikes to translucent white. The degree to which this glass strikes is a function of heatwork. Since more than one sheet of glass was required for the project, I ran a series of tests using the planned sequence of firing schedules to verify that all the glass would fire as anticipated.
This entire managed plan gave me assurance that the piece could be created as envisioned.
Figures 8 through 11 show how a simple design element such as a powder wafer can evolve by repeatedly asking and answering the question “what if…”. What started off as tack-fused design elements made from stencils in the shield collection in Figure 8, became more painterly by using brush strokes in the cave art bison in Figure 9. When I explored printing with glass powders, the result was impression wafers (Figure 10). The fish form and structure was made by pressing the pattern from a hand-cut sheet of linoleum onto powder. After an initial firing, colour was added using transparent powders. Another result of asking “what if..” was using shards of powder wafers as colour fields fired onto sheets of clear glass. This modified sheet glass was then cut into shapes, assembled as large-scale strip-cut projects, and fired into large blocks resembling a cityscape (Figure 11).
Figure 12 illustrates the results of another residency during which I explored a completely different topic — line quality. Lines are such important design elements and yet, due to technical challenges, are not commonplace in kilnformed glass. This collection of inverted bowls demonstrates precise placement of lines on each bowl, and how the patterns repeat from one bowl to another.
It is earliest January 2023. I’ve got a vision. I’ve made a few tests. I’ve prepared a plan. And I’ve already made a few mistakes. But I’m like a kid with a new exercise book, fresh crayons, and a brand new eraser on the first day of school. I’m all fired up. How about you?